After a momentous week in America, Pope Francis has been scrutinized by both the Catholic right and left. Did he come to criticize this nation or to evangelize it?
It’s hard to believe it’s been a mere two-and-a-half years. February and March of 2013 were traumatic months for the Church. It seemed as though we were at a precipice from which we would either pull back or fall over the edge. I could never forget that moment in February, 2013, when a prisoner came to my door to ask, “Can the Pope quit?” “No, of course not,” I answered. “Well, I think this one just did!” he said glumly. When I confirmed the news, my heart sank with a terrible crash and sense of defeat. I admired Benedict greatly. Like so many Catholics, I would have mourned his death, had that been the case, but I would have accepted it. Abdication, on the other hand, just seemed devastating.
A week later on These Stone Walls, I posted “Pope Benedict XVI: The Sacrifices of a Father’s Love,” the first in a series of posts about the momentous occurrences of those weeks before and after the Conclave. Weeks later, “On the Successor of Peter Amid the Wind and the Waves,” was posted on March 13, 2013. It described an image that reduced me to tears:
”The most haunting image of all was that of the helicopter bearing our Pope Emeritus away from the Vatican. Hovering above the Roman Colosseum, it was an image of stark contrast between the time of Caesar and the time of Benedict, and the Church that has lived for all the time in between. Many early Christians sacrificed their lives there in Caesar’s Colosseum so that the Church might live. The suffering of Benedict the Beloved hovering over that ancient symbol of Christian sacrifice was overwhelming.”
I still painfully recall the events that led to Pope Benedict’s decision. I fear that some faithful Catholics, especially among conservatives, seem to have forgotten the not-so-distant past when Catholic leaders were treated with wave after wave of accusation, disdain, and open contempt fueled by a news media ever poised to silence a Catholic voice in the public square.
The betrayal of Pope Benedict reached all the way to the curia, and into his own household. His own butler was arrested and charged with stealing the Holy Father’s personal papers and leaking them to the media. Rumors of a hidden homosexual cabal reaching deep into Vatican affairs threatened to make a mockery of the Holy See. When Pope Benedict went to England for the Beatification of Blessed John Henry Newman, celebrity-atheist Richard Dawkins made headlines by calling for his arrest for “crimes against humanity.”
Then the radical Center for Constitutional Rights – fittingly located at 666 Broadway in Manhattan – teamed up, with SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, to petition the International Criminal Court at The Hague to indict the pope and the global Catholic Church for crimes against humanity. I wrote of this shameless publicity stunt in “The International Criminal Court Has Dismissed SNAP’s Last Gasp.”
In the U.S., bishops were disgraced coast to coast for the sexual abuse scandal. Here in New Hampshire, when Bishop John McCormack joined other leaders on the Statehouse steps to advocate against budget cuts for social welfare programs, the NH House Republican Minority leader called him a “pedophile pimp” on his Facebook page.
THEN CAME FRANCIS
Having lived and suffered through those times, it is hard for me to imagine the phenomenon at work today as the face of the Church has gone from reviled to revered in less than three years. Pope Francis is treated as a global icon. During his week in America, I kept switching between CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, and EWTN to get a variety of viewpoints, but there was little variety. Everyone in the media was saying the same thing. It was as though the world of media treachery I had come to know and loathe had suddenly entered the Twilight Zone.
In contrast, it seemed that the only people with anything negative to say about this pope were some (but by no means all) conservative and Traditionalist Catholics. During EWTN’s coverage of the Pope’s address to the United Nations, Raymond Arroyo described him as “a global secular celebrity.” I was vaguely horrified, but I’m not sure why. Mr. Arroyo was simply presenting an obvious truth, but it’s a truth that raises doubts for many faithful Catholics and I have been one of them.
The more I thought about it, however, the more I wondered why any of us would hold a pope suspect simply because the media does not. Gerald F. Seib, a widely respected columnist for The Wall Street Journal wrote that Francis “is a Disrupter in Tune With [the] Political Mood,” the title of his WSJ column:
”In a season of disruptive politics in which taking on the establishment and shaking up the status quo are the orders of the day, Pope Francis stands out as the world’s disrupter in-chief… He may be following the trend, or he may be leading it.” (WSJ.com, Sept. 22, 2015)
An editorial in The Economist chose the week of his visit to revisit the sex abuse scandals, declaring that they “have badly eroded the church’s moral authority causing believers to leave the church in droves.” Really? It simply does not hold water. The fact is that every major U.S. religious denomination has experienced declining numbers in the last two decades with liberal Protestant denominations in a virtual free-fall of decline. Editors at The Economist seem to have missed that Mass in Philadelphia with some one million in attendance. The “Francis effect” simply doesn’t look like “decline” to me.
The truth is that this same decline has not been true of the U.S. population that describes itself as Catholic. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), that figure has remained steady with little variation for each of the last five years. CARA estimates that the U.S. Catholic population will increase from 68 million to 95 million by 2050.
Donna Brazile wrote at CNN.com that there’s a reason 74 percent of Catholics and 63 percent of Americans approve of this Pope, though I am convinced that these approval ratings mean nothing to him. She wrote that “Francis is the reform pope we need,” but his reformation is simply one of tone and not substance. To best understand Pope Francis, says John Carr, Director of Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, it is imperative to realize one basic point:
”Anybody who tries to use Pope Francis is going to be disappointed, and that goes for the right and the left, in the church and outside the church, because while he is consistent in his defense of human life and human dignity, we are not.”
