SHAFAQNA – An implicit papal endorsement of Democratic party policy might prove crucial among America’s Catholics in November next year.
Three months ago, on the plane back from Bolivia – where he had excoriated unrestrained capitalism as reeking of “the stench of the dung of the devil” – Pope Francis was asked why he appeared to have so little to say to the middle classes who worked hard and paid their taxes. The pontiff replied that it had been “an error of mine not to think about this”.
Sure enough, in his visit to the US, Francis turned his attention to the winners in the global economy. They may not have been entirely pleased with the outcome.
The pope has been at his most skillful yet as a political operator in the US. As ever, he spoke through actions as much as words. He balanced every event on the grand stage – the White House, Congress, the UN general assembly – with a visit to the homeless, immigrants or prisoners. The little black Fiat he used there was more than a symbol of humility. It was a clear message about the need for everyone to leave a smaller footprint on the planet. Fiat voluntas tua, it will not have escaped him, is the old church Latin for “Thy will be done”.
But his words were masterful. He gently but firmly reprimanded the US bishops for their “harsh and divisive” approach on the culture war issues of abortion and gay marriage. “I have not come to judge you or to lecture you,” he told them, before doing exactly that. His rebuke may have been implied but it was clear. He reiterated that as he left America, exhorting the Catholic church there to be more tolerant and more inclusive.
He embodied, in his own approach, the softer style he was advocating, but, for all that, was uncompromising in presenting messages the American right did not want to hear.
The US bishops – a group significantly more conservative than America’s Catholic laity – had hoped that he would give a roasting to Obamacare for including contraception, and expected him to lambast the US courts for approving gay marriage. Instead, in Philadeplhia, Francis set religious rights in the context of religious responsibilities.
“The dignity of each individual” must be set in the context of “the ideal of a community united by brotherly love,” he said. Liberal individualism, he was saying, must be balanced by social solidarity. And he voiced strong support for immigration in a country where the Republican frontrunner for president, Donald Trump, is advocating rounding up 11 million illegal immigrants and deporting them.
Throughout his American visit the pope’s approach was deft and nuanced, but challenging. He could speak softly because he carried a big stick; he had fiercely denounced unfettered capitalism in his documents Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato si’, which both identified common causes in the rich world’s indifference to the planet and to the poor.
In his address to Congress he accommodated past criticisms of those documents. He genuflected to the wealth-creating power of business and to the problem-solving power of human enterprise, ingenuity and technology. But those must serve the global common good and not just build short-term profit. At present too many poor people get left behind. What was also needed was dialogue, cooperation and consensus to replace an economy of selfishness with one of service.
There were weaknesses in his softly-softly approach. Praising the US bishops for their “courage” in handling sex abuse cases seemed a bizarre response to the criticisms of survivors that the church is still not doing enough. His assertion after meeting victims that “God weeps” is no substitute for swifter action to discipline both predator priests and bishops who cover up for them. He pledged to “follow the path of truth wherever it may lead” and said “clergy and bishops will be held accountable”. But progress on both in the Vatican is painfully slow.
The canonisation of the controversial missionary Junípero Serra, whom many indigenous people see as a sinner rather than a saint, seemed ill-advised. And though Francis went out of his way to warmly endorse the work of US nuns – having ended years of Vatican investigations into them for prioritising work with the poor and marginalised rather than campaigning against abortion – the pope still appears to have little idea how to enhance the role of women in the church. Saying it is time the church valued “the immense contribution” of both nuns and lay women is not enough.
But in other areas his message was provocative and clear. The need to welcome refugees and economic migrants alike was hammered home repeatedly, as he boldly asserted: “We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons.” And his words were stark on those who profit from the arms trade – the US is the world’s biggest arms exporter – in pursuit of “money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood”.
In other ways, too, he was pointed. In St Patrick’s Cathedral – which had just undergone a $177m renovation at the instigation of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who lives in a Madison Avenue mansion, the pope reminded priests, nuns and members of religious orders that they should live simply and guard against the argument that worldly comforts would help them to serve better.
One of the most strikingly nifty pieces of footwork from Francis – who declared in his first interview as pope that the church had been too “obsessed” with abortion – came when he spoke to Congress about the need for “absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions”.
Republicans, accustomed from the previous two popes to papal endorsement of their policy choice, made ready to applaud, only to hear Francis turn sharply to the left with an adamant denunciation of the death penalty. It was a political master-stroke. The word abortion did not once pass his lips, to the chagrin of the American right.
By contrast climate change was virtually the first thing he mentioned when he got off the plane. It hit the poor first and worst, he told the UN. The cry of the poor and the cry of the planet are one and the same. And he pushed beyond the approach of previous popes by drilling down into detail to an unprecedented level. The sustainable development goals would be “an important sign of hope”. There was a need for UN reform, especially the security council and the international financial agencies, to ensure that poor nations “are not subjected to oppressive lending systems”. The US-Iran nuclear deal was to be applauded. And he focused specifically on the coming climate negotiations in Paris.
This pope is a tactician as well as a moralist. All this could have a significant impact in the US. Politically, there has been a shift that could prove pivotal in terms of the quarter of the electorate that identifies as Catholic.
Under the previous two popes, Republicans could count on papal endorsement for their anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage stances. Catholic Democrats, by contrast, had a trickier time, treading a tightrope between voicing respect for the pope and for their electorate on such issues.
Francis has thrown that into reverse; it is Democrat policy preferences that he has endorsed – on inequality, immigration, the death penalty and climate change. The Democrats have been brought in from the papal cold while Republicans speak of feeling “kicked to the kerb”. Catholic bishops will almost certainly feel less gung-ho about endorsing Republicans and refusing communion to Democrats as in the past.
The pope may well have a decisive influence upon the 2016 race for the White House.