It’s hard to imagine today that Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy struggled to overcome the worry that, as president, he would be taking orders from the pope. Clearly he faced lingering anti-Catholic prejudices, but more important his ascendency signaled a real sea change in a country dominated by majority Protestants. Catholics had long held sway locally including his grandfather “Honey Fitz” the legendary Boston mayor, but not at the highest federal level. Beginning with Brandeis in 1916 a Jew held a seat on the Supreme Court, but it also remained largely a Protestant domain. While Kennedy remains our sole Catholic president, times have changed. Joe Biden’s religion got little notice in and after 2008 and Catholics, including Chief Justice John Roberts, hold a numerical majority on today’s Court.
In this changed environment, Pope Francis’s appearance before a joint session of Congress was greeted with an unspoken but loudly heard “of course, why not.” His speech touched many hot spot issues including immigration, greed-motivated capitalism (my words), poverty, human culpability in climate change, the death penalty and his concern that “the very basis of marriage [is] being threatened”. While cloaked in a rhetorical religious tone, it was a highly political talk. Francis has returned to Rome from his whirlwind visit to Cuba and the United States. Aides said he was a bit tired by the time he reached Philadelphia and no wonder. He continues to be, among others, a master of optics from arriving at the White House in his modest Fiat sedan to interspersing events of state and high church with visits to the poor and incarcerated. Our American politicians — all of them — could learn a lot from this savvy son of Argentina. Of course, what makes the Pope’s optics work is that they ring true — “he walks the walk”. That’s something we don’t see much of on the current presidential trail or, for that matter, from most of our political class.
Francis delivered both sermons and speeches during his visit. Beyond addressing Congress and the United Nations, his words were heard by the faithful during mega-masses at every stop from Havana to Philadelphia. Given his established star quality, listeners probably heard what they wanted to hear hanging on the words that fit their own ideology but equally their perception of the man. Despite all the adoration, no matter how merited, we should remember that there is hardly a more opaque institution than the Catholic Church, most especially the Vatican that he now runs. Information and messaging tend to be both controlled and intentional. So reports on behind the scene doings, including assumed conflicts, must be taken with a grain of salt — more “it is said” than unquestionable fact. Elections of popes are held in deep secret. Many significant deliberations are held behind closed doors. Only the results are revealed, and at a time of the pope’s choosing.
That said, the divisiveness that Francis encountered both in Washington and at the UN, were probably familiar to him. “It is said” that his Church is also deeply divided, also between “conservatives” and “liberals”. I put those descriptors in quotes because they should be viewed in the context of an institution that has seen, and probably will see, little doctrinal change. Indeed as Adam Gopnik wrote in a post visit New Yorker piece, “this Pope is no more a “liberal” Pope than he is a secret Muslim Pope—he’s the Pope”. As I alluded to earlier, we tend to read what we want into public figures (Francis included) — people we don’t really know but merely observe from afar. What we hope for and are sure we heard is often far from the case. This is not to suggest that Francis isn’t unnerving some of his colleagues in the Church hierarchy, but they may actually be more upset about the optics than about matters of doctrine or faith. As I’ve written before, many of those bishops and cardinals like their opulent digs and limos; Francis is making their optics look bad.
What Gopnik’s piece suggests to me is that what we perceive as the conservative-liberal controversy in Catholicism may be overblown or considered in the wrong context — our secular and political one. At the very least, it doesn’t have to do with fundamentals, but rather touches merely the outer edges. When Vatican II allowed prayer in the vernacular, it didn’t change the underlying text or the essence of the mass. Francis may have been reading the prayers in English during his visit, but their content was no different than when he officiated in Buenos Arias or Rome. There is conflict within the church about both ritual and dogma, but it is one that is more of the pew than the pulpit or between the two. That between pew and pulpit is unlikely to be resolved; so many Catholics throughout the world (and certainly in the West) simply ignore their church teachings when it comes, for example, to matters of sex and marriage.
Not being a Catholic (or Christian), I always, as the Prophet Micah might say, “walk humbly” in commenting on the Church. My analysis might be way off base. So I’m always interested in what Catholic writers have to say. As it happens, among the best New York Times columnists are such people. Two especially reflect the opposite religious (and in their case political) poles: liberal and conservative. On the left is Maureen Dowd, someone who can at times be a little too flippant for my taste, but is consistently serious when it comes to the faith in which she grew up, especially as it relates to what she considers its moral lapses. She was among the most relentless critics of the sex abuse scandal — especially its hierarchy-enabled cover-up. On the right is Ross Douthat who is unabashedly conservative both politically and religiously. I rarely agree with him, but there are few columnists for whom I have greater respect. He is always thoughtful and interesting and evokes an essential integrity about his views and beliefs that is compelling. Both writers wrote columns at the end of the pope’s visit.
While finding him “cool”, Dowd, like Goptik, questioned the liberalism attributed to Francis. Even more sharply she writes, “…his very coolness is what makes his reign so hazardous. Watching the rapturous crowds and gushing TV anchors on his American odyssey, we see the Francis Effect. His magnetic, magnanimous personality is making the church, so stained by the vile sex abuse scandal, more attractive to people — even though the Vatican stubbornly clings to its archaic practice of treating women as a lower caste.” When it comes to religious modernity, Dowd sees Francis as more of the 19th century than the 21st his continued refusal to change the status of women in the church the subject of her most damning critique.
Ross Douthat worries about just the opposite. He sees religious liberalization as a threat, one that weakens the Church’s future. He contends that, “…the marriage of Christian faith and liberal politics [which has been happening] seem doomed to eventual divorce. Since the 1970s, the mainline Protestant denominations associated with progressive politics have experienced a steep decline in membership and influence, while American liberalism has become more secular and anti-clerical…liberal theology inevitably empties religion of real power”. Douthat sees Francis’ as “a gift to liberals who are also Christians, to religious believers whose politics lean left” and that concerns him not merely as a conservative but as a traditional Catholic.
From a different vantage point, I happen to agree with Douthat about the affect of liberalism on religion. Without question, progressive religion that invites unfettered questioning and turns once mandated ritual into optional practice has the potential, perhaps greater potential, to endanger faith. A large number of those who have left religion behind come from liberal rather than orthodox religions. Those in the Church who feel Francis comes off as a liberal likely share Douthat’s concerns. Conversely, Goptik and Dowd would probably argue, their concern is unwarranted because where it counts, change is very far away, if ever.
In the last days of his visit, Francis invited Kim Davis to meet with him. The meeting was secret, revealed only after he left. The pope was said to have encouraged Ms. Davis’ moral disobedience. The Vatican has since tried to downplay the meeting and the idea that the pope was taking sides on the issue. The fact is that, while he met with other individuals, Francis singled out this non-Catholic woman for a private talk. The walk back notwithstanding, it should remind us that, as Goptik wrote, “he's the Pope”. In the majority on the marriage equality decision were two Roman Catholic justices — one, Justice Kennedy, wrote it. The pope in the 1960s didn’t make decisions for another Kennedy and, when it comes to our laws, the Constitution prevails.