By Jim Nelson,
Montana Supreme Court Justice (Ret.)
Pope Mania! The Papal visit was an emotional and spiritual experience for many of the religious faithful. For countless, Francis’ appearances in Washington, New York and Philadelphia were a defining personal moment to be treasured and savored. Indeed, the outpouring of adulation and media blitz put the Pontiff in the rarified company of Super Bowl champions and visiting English royalty.
I suggest, though, that there is also a revealing and troubling aspect to Pope Mania. For one thing, in theory (although you’d never know it in this day and age), our government is supposed to be neutral when it comes to matters of religion. The First Amendment guarantees each individual the right to freely practice his religion. But just as importantly, the First Amendment guarantees that our government will not become entangled in sectarian affairs; that is, our government will not “establish” religion. Indeed, one of the fundamental precepts of our republic is that church and state are separated by an “impenetrable wall.” The flip side of Freedom of Religion is Freedom from Religion.
Understandably, the President might be forgiven for his effusive welcome of the Pontiff. After all, presidential duties include greeting and hosting heads of state. And the Pope, among other things, is the Vatican’s official representative.
Yet the sight of a Pontiff, for the first time ever, addressing a joint session of Congress, with the Speaker of the House and other elected officials in the background, misting up, and wiping away their tears is just a bit too much.
More to the point, if the Pope’s congressional appearance was just as a head of state, that is one thing. But, in addition to his comments on climate change, immigration, wealth distribution and trickle-down economics—globally important topics, all–Francis could not resist inserting into his remarks, albeit indirectly, mainline Catholic religious doctrine on gay marriage, a defense of religious liberty, the importance of the “traditional” family, and the sanctity of life at “every stage of its development.” Ironically, though, while the Pontiff mentioned overpopulation, he ignored his Church’s condemnation of birth control. On that score, the Catholics are part of the problem, not the solution.
It is also worth noting that when John Kennedy was running for President, he had to convince the American People that he would not be under the Vatican’s thumb. What a change a couple of generations make! Now, while conservative Americans and politicians fall all over each other condemning Islamic theocracies, those same people seem perfectly comfortable with creating (in direct violation of the Constitution) a Christian theocracy in America.
Secondly, and, even more troubling, is the legerdemain the Pope demonstrated in his recent visit. One can hardly argue that the Francis is an affable person who makes many people feel good. And that’s alright up to a point. But there comes the time when a real leader has to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.
Cases in point. What substantive change has Francis accomplished during his tenure? Are women any better off? No, they are still marginalized by the Church. Women’s rights issues—birth control, reproductive choice, equal pay, healthcare, day care, maternity leave, to name a few—are still subsumed in the notion that (a) women are not equal with men and (b) the real function of women in society is to procreate and raise children. The Pope seems oblivious to the fact that the only way most of the 99% survive in our 1% society, is because women work outside the home, often, as single mothers, and that women, are discriminated against by male-dominated secular and sectarian institutions in almost every way.
And how about children who were sexually abused by pedophile clergy? True, the Pope has apologized. But has the Vatican and each diocese been required to disclose the identity and (location, if living) of each offending member of the clergy? And what about the Bishops, Cardinals and the retired Pope that participated in the conspiracy to cover up these criminal assaults? Many of them are still alive. But, how many of these Church officials have been turned over to the authorities for criminal prosecution? Indeed, how many pedophile priests and nuns have been actually prosecuted and are incarcerated or listed in sex-offender registries? It is short list that approaches zero, you can be sure. In these circumstances, mere apologies ring hollow.
And finally, as for our homosexual and transgender brothers and sisters. The Pope gushes love and forgiveness (as if these folks needed to be forgiven for simply being who they are). But these people are still condemned by the Church for their sexual orientation and gender identities—God-created human characteristics, if you are a believer; hard-wired genetics, if you are not. These peoples’ right to marry, to raise families, and to love who they want—indeed, their dignity as human beings—was effectively trashed by the Pope in his speech to Congress.
Worse, the Pontiff was not satisfied to stop there when it came to gays and lesbians. Francis had a private audience with the face of hate herself, Kim Davis. According to her, the Pope praised her for following her conscience—i.e. refusing to issue marriage licenses to homosexual couples in defiance of the law, because doing so would offend her personal religious beliefs.
No doubt, many Nazi’s were simply following their personal consciences when they refused to condemn the Holocaust—the moral outrage that sent Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, and mentally and developmentally disabled people to the furnaces. Indeed, another representative of the Vatican, Pope Pius XII, has been criticized for failing to vigorously and early-on condemn Hitler’s crimes against humanity. If recollection serves, there was recently another Papal apology for that, too.
No matter what the Pope Francis seems to think, one is not permitted to discriminate, demonize, denigrate the dignity, and deny any person social justice, equal protection of the laws and due process of law because one’s personal conscience justifies that conduct. C. S. Lewis was point-on when he observed that, “those who torment us with their religious beliefs will do so without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
In short, the titular leader of the Catholic Church does not seem to be able to connect the dots. The Pope cannot preach love out of one side of his mouth and, at the same time, out of the other, continue to marginalize women, continue to facilitate the devastation caused by the sexual abuse of children, and continue to openly facilitate, if not encourage, hatred and discrimination directed against people because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. He just can’t have it both ways.
Pope mania? In truth, Francis did not contribute substantively to solve any of the real problems and social justice issues that face our global society and the vast majority of its people. Indeed, for the most part, he sugar-coated the status quo, and when it came to gay and lesbian rights, he made things worse.
Pope Mania turned out to be little more than a feel-good road show. How disappointing. But, how so not surprising.