How Will Pope Francis Change America?


Originally published at The Huffington Post, September 20, 2015.

When Pope John Paul II visited Poland in June, 1979, he set in motion a chain of events that altered the direction of world affairs. His visit emboldened the non-violent resistance to the Soviet presence in Poland. A mere decade later, the Cold War was over, as people throughout Eastern Europe gained the courage to speak out against their governing regimes. The end of the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe had many causes, of course, but surely that early papal visit contributed significantly.

Now, the United States is not Eastern Europe, and I do not expect a comparable level of social, political, and cultural upheaval to result from Pope Francis’ visit. Still, the United States confronts some intractable problems of its own, and one can legitimately expect — and hope — to see lasting change occur as a result of the papal visit. And while we cannot guess whether Pope Francis intends to effect such changes, he is quite consciously preparing to address major issues that lie at the intersection of politics and morality.

Perhaps the first area in which we might expect Pope Francis to challenge the reigning political paradigm is on the very question of what constitutes the intersection of politics and morality. Morality, in the American political context, is almost universally thought of as consisting principally of the range of sexual issues. In contrast, morality, for Pope Francis, is much more encompassing. It includes the ways in which strangers are welcomed, the climate is repaired, and money, markets, and capital are put in proper perspective.

We should therefore look first to these three great themes, beginning with immigration as keys for understanding the papal visit. In the summer of 2013, just a few months after his election, Pope Francis traveled to the Island of Lampedusa, off the southern coast of Sicily. It is a scene of daily tragedy, where hundreds of bodies are routinely retrieved from the Mediterranean. Francis led the mourning for this great and needless loss of life, and dedicated his pontificate to welcoming the immigrant.

As the middle eastern refugee crisis has grown to its present catastrophic proportions, Francis has pledged the Church’s resources to ameliorate the conditions of the displaced. Every Catholic parish, he has urged, should attempt to house at least one refugee family. Religious orders, he has chided, must open their doors or lose their status as tax exempt organizations. He has opened the Vatican itself to refugees. And he has called on the nations of Europe to engage in concerted and productive action to resolve the immigration crisis.

Now, Pope Francis is not naive or blind to the ugly nativism that is taking hold in the United States these last few months. I would expect him to address Americans with the same firmness he has Europeans. Catholics believe that Jesus is present in the destitute, in the marginalized, and in those forced by circumstance to seek refuge in distant lands. That is the meaning, after all, of Matthew 25: 38 (“And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee?”). Today’s Christians must similarly see Jesus in the immigrants forced from their homelands and respond accordingly. We can only hope that by his words and gestures Pope Francis can break the xenophobic fever that now curses and blights American politics.

There is little doubt also that Pope Francis will vigorously restate his case for concerted world action on climate change. Other popes have spoken out on the need to tend and care for our common planetary home. But Francis has moved far beyond his predecessors in the arguments he advanced in his encyclical Laudato Si. “The climate is a common good,” the Pope declared in this document, “belonging to all and meant for all” (para. 23).

And if the climate belongs to everyone of us, then it is the common duty of humanity to safeguard and preserve it. Patiently and thoroughly, utilizing the latest scientific insights, Pope Francis built the case that the health of the world is genuinely at risk. “Doomsday predictions,” he solemnly reminded his readers, “can no longer be met with irony or disdain” (para. 161). The appropriate response to this crisis, Pope Francis teaches, is a rethinking of the very nature and function of politics (para. 197). Politics must abandon the trivial, it must cease being “caught up in inconsequential discussions” and it must become transnational in scope (para. 197).

Pope Francis’ address to the United Nations will surely reiterate these main themes. And in making his case before the world, he will equally surely take aim, at least indirectly, at a whole political movement dedicated to attacking the science on climate change as lacking foundation.

This movement, located on the American right wing, is as ugly in its own right as the nativism that is also currently gripping the United States. It denounces science in the name of ideology. It is driven to extremes by a darkly paranoid and conspiracist view of the world. One can safely predict that we shall hear howls of protest from this segment of the body politic. One hopes that Pope Francis effectively discredits this way of seeing the world.

We can also expect Pope Francis to challenge the primacy of capital. In Evangelii Gaudium, he denounced the “idolatry of money.” The worship of wealth, he proclaimed, denies “the primacy of the human person” (para. 55). It is in its own way a kind of dictatorship, and its harsh rule is especially visible in the growing gap between the very rich and the rest of humanity (para. 56).

His critics loosely and glibly attack Pope Francis as a closet Marxist. That is certainly a slander and a falsehood. But he does call for a return to a more regulated economy, one in which the political order can exercise control over “the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation” (para. 56).

Will Pope Francis echo these remarks during his visit to Capitol Hill? It is likely that he will. Will his comments have lasting effect? We can only hope so.

That is not to say that Pope Francis will not strike other notes during his visit. It will be interesting to listen to what he says at the World Congress of Families, especially in light of his recent revision of the law governing marriage annulments. Conservative Catholics are mounting resistance to these much-needed law reforms, and I expect Pope Francis to stress to his audience that the divorced and remarried are not excommunicated from the Church and that they are as much an object of Jesus’ love as anyone else.

He is also visiting a prison during his stay in Philadelphia. Will he remind listeners of Jesus’ words — “I was in prison and you visited me?” The lepers of modern America are the inmates of our prison-industrial complex. They are isolated from the world, and housed in harsh conditions for impossibly long sentences. Certainly, Pope Francis will ensure that they feel included in the message of mercy which he is bringing the world.

Of course, it must be emphasized that Pope Francis is not motivated by the same set of impulses that drive secular American politics. Though politicians will seek to claim his message as their own, Pope Francis is not taking sides in partisan debates. His is a loftier ambition — to transform the world. The major premises of the message he is bringing to the United States is accordingly traditional and Christian: the requirement to show hospitality to all humankind; to be good stewards of the earth; and to serve God and not Mammon. That said, these are theological starting points that carry with them real political implications, and that is what I have been exploring here.

So, will Pope Francis change America? Will his impact be as large as John Paul II’s in Poland? We can only hope so.

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