Here in America, this last week has been a big deal for all sorts of groups. For my people, there was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. For my Muslim cousins, there was Eid-al-Adha, one of that faith’s two supreme annual festivals. For the political junkies, there was John Boehner’s resignation as Speaker of the House, which could result in chaos in that chamber of Congress. But let’s face it – none of those was the story of the week. Just as this summer was the Summer of Trump, this fall is promising to be the Autumn of the Pope. His visit to DC, New York and Philadelphia is mesmerizing us all and may well leave an indelible impact on our national consciousness. At a minimum, Francis is pointing out much of what’s wrong with America. The question is, will he inspire us to do anything about our problems?
While campaigning in the wake of a Presidential impeachment, George W. Bush pledged to be a “uniter, not a divider.” Eight years later, Barack Obama successfully ran on that same platform, demonstrating that Americans are clearly looking for such a figure. But just as clearly, both of our last two Presidents have failed miserably in that regard. Apparently, if we hope to reduce the amount of polarization in our society, the antidote must come from a realm other than politics.
On the surface, the realm of religion might be the last place to look for that antidote. For years, it has been the exclusive province of the hard right. Whether you’re talking about Christians, Jews, or Muslims, religion has come to be associated with social conservatism. By contrast, the progressives who advance a more libertine social agenda rarely discuss religion, and some even mock those who bring their faith into public policy discussions. What’s more, the two teams that line up to fight each other on social issues tend for the most part to be the same two teams that go to battle on economic and foreign policy issues. As a result, if a person is devoutly religious, they are highly likely to be found on the “right” of all these societal debates, and if a person is unabashedly secular, they are likely to be found on the “left” – with both sides treating the other dismissively, if not disdainfully.
Enter Pope Francis. He’s religiously devout, but hardly a conservative. He’s critical, but always respectful. He has a fighting spirit, but his weapon is love.
Francis is a man with a vision – and it’s not the vision held by either of our polarized camps. If you’re looking for him to support abortion rights, think again. If you view the right of gays to marry as a no-brainer, here’s a great brain who wants all marriages to be “traditional.” Then again, if you believe that a fetus has a right to life but a convicted murderer does not, don’t expect agreement from Francis. Nor should you expect him to look the other way about climate change, poverty, or xenophobia. Francis cares most about those who are the most helpless – the poor, the prisoner, the fetus, the endangered species, the ice cap.
Do I agree with Francis on every issue of public policy? No. But then again, who does? For progressives, he’s too traditional. For traditionalists, he’s too heretical. Personally, I don’t see Francis as a philosopher with a compellingly coherent system of ideas. I see him instead as an almost prophetic figure – a man who sees a great evil and is passionate about confronting it.
Is the evil unbridled capitalism? Environmental degradation? Abortion? Xenophobia? Gay marriage? One or more of those things may indeed be evil, but that’s not the main point of Francis’ mission. He has come to our shore to preach about polarization and all the crap that comes with it. All the ridicule, the sarcasm, the incivility, the disrespect, the unwillingness to listen to the “other.” He has come to unify us so that we can return to a time when we were taking on great causes – like fighting the Nazis or putting a man on the Moon. He is a reminder that this is a land where men like Jefferson and Adams could become loving correspondents whose letters dripped with mutual admiration, even though they were once political enemies of the first order.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” There is little if anything in my Torah or in Francis’s Gospels that is more uplifting than that sentence. And yet it was written by a slave owner who had an affair with one of his slaves. Such is the human condition, my friends – we are capable of great beauty and great ugliness. All of us. Even this Pope.
You see, I can behold him and see a remarkable example of a man who is nearly perfect for his time. I can admire his heart, his courage and his wisdom and thank God for the fact that he is now the leader of one of our great faiths. But I can also infer from the fact that he is a member of our species that he is also a “sinner” – capable of hurting the poor, degrading the environment, disrespecting marriage, demeaning the immigrant, taking human life …. As Pope Francis recognizes, he needs our prayers, just like we need his.
On Yom Kippur, every Jew is required to recite a litany of sins that “we” have committed, and they include some pretty nasty things. We take pride in the fact that our greatest Prophet, Moses, “sinned” and thus was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. We constantly remind ourselves that to be human is to be flawed, despite how much promise and potential beauty we all have.
But it is precisely because we are flawed that we must have compassion for one another and especially for the neediest among us – which is one of Pope Francis’s central principles. And it is precisely because we are flawed that we must resist the temptation to demonize our political opponents or to envision in our mind some sort of cosmic battle between those who agree with our politics and those who don’t. And once we do deal with the “other” compassionately and they show the same courtesy to us, we will find that we do indeed have plenty of common ground. For it is in nobody’s interest to degrade the environment, strip the poor or the foreigner of dignity, undermine the institution of marriage, or destroy human life.
Personally, I don’t intend to adopt the Pope’s views on gay marriage. Nor will I oppose a woman’s right to choose. But I will take his visit as an opportunity to remind myself that marriage is an institution to be venerated above virtually all other institutions on earth. And that whether or not a fetus is a “person” it is quite literally a “human life,” and that anyone who is preparing to have sex has obligations not to toy with the prospect that they may create such a life if they are not careful.
As for my more conservative brothers and sisters, I certainly hope they will take the Pope’s visit as an opportunity to remind themselves that we are not doing well by our nation’s poor or our world’s environment, and that if the private sector can’t or won’t solve those problems, the government may be needed to lend a hand. Most importantly, though, let’s all try, just a little bit, to emulate the spirit of this Pope – the warmth, the gentleness, the civility, the compassion. It is that spirit that has the potential to bring us all together. And it is that togetherness that has the potential to lift us to great heights – as a nation, as a species, and as a planet.