If you are a Catholic, I hope you are not offended by what I am about to say. But as a non-Catholic, I do not recall ever being asked, by any member of the media, about my thoughts concerning Pope Benedict. I was never asked for an opinion regarding his stances, or what they mean for my church – which exists on the basis of rejection of the Pope’s leadership – or my faith, or my political allegiances. I was not asked once in my life what his words would do to impact my life or my opinions, or how they posed a problem, or whether they would change things. In fact, I was not asked those questions about any Pope at all, since I am not, like many non-Catholic Americans, in the business of thinking of Popes as anything other than traffic problems in funny hats.
But this Pope? This Pope, I am asked to defend and to respond to, because he has raised those questions, serious questions, questions we cannot ignore because of the issues he highlights and the problems he addresses. He, the media has decided, is different. Now we can talk about Popes, we must talk about Popes, because there are things they say that matter.
Rachel Lu, one of our Catholic contributors at The Federalist, has today written a skeptic’s guide to Pope Francis’s visit. It is quite useful.
“Pope Francis is rolling into town, and that means we’ll be hearing plenty of pope talk. As a preview of coming attractions, allow me to paraphrase the vast majority of what will be said: “I know very little about Catholicism or Pope Francis, but I don’t like feeling left out of the conversation, especially because I have a vague, general interest in religion and/or spirituality. To prove my expertise, I found something dumb the pope said once, and I’m going to rant about it. Alternatively, I may express the wild hope that the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church will have a moment of temporary insanity in which he decides to agree with me about X, even though my views on this are wildly incongruous with the teachings of the Catholic faith.” There! You may now safely disregard 80 percent of what people write about Pope Francis over the course of his visit to the United States. Now, in the spirit of Franciscan mercy, take the time I’ve saved you and go help a kitten out of a tree.”
Rachel’s piece is, of course, accurate, as her pieces are… but there is also something more about this Pope that raises my hackles. If you have not read it, I would encourage you all to read this full transcript of the Pope’s interview on the plane from Cuba to America. It does not read like an interview with a faith leader, but with a politician. He is leaving a meeting with an explicitly anti-Christian Communist dictator, and he is being asked why he would glad-hand with a dying tyrant while ignoring the many dissidents who wanted to meet with him. He even suggests that those who accuse him of political idiocy are extremists who assess him on the basis of his shoes instead of his ideas. The interview reads like one of a cornered politician, defensive and old, not crafty enough to work around the not very clever questions from journalists. The part where he offers “Hey, maybe one of the wheelchair guys was a dissident?” reads like a line from Veep. They are the answers of somebody embarrassed by the real answer.
This is not always the way it was. Contrast with John Paul II, on 2 June 1979, in Warsaw. He was 59 to Francis’s 78, a young Pope, a Polish Pope, speaking less than a year after his selection. He was speaking in the heart of Soviet military power in Eastern Europe, an occupied capital, under the guns. Over a million people turn out to see him. It is perhaps the largest Mass in the history of the Catholic Church… until the following week in Krakow, when two million will turn out. He is standing in a city run by a government dedicated to atheistic Communism, to subservience to Soviet power, to the rejection of faith and the domination of every thought to the service of the collective.
“Therefore Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe, at any longitude or latitude of geography. The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man. Without Christ it is impossible to understand the history of Poland, especially the history of the people who have passed or are passing through this land. The history of people. The history of the nation is above all the history of people. And the history of each person unfolds in Jesus Christ. In him it becomes the history of salvation….
“It is therefore impossible without Christ to understand the history of the Polish nation—this great thousand-year-old community—that is so profoundly decisive for me and each one of us. If we reject this key to understanding our nation, we lay ourselves open to a substantial misunderstanding. We no longer understand ourselves. It is impossible without Christ to understand this nation with its past so full of splendour and also of terrible difficulties. It is impossible to understand this city, Warsaw, the capital of Poland, that undertook in 1944 an unequal battle against the aggressor, a battle in which it was abandoned by the allied powers, a battle in which it was buried under its own ruins—if it is not remembered that under those same ruins there was also the statue of Christ the Saviour with his cross that is in front of the church at Krakowskie Przedmiescie. It is impossible to understand the history of Poland from Stanislaus in Skalka to Maximilian Kolbe at Oswiecim unless we apply to them that same single fundamental criterion that is called Jesus Christ….
“Today, here in Victory Square, in the capital of Poland, I am asking with all of you, through the great Eucharistic prayer, that Christ will not cease to be for us an open book of life for the future, for our Polish future.
“We are before the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In the ancient and contemporary history of Poland this tomb has a special basis, a special reason for its existence. In how many places in our native land has that soldier fallen! In how many places in Europe and the world has he cried with his death that there can be no just Europe without the independence of Poland marked on its map! On how many battlefields has that soldier given witness to the rights of man, indelibly inscribed in the inviolable rights of the people, by falling for “our freedom and yours”!
“…. All that I embrace in thought and in my heart during this Eucharist and I include it in this unique most holy Sacrifice of Christ, on Victory Square. And I cry—I who am a Son of the land of Poland and who am also Pope John Paul II—I cry from all the depths of this Millennium, I cry on the vigil of Pentecost:
“Let your Spirit descend.
“Let your Spirit descend.
“and renew the face of the earth,
“the face of this land.”
We want God!
We want God!
We want God in the family!
We want God in books!
We want God in schools!
We want God in government!
We want God!
We want God!
The men with guns could only watch, and see in this spontaneous chant the beginning of the end of their tyrannical atheist empire.
The change did not happen overnight. It was a decade’s worth of work by Pope John Paul II that brought change, that brought down the wall, that ended tyranny in Europe and the subjugation of millions. In 1987, he went back to Poland, gave a speech at Gdansk, and made sure to use the word “solidarity” six or seven times in his sermon. Talks on power sharing opened soon after. And the world changed.
The Pope is one of the few prominent people in the world who can change the conversation simply by saying things that others cannot. This Pope, to me, says the things many others say, all the time and everywhere, in the pages of the New York Times. So it is odd that he is deployed so frequently by the media – not because he is saying anything interesting, but because he is saying what is familiar to them, what they recognize, what they see in themselves. They look at those remarks on the plane and find them useful and brave. I find them tedious and cowardly.
But then, I am not in the business of having Popes.