If President Obama were to propose an expansion of coal production and of fossil fuels, be assured Republicans would be screaming bloody murder, going to court, and finding ways to kill the plan. Clearly any such thing, they would argue, will be bad for people and for the economy — the death of job growth. Remember their paramount rule: before evaluating if something is good, one must first consider the source. Obama = a no vote. Well, we know one person who was applauding when the president announced new restrictive EPA standards some weeks back, the Pope. Francis will be here in the days ahead. He speaks in New York and then at a joint session of Congress on September 24. He is likely to say some things there that won’t get him standing ovations from its majority members. In fact, he’s likely to give many on the right, including some presidential candidates who conflate their religion with party affiliation, some very uncomfortable moments.
First he didn’t want those red shoes or to rest his head in palatial environs. He told bishops to stop building their own palaces. Then he opted for a modest car and started making telephone calls to ordinary folk. Just yesterday he traveled in that Ford Focus to his Rome optician trying out new eyeglass lenses which he then purchased — cost kept him from replacing the frames. Early on he did some reorg of the Vatican and its bank. Out of control for sure. They should have known the moment he took the name Francis — one associated with modesty that no pope had ever used — and could be seen enthusiastically washing the feet of the meek, sick and disadvantaged. Two plus years in, the man who speaks in a quiet oratorical voice, is delivering what the NY Times described as “fiery speeches”. Out of control and making a lot of high placed people in and out of his church very uneasy. Some of them, of course, are counting on outliving him, of quickly putting things “right” the moment he’s been put to rest. A transitional pope, but that’s what they said about John XXIII and you know how that went.
If it weren’t so pathetic the pushback of the religious right against Pope Francis would be laughable. What’s so obviously absurd is that the same people who cheered the clearly partisan statements of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson or the fight waged by American Catholic bishops against the ACA are now complaining that the pope is treading in political waters where he doesn’t belong. Yes, it’s okay for clergy to oppose a woman’s reproductive rights or a gay couple’s making the ultimate commitment of marriage, but not for a pope to take the side of science when it comes to climate change. It’s also okay, even desired, that clergy bless this or that public event, but not for the spiritual leader of Catholics worldwide to challenge the kind of capitalism that is leaving most of its inhabitants behind.
It must be awkward for the Rick Santorum’s of this world — devout Catholics — who claim “not to be scientists” and dismiss the impact of human actions on the atmosphere as unproven theory much as many of them have rejected Darwin and evolution. What to do for those who are so fast to do so, and with such unquestioning conviction, with a spiritual leader who said early on, “Who am I to judge”? This is not to suggest that Pope Francis is a doctrinal liberal — he has yet to make any substantive changes on matters like celibacy, women priests or family planning. He is unlikely to do so. He proclaimed with compassionate reasoning a year’s grace when priests could absolve a woman’s sin of abortion. Yet he hasn’t changed his church’s views on that or on birth control. At the same time, he clearly doesn’t want his church to be disconnected from the world, from either its many problems or from human progress, including scientific exploration and findings. That along with his apparent mistrust of judgments made for purely self-serving economic reasons, puts him on the side of the poor and against those who deny either climate change or our role in bringing it about. He knows those who deny our complicity are, either those whose enterprises are at play or politicians financially dependent on the same vested interests. Mitch McConnell isn’t speaking for the people who go down into dangerous and dirty mines but for the owners who finance his campaigns.
Pope Francis is an appealing and provocative man. He has attracted admirers in and out of the Church. His message resonates for our time and it’s interesting how well it plays into one of the themes of our current politics (certainly for Democrats), income inequality. He is particularly critical of capitalism gone wild, something that makes me think about what’s happening in the Republican controlled Congress and across the land where the GOP has taken old of governorships and legislatures. The consistent message of this group, one that has been central to conservative thinking for a long time, is that government is too big, that we should rely more on free enterprise and the market place. We’ve heard that claim so often that it has blinded us to a simple fact: it’s just the opposite. I think the out-of-control pope sees that with clearer eyes than do we. It isn’t so much that government has gotten too big, but more that business and the free enterprise system has become dangerously bloated. It’s business that is too big to fail and on some profound level too big to employ fairly and serve. Yes, the pope’s views on climate may make some on the right squirm in their seats, but his view about inequality — and by extension out of control capitalism — is what they find truly threatening. That really makes him out of control.