A tacit assumption of my writing this blog is that I will try to say at least something about important developments in the field of religion. The visit to America of Pope Francis I can certainly be deemed to be important—his first ever visit to this country, the first pope to address a joint session of Congress, the first Jesuit pope and the first from Latin America (the “ends of the world”, as he himself put it half-jokingly). As I’m writing this post, the Washington and New York stops are over. Unless some highly unexpected event occurs before he leaves again for Rome, this is not a bad point to ask what we now know about Francis and whether the events of the last few days have added much to this knowledge: We now know a good deal. And we don’t know much more from what happened in Washington and New York. I have been watching Francis on television much of the time and have read all sorts of comments.Paying close attention to what even for a younger man would have been a demanding program has reinforced my previous view—that the public persona does indeed correspond to the real character of the man. Of course one can never be sure—the public image of an individual can be reconstructed and manipulated, often irrespective of what is hidden from view. (The Latin word persona—Greek prosopon—refers to the mask worn by actors in classical drama.) But as I watch this elderly man precariously walking from place to place—stairs and all—I get the impression of someone genuinely believing what is his duty to do and overcoming his frailty for this purpose. The warmth toward the individuals in his path seems genuine too. Unlike so many politicians Francis seems to enjoy kissing babies! If my impression is correct, this explains why Francis is so popular (and not only among Catholics). Then of course there is all that ostentatious humility. It can be a bit irritating – that eagerness to wash feet at the drop of a pair of shoes (how many times have these feet been pre-washed before they get pontifically serviced?). Already when he was only bishop of Buenos Aires he regularly travelled by public transportation; now as pope he prefers to live in a relatively frugal guest house rather than in the luxurious papal apartments in the Vatican Palace, and when he is not using the ceremonial “popemobile”, he gets around in a simple Fiat. Golda Meir, when she was prime minister of Israel, used to say to some of her ministers—“don’t be so humble, you’re not that important.” She would have had enough chutzpah to even say this to a pope. Francis might have replied—“I am that important; I am the pope!” In other words, I would think that this humility is a genuine expression of the piety of St. Francis of Asissi whose name he chose for his papal title.Enough time has also passed since Francis’ elevation to get a sense of where he wants to go with the Roman Catholic Church. A more revolutionary figure may yet become visible, but as of now it seems that the hopes of progressives will be disappointed, as will the fears of conservatives. No dramatic changes are to be expected, nor could he bring them about even if he wanted to (the pope has great authority but he is not a dictator). What he clearly wants to achieve (particularly in the ongoing synod on the family) is to soften dogma with an overriding pastoral concern for individuals (be they homosexuals, divorced or cohabiting, or otherwise not living by the rules of canon law). He is not aiming to change basic Catholic teachings; he is changing the tone. That is no small thing—c’est le ton qui fait la musique. The new Franciscan music will help the position of the Church both among Catholics and in the wider world. In the meantime Francis is cleaning out the more smelly Augean stables both in the apparatus of the Curia and among bishops who covered up the pedophile scandals. Who would object to these moves? Certainly not I (incurable Lutheran though I am, not at all tempted to “swim in the Tiber”, as is said to describe the long line of converts who fell for the charms of Rome). It is when it comes to Francis’ more directly political initiatives that I, along with some Catholic commentators, continue to worry.Just before Francis’ arrival in the U.S. an article in The New York Times, listing the overlap between the policy agendas of the Pope and President Obama, observed that one gets “the impression of a secular-theological alliance.” No wonder that Obama personally went to the airport to welcome Francis as soon as he steps on American soil; Obama oozed with pleasure, like a little boy having just received the present of a really large teddy bear (it is not often that the President makes one think of a happy little boy). Appearing equally joyful were two other Democratic leaders—Nancy Pelosi, the ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, and Elizabeth Warren (known to her fans in Massachusetts as “our beloved Cherokee senator”). The overlap between Francis’ views and those of the American Left are of course not overt: The Pope does not want to be seen as openly partisan in U.S. politics, and American politicians cannot afford to be seen as agents