Pope Francis did not come to Washington to side with one political party — and, predictably, there was something in what the pope had to say for both Republicans and Democrats to dislike. Yet taken as a whole, Francis’s remarks amounted to an unmistakable rebuke — implicit and perhaps unintended, but nonetheless stinging — of the Republican Party and its leading presidential candidates.
For retired neurosurgeon and continuing anti-Muslim bigot Ben Carson, who attended the first-ever papal address to Congress, Pope Francis had a message about the imperative for religious tolerance. “We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind,” Francis said.
This was a gentle reminder to the Carsons of the world that Islam has no monopoly on maniacal behavior in the defense of religion.
“But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners,” he added. “The contemporary world . . . demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps.” So much for Carson’s ignorant division on the basis of religion.
To Donald Trump and the rest of the send-them-back crowd, Francis was even more direct. “On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children?” Francis asked. “We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.”
Which is more depressing: that it takes a pope to remind the Republican Party of the Golden Rule, or that his admonition is likely to have so little impact on Trump and his ilk?
To the flock of Republican candidates who oppose normalizing relations with Cuba, Francis made clear his support for President Obama’s move toward “the path of dialogue.”
Similarly, to the GOP climate-change denialists arrayed before him, the pope restated his “call for a courageous and responsible effort to ‘redirect our steps’ and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity.”
At the White House a day earlier, Francis was even more pointed: “Mr. President, I find it encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution. . . . Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation.” Except, that is, for those who deny its existence.
In political terms, if not in religious ones, the pope’s message was decidedly, and unsurprisingly, mixed. Catholic doctrine, long before Francis, has blended — indeed, transcended — traditional left-right divisions. The church’s concern for society’s most vulnerable puts it in line with Republicans on abortion rights, with Democrats on the death penalty, poverty programs and immigration.
Thus, Republicans found cause to cheer when Francis noted that the Golden Rule “reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” Earlier, his White House remarks included a pointed reminder of the importance of religious freedom, followed up — in case anyone missed the message — with a surprise visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor, the group that tangled with the Obama administration over the mandate to provide contraceptive coverage.
But for the most part, the statements that put Francis in line with conservatives were muted and indirect — as when, in a year that saw the Supreme Court legalize same-sex marriage, he said, “Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.”
By contrast, the pope was explicit not only on immigration and climate change, but also on the death penalty and arms trading with “money that is drenched in blood.” If his critique of capitalism was more muted than at other times, Francis spoke of the “creation and distribution of wealth,” and lauded radical worker rights’ activist Dorothy Day.
Francis reminded lawmakers of their calling, “the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good . . . the chief aim of all politics.”
Good luck with that. He may be the pope; he is not a miracle worker.