Francis raised our level and civility of discourse, briefly
September 30, 2015 12:00 AM
Pope Francis talks to journalists while en route to Italy after visiting the United States.
By Dan Simpson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
One needn’t be Catholic, or Christian, or even a monotheist, to get Pope Francis. It is necessary only to be human, to have a heart.
I think the pope got to most of us during his visit to the United States. The reason, according to me, was because he took us to larger emotions and larger issues, away from the petty, squalid, corrupt or even murderous concerns that normally preoccupy us in the daily diet fed to us by our media.
I have to confess that what worried me most about the pope’s visit was that some lunatic with a gun would take a shot at him. The massive security surrounding him, competing with his desire to meet the American people, suggests that I was not the only one with that concern. Whether the security measures prevailed or those who might have tried to kill him were driven from their dark desires by the obvious goodness of the man, Francis returned safely from our shores to the Vatican.
Although the pope was careful not to be drawn into the scummy depths of some of our politics, he nonetheless landed right in our wheelhouse with the issues he addressed during his pastoral talk to the joint session of Congress on Thursday. One has to think of the contrast between his approach and the pretentious, nearly nonsensical events that constitute the presidential State of the Union address and speeches by other foreign leaders, such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pitch against the United States signing the Iran nuclear deal.
Francis’ approach was direct yet subtle in both its nuances and its relevance. He first took on immigration and environmental protection. “I too am a son of this great continent ... toward which we share a common responsibility.” And: “A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs ... especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk.” He means the poor and the endangered, not normally congressional concerns.
Francis didn’t say “Planned Parenthood,” but he praised those who “in their own quiet way ... create organizations which offer a helping hand to those most in need.” (“Preach it, Francis.”)
He took a hefty swing at the warmongers. “Our world,” he said, “is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion.” He must have meant some other country. We can’t imagine one that is rapidly making a profitable industry of fighting “Islamic terrorists” and pretends to take seriously at least one presidential candidate who doesn’t grasp our constitution’s bar on making religion a criterion for election to the presidency.
In the legislature of the world’s largest arms seller, he described the money from weapons sales as “drenched in blood” and said it is our duty to “stop the arms trade.” Good luck with that while talking to the enabler of the military-industrial complex, the mother lode of countless campaign contributions.
What carried Francis’ message to Americans most vividly was his choice of four Americans to honor, apart from his canonization of Father Junipero Serra, which turned out to be controversial given the Spanish priest’s role in converting and dealing with Native Americans. The four were Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.
We all understand Lincoln and King, although the latter’s stock continues to rise and fall as attitudes toward voting rights, equal treatment under law and other principles vacillate between reasonable and primitive. Most Americans don’t have the faintest idea who Dorothy Day was. I saw that as Francis’ way of paying tribute to women in the Catholic Church. He doesn’t yet agree to their ordination as priests — or to married male priests for that matter — but he doesn’t want nuns and other female Catholics to feel left out of the picture, which they are, relatively speaking. So he honors Dorothy Day.
Dorothy Day, 1897-1980, was a militant Catholic social activist who helped found the Catholic Worker Movement. It is fair to say she wouldn’t have been a Republican.
Thomas Merton, a writer, mystic and pacifist Trappist monk, stood mightily for peace and justice. His name is on the Thomas Merton Center for Peace and Social Justice in Pittsburgh, which stands up consistently for liberal causes in our city, to the annoyance of conservatives. I have to see it as evidence of Francis’ impish sense of humor that he would choose Ms. Day and Mr. Merton as two of the four Americans to honor while speaking before Congress.
What worries me, though, is whether Pope Francis’ visit will have any impact on the conduct of American affairs. He obviously had a big effect while he was here. He expressed clearly and simply his views on fundamental issues such as poverty, immigration, protection of the environment, war, arms sales, treatment of refugees and the death penalty. Americans saw this good man subtly but clearly advocate humane positions on these issues.
Will we take heed or will we return quickly — almost with relief — to the tawdry trivia that we love so well: Cutting off Planned Parenthood, guessing whether Volkswagen was alone in shafting us on emissions, the choosing of a successor to House Speaker John Boehner and speculating about who will follow nonentity Scott Walker out of the Republican presidential race and whether the Federal Reserve will raise or hold interest rates?
It would be nice to think that the level and civility of discourse in this country was raised long-term by Francis’ visit. He did leave us reference points to work from if we want to.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (dsimpson@post-gazette. com, 412-263-1976).
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