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The Pope and Politics

September 28, 2015

I am amazed at all the news coverage that focused on the pope’s visit to the U.S.  NBC Nightly News devoted almost half their program for several nights (or so it seemed to me) to showing us large crowds and a smiling pope.  I am grateful for a pope whose humble nature and inviting spirit is opening the hearts of so many Catholics as well as non-Catholics.

I am also surprised that there are people who accuse the pope of meddling in politics and social issues.  Some say that because he’s not a scientist he has no business making pronouncements about climate change.  Others say that because he’s not an economist he lacks credibility when he critiques capitalism.  He should just stick to religion.

But what is religion?  In the Judeo-Christian tradition it is loving God and loving your neighbor.  Pope Francis speaks out about things like climate change, capitalism, wealth and poverty, and abortion because he’s trying to help us love our neighbors.  He is wanting us to look at contemporary issues and situations from a deeply moral point of view–as if all human beings are equally valuable, embodying God’s image.  That is religion.

If Pope Francis were truly meddling in politics–acting like a politician instead of a religious leader–then he would be endorsing a political party and doing all in his power to achieve success for that party while undermining the influence of any others.  But as far as I can tell, Francis is ignoring political parties.  He is appealing equally to everyone.  He is urging all of us to act with more compassion and protection toward the most vulnerable and victimized.  He is doing this as consistently as he can–regardless of whether that results in our pet political ideology being challenged or not.  He is an equal opportunity offender.

Pope Francis may be wrong in some of his moral assessments.  He’s not God.  But at least he is morally sincere and consistent, and that makes him different from any political party (and most politicians) I know of.  Political parties and politicians almost always put their own advantage first.  If they don’t, they usually don’t get re-elected.  That means that the stands and statements they make are shaped as much by poll numbers as by what they really believe is morally right.  They exaggerate if that helps their cause; they remain silent if that gives them a benefit.  Some politicians draw a lot of support from attacking what they consider a corrupt and compromising political establishment.  They style themselves as un-politicians who speak the truth no matter who gets offended.  But they may turn out to be the biggest liars with the most narrow moral vision.

Pope Francis is popular, partly at least, because he is not crafting his message for the sake of votes.  He is popular because in a world of grasping self-interest, he is a gentle and compassionate voice calling us to our better natures.

Pastors and preachers everywhere could learn from this man.  I’m no Francis, and my viewpoint is surely limited and biased, but inspired by Francis’s example to speak morally to those in power, let me challenge both sides of American politics:

Republican Party:  I am glad for your commitment to fiscal restraint and responsibility, to cutting away unhelpful bureaucracy and inefficiency, to compassion for the unborn; but I wish you believed enough in health, education and roads to pay for them through taxes.  I wish you would work cooperatively with Democrats for the common good.  I wish you would put fairness above profits.  I wish you would help the poor as much as you help the rich.  I wish you would be more faithful to the facts and to the most reliable assessments from non-partisan sources.  I wish you would create hope instead of creating fear.

Democratic Party:  I am glad for your commitment to the environment, to expanding rights and treating everyone equally; but I wish you were more committed to allowing and understanding contrary and “politically incorrect” voices.  I wish you were humble instead of haughty.  I wish you appreciated religion instead of hiding it.  I wish you would have the courage to fix Social Security and other entitlement programs so they can be viable.  I wish you would put morality above technology.  I wish you would honor human dignity for the unborn.

The Christian faith does not and cannot be in the pocket of a political party (or the cheerleader for a particular nation).  The Christian faith is based on trust in God and following the self-giving love of Jesus.  It is not based on wielding power and political advantage.  The church does not seek to rule any nation.  It must be free to be the conscience and critic of the nation–just as the prophets of Israel were.

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