Pope Francis is said to have a profound aversion to being used to further other people’s agendas – either left or right. Said Ben Rhodes, a foreign policy adviser for President Obama, “what makes [the Pope’s] statements powerful is that they come from him” and him alone. They don’t come from the requests or expectations of others, either left or right. Mr. Rhodes pointed out that Obama and Pope Francis differ in issues such as abortion and gay rights so the White House tried to play down those issues.
It’s fascinating that what conservative Catholics cite as minimalized in the Pope’s presentations, the White House cites as points of major disagreement. Said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial, how ironic it is to see progressives “claiming the Pope is an evangelist for their agenda.” The WSJ described the Catholic left as “opportunists” seizing on the views they like while ignoring the Church’s teachings on abortion, same sex marriage “and all that catechistic unpleasantness.”
MATTERS OF LIFE AND DEATH
I listened intently to the Holy Father’s historic speech before a joint session of Congress. Pope Francis could not have been clearer in his promotion of the integrity of marriage and the family, and in his defense of life “at every stage of human development.”
Some conservatives faulted him for not actually saying the word “abortion” before Congress, but he left me with no doubt about his defense of life. In his address to the U.S. Bishops – just as public but barely touched by the secular media – he asked them to advocate for “victims of abortion.”
In the Congressional Chamber that day, I believe every person present in Congress, the Senate, the members of the Supreme Court, and among the millions of Americans who were listening, thought of “Planned Parenthood’s American Horror Story” when Francis called upon them to protect human life at every stage. I saw Speaker of the House John Boehner openly weep, and then announce his resignation the very next day.
There’s a question bigger than what American media thinks of Pope Francis. What does he now think of America? As he spoke those words before Congress in defense of life, he was keenly aware of those videos that expose the American moral apocalypse Planned Parenthood has set into motion. He was keenly aware as well of the failure of U.S. politicians that very same week to overcome their own ideological divisions to deal with that moral nightmare by defunding Planned Parenthood from receiving your tax dollars through which you, as citizens, are forced into complicity with this horror.
Pope Francis is our spiritual leader, not our general in the culture wars. That is ours to fight, not his, and fight it we must, with his blessing. What does Francis think of a nation whose political divisions take primacy over life itself? And what might he think of a Democratic front runner for the U.S. presidency who retains the Margaret Sanger Award despite the revelations of a racist eugenics behind her founding of Planned Parenthood? It’s part of this American horror story the media still minimizes. Yes, as the hashtag says, “Black Lives Matter.” Every life matters! The trafficking of black infant body parts matters too.
Then Francis denounced the death penalty. So have I, in “Stay of Execution: Catholic Conscience and the Death Penalty.” This Pope has seen too many repressive regimes make too many people simply disappear from the face of the Earth to want to entrust governments with the morality of who lives and who dies. Like lemmings being led over a moral cliff, too many of us trust our government’s criminal justice system despite the fact that hundreds of men in prison – often for decades – have been exonerated and declared wrongly convicted, including over 152 men exonerated while on death row. But the real moral issue here is that hope for conversion, for the saving of a soul, becomes as terminal as the life we execute.
Almost immediately, the media interpreted this Pope’s call to end the death penalty as a boon to Democrats that is unpopular with Republicans. That is simply no longer so, but if it is so, why haven’t Democrats addressed those in their own ranks who have proliferated – how ironic that “prolife” jumps right out of that word – capital punishment? If this is so important to Democrats, then why haven’t they addressed this with Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH)? As New Hampshire governor in 2000, Shaheen vetoed a Republican-passed measure to repeal the State’s death penalty making New Hampshire the sole New England state to still have such a law.
And why haven’t they addressed it with the current NH Governor, Maggie Hassan? Last year she threatened to veto another death penalty repeal bill unless it included an exception so the state could still execute the sole man – an African American – on this State’s death row.
Then the Pope spoke of prison reform and the restoration of efforts to rehabilitate prisoners instead of just warehousing and discarding them into a leprous system. This, too, was once a social requisite of the left until the 1990s-era Clinton Crime Bill vastly expanded prisons and sentences and vastly curtailed prison education and other rehabilitative efforts. This paved the way for draconian Supreme Court rulings that severely limited prisoners’ rights and recourse to the courts resulting in America’s expensive, grossly overcrowded, vastly cruel and hopeless, one-size-fits-all prisons posing as a “corrections” system.
Pope Francis added that “a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope…” like, for example, imposing a 67-year sentence on someone who refuses a one-year plea deal? (Sorry, but it’s like the elephant in this cell with me!). Francis said similar words to our bishops, words about restoration over punishment, mercy reflected in justice, the rehabilitation and a welcome back into society, when possible, for those convicted of crimes – and sometimes it is justice itself that has to be rehabilitated. Go read “Mercy to the Max,” and then come back and tell me why rehabilitation has no place in the meting out of justice.
More on that later. Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said of Pope Francis on FOX News: “I’m glad he’s shaking up some people on both the right and the left, but there haven’t been any doctrinal changes.” This is true, and I’m glad he said it.
Then Bill Donohue offered the Pope a senior citizen discount to join the Catholic League. Way to go, Bill! On FOX News, no less! This is why CNN never gives you the last word!
Update for the Week