of Rome. But, though statements coming out of the mouths of popes are typically broad enough to allow wiggle room for those who don’t quite agree, one just has to look at Francis’ main policy positions to see which U.S. party could plausibly consider them congenial with its own—global poverty and environmental degradation being caused by an unjust economic system (read “capitalism”), opposing “climate change” (also caused by capitalist “greed”), inequality within and between nations, and openness to the concerns of women (excluding those not yet born). Against all this massive benevolence are arrayed the allegedly selfish and uncaring Republicans, at least for now led by the unspeakable Donald Trump. As if to ratify this perception of the GOP, while Francis was still in New York John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, resigned under pressure from the Tea Party caucus gearing up again for yet another crazy campaign to stop funding the government and thereby risking economic disaster (this time, for a change, not in order to blackmail Congress to repeal Obamacare but to defund Planned Parenthood). Boehner, who is a practicing Catholic and had been the one who invited Francis to address Congress, cried copiously as is his habit, whether because he was moved by the Pope’s eloquence or because he knew that he was about to quit the speaker’s chair for good.Over and beyond whatever his intentions may be for the Catholic Church, Francis has launched two broad campaigns in the secular world—saving the environment against the threat of global warming, and fundamentally changing the world economic system to become more just and inclusive of the poor. The two agendas are linked: It is capitalist “greed” which is degrading the environment and which is the principal cause of global inequality and poverty. The first campaign is at best somewhat premature, based on the questionable assumption that all the scientific evidence is in, so as to justify unambiguous action. The second campaign is empirically untenable, since the great decline in world poverty has been precisely caused by robust capitalism (not least, paradoxically, in China, still ruled by a party that calls itself Communist). These are serious errors of judgment; to say this is not to deny the eloquent (and very Franciscan) celebration of the wonders of creation, or to be unmoved by the urgent call to identify with the most vulnerable members of society (as Jesus did). Much can be explained by Francis’ Argentinian background—all he knew from his own experience was old-style crony capitalism, Peronist populism, and military dictatorship—none of them morally appealing. While he was in Argentina, he did not sympathize with Liberation Theology; he did not like its dogmatic Marxist ideology, its concept of class struggle, and its sympathy for violent revolution. Now, however, as he needs a broad intellectual framework for desired social change, he gravitates toward a less dogmatic but still neo-Marxist version of Liberation Theology. I have for a while been concerned about the people who are now influencing his thinking about the contemporary world. There is the Catholic movement of Iustitia et Pax (which has a sort of Leftist niche within the Vatican). There is his friendship with Gustavo Gutierrez, the Peruvian Dominican, who was one of the founders of Liberation Theology (he may have mellowed some in old age). Gutierrez, paradoxically, is also close to Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, the theologically very conservative head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (previously known as the Holy Office and the Inquisition). Earlier this year Gutierrez and Mueller have published a co-authored book, On the Side of the Poor: The Theology of Liberation. I was surprised to read the other day that Francis has also been consulting with Naomi Klein, the Canadian neo-Marxist author who has written fierce attacks on global capitalism. I don’t know to what extent Francis has embraced these very unhelpful ideas, but one can certainly see their influence.Francis’ historic address to a joint session of Congress was well-crafted, but I don’t think it added anything very new to what had been his messages for a while. He paid tribute to America’s spirit of freedom, beginning by saying how glad he was to be in “the land of the free and the home of the brave”. He spoke in English, slowly and laboriously (he had practiced a lot for this occasion before he set out on his journey). He paid tribute to four great Americans who had contributed to making the country what it had become. The first two were not surprising—Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. The other two were surprising, hardly known to anyone outside Catholic circles—Dorothy Day (1897-1980), a convert to Catholicism after a wild bohemian youth, self-defined as a “Christian socialist”, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement (which ran a network of homes for marginal people and also engaged in activism for various pacifist and progressive causes). And Thomas Merton (1915-1968), also a convert, who became