President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama introduced Pope Francis to their family pets Bo and Sunny in the Blue Room following the State Arrival Ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, Sept. 23, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me…. whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
“Is the Pope Catholic?” Newsweek asked in its cover story headline. “Of course he is,” they answered in the much smaller subhead. “You just wouldn’t know it from his press clips.” But that says more about the national press than it does about Pope Francis.
Yet if the world is flooded with too-facile stories, images, explanations and descriptions, Francis is eager to engage it at all levels and remain seemingly unperturbed by how readily he is misunderstood or misrepresented.
On his flight from Cuba to Washington, when reporters asked about the Newsweek headline and “about comments, mainly from the United States, claiming the pope is a communist,” as the Catholic News Service put it, Francis replied, “I am certain I have never said anything more than what is in the social doctrine of the church,” adding, “I follow the church and in this, I do not think I am wrong.”
Broadly this is true, though an analysis from Religion News Service did identify two areas in which Francis has advanced church teaching—but not taken a new direction: calling for “global abolition of the death penalty,” and affirming a “right of the environment.”
Providing context, the website of the U.S. Conference of Bishops describes “Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching.”
While several of these have been focused upon narrowly and selectively and construed rigidly in recent decades—most notably, “Life and Dignity of the Human Person,” and the “Call to Family, Community, and Participation”—others have de-emphasized, if not largely neglected, especially in the public sphere: the “Option for the Poor and Vulnerable,” “The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers,” “Solidarity” and “Care for God’s Creation.”
While an increasingly politicized church hierarchy has contributed to a much narrower view, particularly here in America, the vast majority of what Francis has said and done is simply a matter of restoring a more balanced emphasis.
The church has always advocated for immigrants, for example, and Francis did so again at the White House on Sept. 23, but not in partisan terms. “As the son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families,” he said.
He spoke similarly to Congress the following day. “We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners,” Francis said. “I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants.”
What’s really set Pope Francis apart is not doctrine, but his pastoral emphasis, reaching out to engage in a spirit of service, which has been so strongly echoed in the enthusiastic welcome he has received—both in the world at large, and here in America with this trip. There also is the fact that he’s the first pope from the global south, where the majority live much like the earliest Christians, when Christianity was the religion of the Roman Empire’s underclass.
Perhaps his first act alerting the world to these aspects of his papacy came just two weeks after it began, when he washed and kissed the feet of a dozen inmates in a Holy Thursday ritual at a juvenile detention center, including Orthodox and Muslim detainees, as well as two young women, “a remarkable choice given that the rite re-enacts Jesus’ washing of the feet of his male disciples,” as the Associate Press commented. Popes normally perform the ritual at St. John Lateran basilica, washing the feet of 12 priests, representing the 12 disciples. AP added:
[T]he Vatican released a limited video of the ritual, showing Francis washing black feet, white feet, male feet, female feet and even a foot with tattoos. Kneeling on the stone floor as the 12 youngsters sat above him, the 76-year-old Francis poured water from a silver chalice over each foot, dried it with a simple cotton towel and then bent over to kiss each one.
Still, it was a pastoral act, not a signal of changing doctrine. Like the rest of the Catholic hierarchy, Francis has insisted that the subject of women priests is off the table, and his unquestioned orthodoxy on the subject illuminates the real limits and extent of his fresh thinking.
The vast majority of the pope’s trip to America reflected his pastoral orientation. His visit to the overcrowded Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia, in particular, underscored his attention to ministering to “the least of these,” while the large public masses embraced the whole body of the church. He began his speech to the inmates by telling them:
I know it is a painful time, not only for you, but also for your families and for all of society. Any society, any family, which cannot share or take seriously the pain of its children, and views that pain as something normal or to be expected, is a society ‘condemned’ to remain a hostage to itself, prey to the very things which cause that pain. I am here as a pastor, but above all as a brother, to share your situation and to make it my own.
Francis further stressed the importance of rehabilitation programs:
It is painful when we see prison systems which are not concerned to care for wounds, to soothe pain, to offer new possibilities. It is painful when we see people who think that only others need to be cleansed, purified, and do not recognize that their weariness, pain and wounds are also the weariness, pain and wounds of society.
Francis also spoke out to warn against the kinds of mistaken thinking which lead supposedly more elevated people astray.
“We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism,” Francis said in his speech to Congress. “This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind.” He went to add:
There is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps.
When Francis turned to talk about the environment, as many on the religious right feared he would, he significantly undercut their hysteria over his supposed “Marxism.”
“Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good,” Francis said, quoting from his encyclical, Laudato Si. “This common good also includes the earth,” he continued, “a central theme of the encyclical which I recently wrote in order to ‘enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.’”
He went on to say, “I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States—and this Congress—have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a ‘culture of care’ and ‘an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.’”
In that speech to Congress, Francis employed the uplifting framework of citing four great Americans who “shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people”— Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Day, the radical founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, is a particularly complex and compelling individual for Francis to cite. His orthodoxy in refusing to reconsider women priests stands in stark contrast to the long history of female saints, a history that Francis implicitly seemed to invoke.
“Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints,” Francis said. Day is now in the process of becoming a saint herself, with the unanimous support of American bishops—in sharp contrast to how she was perceived during her lifetime, and despite the fact Day famously said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”
After that canonization vote, Larry Purcell, executive director of the Redwood City Catholic Worker House, told Catholic San Francisco, “I am concerned that the canonization process will sanitize her life and will not emphasize how categorically she opposed the empire of the United States and how the empire is expanded and maintained with massive military might,”
Francis shares much in common with Day, including at least some measure of her pacifist orientation. “Being at the service of dialogue and peace also means being truly determined to minimize and, in the long term, to end the many armed conflicts throughout our world,” he told Congress.
Unfortunately, the majority in Congress seem ill-prepared to listen, despite his tireless efforts to engage with everyone. They seem to have need of Francis, even more than the inmates of Curran-Fromhold.