By Sydney M. Williams
Francis is perhaps the best loved Pope since John 23rd. John was Pope during my generation’s coming of age – 1958-1963. His predecessor, Pius XII, had been seen by many as stern and too accommodative to the Nazis during their occupation of Rome during World War II. John, in contrast, smiled; he was charismatic and he moved the Church into the present.
What sets Pope Francis apart, besides his beatific countenance, are his simplicity and his love for the poor. In stooping to kiss the wheelchair-bound young girl at St. Patrick’s in New York and the boy with cerebral palsy in Philadelphia, he showed his love for the less fortunate.
In his talk before a joint session of Congress, like the true Jesuit he is, Pope Francis threaded the needle of political partisanship with ease, parceling out comfort and chastisement in roughly equal doses to both sides of the aisle. To the Right, he spoke of the sanctity of life – from its inception. To the Left he talked of climate change and income inequality. (As to the latter, I wonder if Pope Francis, in his youth, had read A Gentleman of Leisure, a novel by P.G. Wodehouse, written in 1910. Wodehouse has Jimmy Pitt say: “Besides, a burglar is only a [practicing] socialist. Philosophers [politicians] talk a lot about the redistribution of wealth. The burglar goes out and does it.”)
In that talk, Francis highlighted four Americans, two of the iconic variety and two lesser knowns, with more questionable curricula vitae. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King are recognized as major forces in American history, with universal appeal. However, in mentioning Dorothy Day, a Catholic convert, and Thomas Merton, a Cistercian monk, the Pope retreated, in my opinion, to ideology. Dorothy Day, along with Peter Maurin, was a founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. She fought for labor, at a time they needed support, and she believed in social justice. But she was also an anarchist, pacifist and redistributionist. In the 1950s, in decidedly less than pacifist prose, she wrote about the need to overthrow “…this rotten, decadent, putrid industrial capitalist system…” She was a supporter of Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh. Typical of many on the Left, she was enamored with what ruthless men said, rather than considering what they did. Despite one of two Cistercian Orders having fallen victim to Chinese Communists, Merton flirted with Communism, as a member of the Young Communist League. In elevating Ms. Day and Father Merton to the same podium as Lincoln and King, the Pope failed to heed Mark Twain’s admonition: “Actions speak louder than words, but not nearly so often.”
At the United Nations, the next day, Pope Francis spoke of the need to maintain a dialogue among nations; that its purpose is to serve the common good; and that it must do this while adhering to the rule of law – with its limitation on power. He avoided the troubling truth that many of the UN members are states without human rights – intolerant states that treat women as chattel, with a few committing Christian genocide. Instead, he highlighted man’s responsibility for the environment in which he lives – that a “true right of the environment” does exist. He pointed out that man “can only survive and develop if the ecological environment is favorable.” He omitted any mention of natural evolutionary changes. He added: “Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity.” He blamed the industrialized West. He assumed that the misuse and destruction of the environment are “also accompanied by a relentless process of exclusion” – that it is the “thirst for power and material prosperity [that] leads to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged.” It is curious that Pope Francis would not acknowledge the role nature has played in climate change over millions of years – the relevance, for example, of the Milankovitch cycle, a theory that states climate change is due, in part, to the earth’s elliptical orbit, the tilt of the planet’s axis and its changing direction. Man has certainly influenced climate, but the flood that made Noah famous was not a consequence of coal from West Virginia. Perspective and science should be permitted into the realm of environmental ideology. The Pope played to the political elite.
Leaving the UN, Francis traveled to Our Lady Queen of Angels in Harlem, a Catholic school that serves 295 mostly Black and Latino students. Before the assembled members of the UN, the Pope was serious, but in front of the children in Harlem he was joyous; he was in his element. That visit, if the expression on his face revealed his inner soul, may have been the highlight of his trip. The school visit was followed by a tour through Central Park and then the celebration of a mass at Madison Square Garden.
On Saturday, the Pope flew to Philadelphia where he spoke at Independence Hall. He spoke of the religious tolerance that place represented. He talked of the value that immigrants have brought to America and the importance of their cultural traditions. At the Vatican-arranged World Meeting of Families Festival, he emphasized the crucial role played by families. Off-script, he added: “The family is like a factory of hope, a factory of Resurrection.”
Like all of us, the Pope is a product of his environment, in his case Argentina and the political and economic upheaval that encompassed that country from his birth to the present. Six years before he was born, seven decades of civilian, constitutional government came to an end when a military junta took over in 1930. This was early in the Great Depression that gripped the world. Argentina has what is known in economics as “comparative advantage.” Their soil and weather favor agriculture. The country is rich in natural resources. By 1913, Argentina was the world’s 10th wealthiest nation, when measured by per capita income. Thirty years later, when Juan Peron seized power, the rule of law was abandoned and property rights curtailed. The wealth of the country fell into the hands of special interests. Corporate/government cronyism has prevailed since. This was the capitalism Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio knew as a young priest.
We can only hope that the Francis’ visit to the U.S has allowed him to see the fruits that a democratic, free-market capitalist society offers, especially to the poor and underserved. Perhaps he is fearful of corporate special interests gaining too much power? That is obviously a risk. But what if a subtler, more insidious risk comes from within – from a bloated government already restrained because of debt and unfunded obligations, and via a President who does not feel constrained by the law he has sworn to uphold?
The Opinions expressed above are mine alone, and do not represent those of the firm Monness, Crespi, Hardt & Co., Inc., or of any of its partners or employees.