a Trappist monk, spending most of his life at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. He became famous for his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), which explained his conversion. He became very interested in Asian spirituality, engaged in dialogue with Buddhist teachers (including the Dalai Lama), and died in Thailand on such an occasion. Francis did not explain in detail why he chose Day and Merton in addition to the more obvious first two. Francis advocated a spirit of openness and solidarity, condemned all forms of fundamentalism. Speaking in that polarized place, he implicitly urged Congress to overcome ideological rigidity; of course there was general applause, which doesn’t mean that all will mend their ways. (Did Francis’ words have anything to do, either way, with Boehner’s decision to step down from the speakership and to give up his efforts to bring to a measure of rationality the crazies in the Republican Party?) He strongly spoke for a generous policy to deal with the unprecedented refugee crisis (something for the Left), but also for the defense of human life at every stage of its development (something for the Right). He strongly endorsed a position more congenial to the Left—the global abolition of the death penalty, also reiterated his call to raise people out of extreme poverty and to understand the causes of the latter (gesture to the Left again—guess what he thinks the “causes” are!). He does concede that “business is a noble vocation”, at least if it is conscious of its social responsibilities. Francis paid tribute to the recent “efforts to overcome historic differences” (read Cuba, where he played a behind-the-scenes role in bringing the deal with the U.S. to fruition—and perhaps also the nuclear deal with Iran, with which, as far as we know, he had nothing to do). His last specific reference was to the role of the family in building America (“family”, not “families”—we know which kind of family he meant and which not—another grievance for the “LGBT community”!). He ended his speech with the benediction “God bless America!” (I wonder whether Obama remembered the malediction with which the Reverend Jeremiah Wright—whose church Obama belonged to in Chicago for some twenty years—concluded the sermon which was videotaped and induced Obama to sever his ties with his old mentor—“God damn America!”.)The other big speech, on the next day, was when Francis addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations. For the first time ever, the Vatican flag was raised along with all the nations’ flags in front of the UN buildings (coincidentally that day the Palestinian flag was also raised for the first time—I doubt whether the Vatican was consulted, but of course the Israelis were furious). This time Francis spoke in his native Spanish. His topics ranged across the globe. He explicitly endorsed the nuclear deal with Iran. He referred to the “painful” situation in the Middle East, mentioning particularly the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities. He stressed the importance of educating girls. Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who was shot by Islamists for the crime of going to school and who received a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, was in the audience; she applauded vigorously. But then of course Francis came back to his signature themes. He called for “environmental justice”, denounced the pursuit of “materialistic prosperity” (read capitalist greed) and the “inequitable distribution of resources” (wild applause from the Third World caucus dominating the General Assembly). He strongly endorsed the Paris conference on climate change that is to meet in December. He did have to give something to the cultural conservatives presumably represented very strongly in the Assembly (not just conservative Catholics, but Muslims, Hindus, Eastern Orthodox Christians put off by the sexual revolution in Western countries. He mentioned the “moral law” which affirmed “the natural difference between man and woman”, and he demanded “the absolute respect for life in all its stages.”How much will all this matter? Probably quite a lot in the long run. Stalin derisively asked how many divisions the pope had. He would have found out if he had lived long enough to witness the role of John Paul II in the collapse of the Communist regime in Poland and the subsequent disintegration of the once all-powerful Soviet empire. It is not only that there are millions of faithful Catholics who look to Rome for moral guidance. The papacy is a bully pulpit to which many non-Catholics are also attentive. It would be very unfortunate if the Roman pulpit were now to encourage a quasi-Marxist ideology that, if realized, would cripple economic growth and once again increase the global spread of extreme poverty (no doubt “equitably distributed”, except for the privileged political elite).
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Published on: September 30, 2015
Religion in the USAThe Popemobile Comes to America
How much does it matter if the Pope pushes a quasi-Marxist ideology? Probably quite a lot.