The Pope’s Vital Visit to America
by Conrad Black (October 2015)
Pope Francis’s visit to Cuba and the United States last week was another tour de force, and he remains the supremely agile and likeable incumbent on a high-wire where he is admired by a full range of Catholic opinion, enjoys great popularity generally, and continues to leave the anti-Catholic Western media and conventional adherents to the multi-state established religion of atheism mute and gape-mouthed in their inability to torment him and his institution, as they did his predecessors, as an anachronism. It became much more difficult, once he said, in reference to those of homosexual orientation in the clergy who maintained their vows of sexual abstinence, “Who am I to judge?” and after he made the point in his famous interview with Civiltà Cattolica that it was not the role of the Roman Catholic Church to scold people about their sex lives but to be the ark of the Christian message and that all souls were of equal importance. The numerous media choristers and other purveyors of conventional wisdom, who had been catechismally incanting for years that the Roman Church was just a hypocrisy-and-superstition factory run by a creaking gerontocracy of celibates and closet queens trying to put a hex on any non-marital sex, have become steadily more impatient to find a new line of attack. This visit did not provide it.
In Cuba, all eyes were on whether the pope would meet the Ladies in White, the heroic group of women who are relatives of victims of the Castros’ Stalinist totalitarian state. They were invited to his main religious service and there are conflicting reports about whether some were invited to meet with him privately, but most were prevented by the regime from leaving their homes. There is a legitimate concern about this pope’s indulgence of Communist-atheist regimes in Latin America, though his views in this area are unclear. No one can blame him for not making a public issue of the Ladies in White. He was on what amounted to a state visit, and it is not done to denounce the host country on such occasions, and it has not been done in modern times, apart from General de Gaulle’s somewhat loopy attempt to incite Quebec to secede from Canada when on an official visit to Canada in 1967 to observe the centenary of the Canadian Confederation that he was trying (unsuccessfully) to disrupt.
As the pope’s visit to Cuba and the U.S. approached, religious and secular conservatives who feared he was moving left, and skeptics who suspected he had been making only tokenistic gestures of liberality, were ready to find fault. Francis heads a universal Church of over 1.2 billion people on all populated continents, and is sworn to uphold basic Catholic and Christian precepts and to take sensible positions on contemporary secular issues, but not to be a secular politician changing his views and those of the institution he heads on important matters to keep abreast of mobile opinion. Thomas Sowell, an intelligent man of the Right, declared his dismay at the pope’s shilly-shallying even before he left Rome. He had “created political controversy, both inside and outside the Catholic Church, by blaming capitalism for many of the problems of the poor. We can no doubt expect more of the same during his visit to the United States. Pope Francis is part of a larger trend of the rise of the political Left among Catholic intellectuals. He is, in a sense, the culmination of that trend.”
The last is a hazardous assertion, as one never knows what will come next, but Sowell went on to cite Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker (the movement and its newspaper), and an apostate from atheism, who had had an abortion and a child out of wedlock as a promiscuous feminist leftist, and became a rigorous Catholic champion of the poor who fought tooth and nail with the Communists for the support of the same constituency from the Thirties to the Seventies, and became a pacifist who opposed responding militarily to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. She attacked her archbishop, Francis Cardinal Spellman, for claiming that a grave-diggers’ strike was “Communist-inspired” (it wasn’t), and is sometimes considered a potential saint. In mentioning her, Thomas Sowell was prescient, as the pope put Dorothy Day with Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and the mystic Catholic writer and member of the contemplative Cistercian order in Kentucky, Thomas Merton, as illustrative of American idealism. (Merton was also an ex-atheist and a former nominal Protestant, who became an American only at the age of 34.)
Sowell overreaches somewhat in alleging that the U.S. Catholic Church had started to go horribly wrong in the 1980s when it embraced the atheist Thomas Paine and the Enlightenment of the 18th century in a pastoral letter from the American bishops about the economy. There followed, in Sowell’s column, a cogent dismissal of the evils of the French (and other) Revolutions and the point that most of America’s poor would, in Mexico, be part of the middle class. The pastoral letter objected to was never claimed to bind Catholics, it has been superseded, and paying lip service to Paine does not mean endorsing his religious views. (Theodore Roosevelt admired his revolutionary tracts for the American founders, but considered him “a filthy little atheist.”)
At no point in his visit to the U.S. did the pope attack capitalism. Francis said to the Congress that “business is a noble vocation directed to producing wealth and improving the world,” especially when it creates jobs. He certainly championed the poor, as he did the prisoner (a particularly apposite concern, consistent with his two predecessors, considering the appalling state of U.S. criminal justice, with its 99.5 percent conviction rate, 97 percent without a trial, and its absurdly high incarceration rates). He politely recommended abolishing the death penalty, which many of the states of the Union have done, and continued on the fine environmental line he had taken in his recent encyclical Laudato Si: Environmental challenges must be met, especially environmental deterioration caused by man, and “climate change can no longer be left to a future generation.” But he did not depart from the encyclical’s statement that the Church “cannot substitute itself for politicians and scientists.” He called for “courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a culture of care and an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time, protecting nature.”
There is nothing in this to justify Thomas Sowell’s foreboding; the pope has to be consistent with the Catholic tenets of the sanctity of life, while not leaving it a sitting duck as a humbug shop prudishly wagging a finger over sex but as mute as a cigar-store Indian about all current issues. Most of the pope’s critics are, on the one hand, rigid traditionalists who resent any departure in any direction from threats of anathema and damnation over what are now the common sexual practices and current mores of most communicants and, on the other, haters of the Roman Church frustrated that it has escaped from the crosshairs of those who had made a career of pillorying it as a hotbed of clerical killjoys and perverts.
The American media’s most prominent disaffected Roman Catholic, Maureen Dowd, in the New York Times on September 27, fully credited the pope’s star power and presentational talent, and some reforms, but lamented his failure to enhance the role of women in the Church. The day before, in the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan, an independent-minded practicing Roman Catholic, expressed relief and pleasure that the pope who appeared in the United States, and especially at the Congress, was the “Pope Francis [who] knows wealth and power are a moral hazard. He does not want man reduced to a commodity. . . . He opposes the throwaway culture in which the old and the vulnerable are expendable.” And she was correspondingly relieved not to see that version of the pope whom she likens to “Uncle Frank in the attic, . . . who endorses secular political agendas, who castigates capitalism in language that is both imprecise and heavily loaded.” This is fair comment from both writers, but if the pope is going to change the official policy toward women priests, he isn’t going to do it on a visit to the United States.
In the Congress, he got a very gracious reception to a very conciliatory address, including from many senators and congressmen who inexplicably cheered and applauded favorable references to things they strenuously oppose, such as Latin American immigration and his opposition to abortion. (He made subtle mention of the latter, saying that we must protect human life “at every stage of its development.”) He drew the usual huge crowds, millions in New York and about 1.5 million in Philadelphia. No occupant of his position will please everyone, but there is a good deal of evidence that the Roman Catholic Church is strengthening appreciably in many places, and that the deafening proclamations and smug assumptions of its imminent demise have again been proved false. Francis enjoys far greater prestige and popularity than any secular leader, and he represents something a good deal more compelling than any current statesman; his first visit to the world’s most important country was a distinct success.
First published in National Review Online.
Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership and Rise To Greatness: A History of Canada from the Vikings to the Present.. He was the chairman of the Telegraph newspapers in Britain, 1987-2003, and founded the National Post in Canada, where he remains a columnist. He also writes in the National Review Online and Huffington Post. He has been one of Canada's best known financiers for 35 years and has returned to that occupation, and has been a member of the British House of Lords since 2001.
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