As the days grow dark, here's a truth we'd do well to remember: The Western expectation that civilization must foster equality, care for the oppressed, and generally a love of neighbor is a vestige of its Christian genetic code—a reality that secular and “merely spiritual” worldviews either reject or simply do not know.
Historian Christopher Dawson, a convert to Catholicism, wrote in the mid-twentieth century quite extensively (and readably) about how Christianity made Europe (and thus the United States) what it is. Many others have continued to call attention to the Christian genealogy of Western Civilization, most especially Pope Benedict XVI.
Given that the West has for some time been suffering with division, despair, loneliness, and anti-life beliefs in general, it helps to understand not just what minds like Dawson and Benedict XVI have been telling us, but the implications of all this for Pope Francis as he pilots the ship of the Church through the rolling, crashing waves of the twenty-first century.
What Catholic DNA offers the world
Catholic thought rejects any theology or political philosophy proclaiming that human activity is capable of transforming our nations into states of bliss, or the world into paradise. This does not mean that we are powerless in the face of evil, whether its within us or others. It simply means there are significant limits to what we can do without a change of heart.
Here I would call to mind a few words of a young Joseph Ratzinger in his work on Saint Bonaventure. He said that “the Church which hopes for peace in the future is, nonetheless, obliged to love in the present.”
What this loving in the present looks like became a topic of a great many writings and homilies of Benedict XVI, as they are now for Pope Francis. Take, for instance, Benedict XVI’s first encyclical Deus Caritas Est, which was also the first encyclical in the history of the Church to focus on Christian love.
In it we hear how the sacrificial love of Calvary is what ultimately directs us and allows us to truly care for another. It is the love that pours out from the Cross that quiets addictions and inspires us to love strangers—two areas in which humans must grow to live up to our social responsibilities.
All this implies that modern and popular understandings of love must be reconsidered. Or, rather, re-remembered. This must include the realization that how we love is often complicated by the human desire to merely associate with those that we choose—those who comfort us, agree with us, or that excite our physical pleasures.
In response, Benedict challenged the world in saying “[t]he difference between a friend and a brother is this: a friend is someone I have sought; a brother is given to me.” 
And this is, of course, precisely what grounds the pontificate of Pope Francis.
Hence the stumbling block for many: Christianity asserts that one is commanded by God to love both friend and brother—especially when our brother, be it a stranger or an enemy, has considerable needs.
What had concerned Benedict XVI and now concerns Pope Francis is this: humanity always goes dangerously off course when it denies the divine demand that we love not for self-centered, primaeval pleasure. Rather, we must do so because to sacrificially love is who we are and what we humans are meant to do.
The denial—seen so often in the West, most especially among the post-Christian secular "spiritual but not religious" crowds—rejects (or does not fully appreciate) the Christian Trinitarian, relational, Incarnational, self-revealing, self-sacrificing God who creates with order (which is negatively seen as a life with rules), goodness (including the offering of mercy to the guilty), beauty (which implies that we are not the authentic creators of beauty), truth (which demands justice) and, most of all, love—a love that surrenders.
The abandonment of the Christian understanding of divinity has occupied Western thought for some centuries, especially in academia, which then spreads the anti-Christian contagion throughout all other professions. This resulting hoped-for deicide is evident in the refutation and demonization of the Church out of which Western civilization was born. Certainly, the sins of the agents of the Church have offered much ammunition to those who seek its downfall. But throughout the centuries, generals with vast armies or inept, sinful prelates and lay people have been unable to disassemble the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. So, while we need not be afraid of the gates of hell prevailing over the Church, we should be mindful that hell can still inflict great harm.
Truth, love, and consequences
Such post-Christian, neo-pagan views of desirous love ultimately reject the suffering of self-denial and self-sacrifice, both of which are required to truly engage our current crises. Pope Benedict made his case clearly in an October 2008 General Audience. In it, he asks,
[w]hy did Saint Paul make precisely this, the word of the Cross, the fundamental core of his teaching? The answer is not difficult: the Cross reveals “the power of God” (cf. 1 Cor 1: 24), which is different from human power; indeed, it reveals his love: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (ibid., v. 25). Centuries after Paul we see that in history it was the Cross that triumphed and not the wisdom that opposed it. The Crucified One is wisdom, for He truly shows who God is, that is, a force of love which went even as far as the Cross to save men and women. God uses ways and means that seem to us at first sight to be merely weakness. The Crucified One reveals on the one hand man’s frailty and on the other, the true power of God, that is the free gift of love: this totally gratuitous love is true wisdom. Saint Paul experienced this even in his flesh and tells us about it in various passages of his spiritual journey which have become precise reference points for every disciple of Jesus: “He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Cor 12: 9); and again “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1: 27). The Apostle identified so closely with Christ that in spite of being in the midst of so many trials, he too lived in the faith of the Son of God who loved him and gave Himself for his sins and for the sins of all (cf. Gal 1: 4; 2: 20). This autobiographical fact concerning the Apostle becomes paradigmatic for all of us.
Benedict XVI’s words speak of the core of the Gospel and the inner mysteries of the Church.
Christ taught and showed us that to live well, and to help others do so, we must pick up our crosses of self-denial and follow Him. And more than that, His activity as both true man and true god has forever opened for humanity the gates of heaven, from which the sacramental grace of God can strengthen us to live joyfully, no matter our lot in life.
This is the Good News of Jesus Christ and it is our task to share this news honestly and with charity in this era of political, social, and ecological turmoil. In other words, if we are truly committed to our faith, and if we are mindful of what human reason and current events are telling us, then we must boldly witness to the world what true love is.
 Ratzinger, Theology of History in St. Bonaventure, trans. Zachary Hayes, OFM. (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1971), 163
 Ratzinger, New Outpourings of the Spirit, (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2006), 82.