Editorial: Pope Francis urges country to live up to its lofty principles
The message Pope Francis spread throughout the nation in his six-day visit to the U.S. last week went a long way in restoring faith in the Catholic Church. The church lost the support, and respect, of many Americans years ago when it chose to focus on single-issue politics rather than Christianity’s larger mission. When Catholic hardliners like Cardinal Raymond Burke, former archbishop of St. Louis, dominated the stage with their opposition to women’s and gay rights to the exclusion of moderates who championed social action, the church became a partisan force for political divisiveness, not inclusion.
Just a decade ago, conservative church leaders denied or threatened to deny communion to political leaders who supported gay rights or a woman’s right to choose, including Secretary of State John Kerry when he ran for president in 2004. And church conservatives had the audacity to chastise the University of Notre Dame for bestowing an honorary degree on President Obama in 2009 — not because he wasn’t an inspirational leader, or because he embraced the larger values of Christianity, but because of his support for those two singular issues. For the past 30 years, the Catholic Church has been guided by an extremely narrow focus that did not stand for the broader principles of Christianity — tolerance, acceptance, advocacy for the poor, and brotherly love to all. Rather, the church lost its way in the fog of single-issue politics.
Pope Francis is changing that perspective.
By his every action, he demonstrates the power of humility and grace. He challenges us to face the tough issues of poverty, the inequity of wealth, and the injustice of a capitalistic system that is rigged in favor of the wealthy. He sees the degradation of the earth because of increased carbon pollution and challenges us to stop the madness.
In his speech to Congress last week, the first ever by a Pope, he challenged those elected representatives to live up to this nation’s ideals by being accepting and welcoming of immigrants, by taking care of the planet (in terms of climate change), by accepting the new norms of contemporary society (a reference to gay marriage) and by claiming it a duty to protect life at every stage — a reference to the church’s opposition to abortion. Wrapped in those specifics and others, however, was his plea to American Catholic leaders to create a church with the warmth of “a family fire,” avoiding “harsh and divisive” language and a “narrow vision” of Catholicism that he called “a perversion of faith.”
It was a message he has been preaching since his election in 2013 when he challenged the church to put “compassion ahead of rules” — a direct rebuke to those bishops who had been taking a hard line on church doctrine that rejected gay marriage and abortion. Pope Francis doesn’t advocate for either, but rather he is seeking to change the tone from one of single-minded adversity, to one that seeks a broader perspective — one of inclusion, not exclusion; one of compassion, not derision.
He teaches that message through his actions.
After speaking to Congress last week, he didn’t hang around to lunch on fancy foods, but chose to eat with the homeless in downtown D.C.; at the Harlem parish school the pope visited in New York City, immigrants and refugees were seated at long tables in front of the stage, while city politicians, donors and community representatives were on the sidelines — a fitting symbol of where our nation’s priorities should be.
“Workers here have center stage,” said Gonzalo Mercado, director of the Staten Island Community Job Center, a non-profit that works with day laborers and domestic workers. “That speaks volumes. To have an amazing figure like the pope take a stand with the least among us and recognize the contributions of immigrant workers is a breath of fresh air.”
The pope kissed the feet of the poor, bear-hugged an inmate at a Philadelphia jail, and prayed over a disabled child in New York City as a sobbing father watched. He drove in an economy car, a Fiat, in direct contrast to the huge SUV’s driven by his security guards.
Compare the pope’s visit, grace and actions to that of the overly pious GOP presidential contenders — all of whom claim the mantle of Christianity. The difference is sobering.
The temptation, of course, is to judge the pope’s message in political terms. He buoyed Democrats with his message of social justice, particularly on the important issues of wealth inequity, alleviating poverty, helping the weak and homeless, embracing immigrants, and being tolerant of the cultural changes sweeping the world (gay rights); for Republicans, he noted the sanctity of life and declared it a human duty to protect life at every stage.
But that misses the pope’s apolitical message, which is to live in harmony with each other. His challenge to Americans during his six-day visit was to reframe the partisan antagonism between political parties and learn how to harness our better selves. Citing four American heroes in Abraham Lincoln, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Merton (the Trappist monk who condemned war and advocated cooperation between faiths), and Dorothy Day, founder of the pacifist Catholic Worker Movement that advocated for the homeless, the pope called on the church and the country to do better. “The history of this nation,” the pope said, “is the tale of a constant effort, lasting to our own day, to embody those lofty principles in social and political life.”
Americans across the nation seemed to embrace the pope’s authentic call; Republicans on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, were slow to join Democrats in a standing ovation after his speech, and dropped any pretense of lessons learned only moments after the Pope left to lunch among the homeless, and by Monday this week were once again trying to smear their opponents and sabotage the federal government. If memory serves, Jesus was frequently snubbed by the powers that be as well.
— Angelo S. Lynn