It’s going to be really amusing to watch how Republicans decide to react to Pope Francis’s speech to Congress.
Oh, he’ll mention a couple of things on which he leans more toward the conservative Republican position. But come on. In a world where religion and reaction have mostly been walking hand in hand to shape our political discourse for decades, this is the first major world religious leader—and, I mean, it’s the pope, for gosh sakes!—who is obviously a liberal and a modernizer. How jarring this has to be for the men and women of the self-anointed party of God, who try to dismiss him as “Obama’s pope” but must know deep down that he’s much more than that.
I’m not a Catholic—my mom was raised Catholic, but my dad was more of a Bertrand Russell type, if you get my drift, so they compromised (naturally) on Episcopalianism, in which I was raised and which my father still resolutely ignored. But I had lots of relatives who were Catholic, and I listened to them and learned from them. I learned that John XXIII, so aspersed in our own time by the conservatives who’ve taken over the church, was a giant beyond any manner of reproach. I learned that Paul VI, while not quite the equal of his predecessor, at least did complete the reform process that John had started.
And I learned that the Catholic Church was generally a force for modernization. Not, of course, to the extent it could have been. Here’s an interesting little historical what-if. In 1967, a Vatican commission concluded privately that artificial birth control was acceptable. Paul VI reportedly came close to endorsing that publicly, but ultimately pressure mounted and he sided with the minority, issuing the conservative Humanae Vitae in 1968. Imagine if he’d gone with his majority. But even so, the church was doing more to push humanity forward than backward.
That changed by the time I was a young reporter in New York. It’s not as if John XXIII’s church had been pro-abortion rights, but it was only in the 1980s that abortion became such a dominant litmus test—and it was only in the 1980s that the church inserted itself so aggressively into partisan politics. And Partisan it was, with a capital P. There were pro-choice Republicans in New York then, plenty of them, starting with Rudy Giuliani. But somehow, John Cardinal O’Connor, who called the shots in New York in those days and who railed against Democrats Mario Cuomo and Geraldine Ferraro for their pro-choice-ism, never saw fit to reprove Giuliani for his support for abortion.
It was disheartening—no, let’s not mince words—it was sickening to see the church insert itself into electoral politics in such a way that it might as well have been an arm of the GOP. It’s one thing for the church to have a position, which is of course its right and duty. It’s quite another to take that position and haul it into the heart of a presidential election, as it did in 2004, when a certain Vatican cardinal wrote a letter telling U.S. bishops that they should deny communion to pro-choice Catholics, including to a certain “Catholic politician consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia law,” an obvious reference to John Kerry. And it was appalling when the Vatican affirmed that kind of coarse behavior by voting to make that cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger, the next pope.
But that was then. Now the Catholic Church is no longer an appendage of the Republican Party in political terms. But the great things is—and I mean this—neither is it an appendage of the Democratic Party. This is what the right-wing critics who call Francis “Obama’s pope” fail to understand, because they can see this only as a zero-sum political game in which anyone who is not an avowed ally is an enemy.
Francis is not Obama’s pope. He is modernity’s pope. Doing something about climate change isn’t “Obama’s agenda.” It’s science’s agenda and humanity’s agenda. Supporting an effort to prevent the spread of nuclear weaponry in the world (the Iran deal), even with all that effort’s flaws and unknowns, is humanity’s agenda. Showing decency toward poor immigrants is humanity’s agenda. Calling on all of us to do more to alleviate inequality—both within the United States and globally, where of course the levels of inequality are unspeakable—is humanity’s agenda.
Obama has little to do with any of it except that he happens to be the sitting president and he happens to be saying decent, common-sense things about all these topics and not issuing the kinds of mercantilist-medieval superstitions that discharge themselves from the voodoo mouths of the revanchists and denialists.
Certainly, there’s more I’d like to see Francis do. He needs to catch up with his flock and allow married priests and female priests, and same-sex marriage, too. All in good time, I suspect. He sure gives the impression of being a man with a plan, and assuming he lives, the church of 2025 might be something to behold.
But for now, it’s plenty enough to have a pope who has taken the church out of the wretched ditch of single-issue partisan politics into which figures like O’Connor and Ratzinger had sunk it and who instead is showing that the church is re-engaged in moving humanity forward. It won’t stop the Republicans wanting to move humanity backward, but the loss of this erstwhile ally in backwardness will make their job harder and oh, is wonderful to watch.