I have followed Pope Francis since he has become pope – going from expecting nothing out of him or the Catholic Church to becoming gradually more and more excited. He inspires a combination of confused reaction in those who disagree with or fear him and a sort of stunned elation in those who do like him. I expected his visit to the United States to be impactful but I didn’t expect it to be like it was.
His first stop, in Cuba was but a prelude to what was to come. There is a truly fantastic picture of him visiting Fidel Castro in his home in which Fidel looked a bit stunned. It wasn’t the first pope a Castro had ever met with – John Paul II famously reached out to Cuba during his tenure – but the look on Fidel’s face was much like what was to come from the most powerful figures in the United States.
Barack Obama’s grin was ear to ear as Francis arrived in the United States – a man who looked tired, stressed and withdrawn suddenly looked a kid on board for the ride. The most emotional response, of course, came from House Speaker John Boehner. Boehner started crying several times during the Pope’s appearance – in a speech outside of the capitol and, later, during the Pope’s address to congress.
In his resignation speech, it became clear that Pope Francis had an impact on Boehner. He referred to Francis addressing congress as an “awesome sight” and said that he hoped we “would all heed his call to live by the Golden Rule.” He led in from that to saying, soon after, he decided “today is the day I’m going to do this” – this being resigning not just from the position of House Speaker but from a large position of authority in the Republican Party. He then referenced the pope grabbing him, off camera, and telling him to “pray for me.”
It’s unlikely that a committed Republican like Boehner will suddenly become a liberal Democrat or some form of socialist. However, there is precedent – anyone who has ever become an apostate conservative, as I did, has had moments when things just simply weren’t making sense and something or other, things that may be just normative in the liberal or progressive world, suddenly push you out of that world completely. For Colin Powell, visiting the grave of someone killed in the Iraq war, which he helped make the case for, was that moment. Alot of my more cynical friends said it was just theater and that he knows how to act but I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw Boehner appearing with more left of center causes, especially of the religious bent, just as Powell has had a rebirth as a center left speaker and activist. Certainly much of the right wing response to his resignation, defecated out by the worst elements of the right wing world and not fit for elaborate detail in an article like this one, illustrates that Boehner would be better suited for the left end of the spectrum, even if only its more moderate circles. Francis is the real deal – something that anyone who meets him apparently recognizes – and once he has met and appreciated the real deal, he’ll have a hard time with the chimpanzees of the American right.
The United States is a broken place and a place whose brokenness stings harshest for those old enough to remember when it was the only place really intact in a wounded world. Francis unapologetically touched on this brokenness in terms very difficult to disagree with. There was no doubt that America’s mass shooting problem, which graduated from a few isolated cases in the late 1990s to something now pretty close to a small scale civil war with many of the shootings (like the South Carolina and Santa Barbara ones) driven by racial or sexual resentment, drove his statements about the “arms trade:”
“Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money – money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and stop the arms trade.”
It became clear too that America had its own impact on Jorge Bergoglio, the Pope himself. He sounded quite warm and got a nice reception as he said it was nice, before congress, to be here in “the home of the brave,” something, like a “free country,” that I haven’t heard the United States described as for a few years. In his speech before congress, he cited both Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, figures famous in religious and radical circles certainly but not really outside of those chambers, as great American figures along with Dr. Martin Luther King. Reports I read from the Vatican cited that Francis asked the pilot to circle the Statue of Liberty a few times in the last days of his trip, growing emotional during the experience.
As a left wing writer writing on the Pope for a leftist journal, I can’t take my own inclinations at face value. There were many responses to the Pope’s historic visit, including a good one by Colin Wilson at Jacobin – “The Meaning Of Pope Francis.” Wilson noted that “it was so much easier to have an opinion about Francis’s predecessor – Benedict XVI was simply, everyone could agree, a reactionary, and not even a very effective reactionary.” Unlike John Paul II, who was more conservative than Francis but comparatively popular, Benedict was a relic who confirmed the absolute worst suspicions about religious institutions as protectors of ancient wealth and privilege.
Wilson noted that religion is ambivalent and that Francis is not unusual – his complexities reflect the intellectual and emotional power of religion. Wilson notes that religion can reinforce “reactionary ideas,” such as an unthinking rejection of scientific discovery and “encourage people to reject political activity, because they will get their reward in heaven.” That’s of course typical left wing criticism, however he adds that religion “can also inspire people to a belief in their own dignity, that the powerful of the earth are as mortal and fallible as anyone else and that fighting for justice is one of the best things of which people are capable.”
Such writing is heartening and to hear a writer in a left wing journal speak that way shows that Francis is certainly successful in his impact. There was a time, only years ago, when to be religious in America meant to be a fan of The 700 Club or the like of Joel Osteen or Billy Graham. Such figures are now on the periphery of American politics, represented by presidential candidates like Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee, who run perpetually with little chance of winning.
Wilson’s article was more optimistic. Another article in Jacobin called “A People’s Church?” recognized that Francis is truly a source of progress but tried to insist and confirm leftist resentment towards religion by saying that him, along with figures like Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero, were “scores of other progressive Catholics constitute a minority tradition within the church that has consistently bucked its heirarchy in favor of the oppressed.” This is simply pure nonsense. Benedict never brought a major American politician to tears as Francis did for Boehner, much less get the sort of crowds that Francis has. Francis is the foremost Christian figure on planet earth – not some marginal Christian writing theology in solitude. He is the face of Christianity in our time – leftists are going to have to accept this lest they start to seem like the sad reactionaries, holding on to old prejudices, that they so hated about the Right in the first place.
The crowds that Francis received reflected a country that needs healing. Francis brought the adoring charisma he displayed in the Philippines and South America to the United States and pleasantly surprised many of us by showing that Americans are just as receptive. There is more corporate and profit driven conditioning to make us feel less human than people in developing countries experience but we haven’t stopped being human yet. From embracing a small girl who asked him to urge the president or congress to legalize her undocumented parents to kissing a child with cerebral palsy, Francis’ humanity was bold and hard to deny.
Karl Marx infamously said that religion is the “opium of the people,” with opium at the time of Marx being an extremely popular narcotic that both helped people in seriously pain and also dulled them from reality. Marx was a brilliant prophet and his “opium” comments were not as harsh in context as they were later made to be by despots like Chairman Mao. That full quotation, from A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s’ Philosophy of Right, adds that “religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”
Religion, as defined, is “an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.” Francis seems to be working overtime to do the last part of that definition as much as one man can. The hostility toward religion on the Left was never a constructive thing and never will be – it in fact is as reactionary as anything on the Right, prejudging the nature of an entire world of thought without actually exploring it – and more than a few left wing causes, from the end of segregation to the end of apartheid, were achieved by appealing to powers greater than ourselves. Francis seems to have broken through to people who should be hostile toward him for many reasons, stunning them as an “awesome sight” of love, humility and compassion. I hope that we can keep this momentum going. Who knows what we could achieve if we do?