Pope Francis' Role In Society (And What It Is Not)

On the eve and in honor of Pope Francis' visit to Philadelphia this is my offering:

I have seen a lot of vitriol going around, at least in my social network, about Pope Francis this week ahead of his visit to the US. I am sure there is much worse floating around but I am going to choose, in the interest of love, to pay no mind to such verbal vomit. I am interested in a close knit group of people whom I know from my days in the Church and activist community, the primary groups I see attacking Pope Francis. 

The most common accusation I have seen floating around is “his stance on LGBT issues.” I do not want to get into the specifics of those issues but, if I may, would like to sidestep them in the interest of drawing a distinction between the personal character of the man and the church/state which he heads. 

If you are paying attention in America there is no shortage of issues to divide us politically. From climate change to healthcare to poverty to oppression to murder and war, we have enough issues to keep us occupied into the next generation. For as many issues as we can name we will have at least twice as many potential solutions and ten times as many opinions. Which of those solutions is chosen as the answer to any given problem is a civic exercise in power, influence, and either democracy or tyranny. In short, how we solve our plethora of problems as a country and world are not dependent on the cognitive stances of more powerful men and women, but how we as people respond to our myriad crises. 

With that said, I want to ask why people expect Pope Francis to agree with them on everything? Even if the man were 100% in alignment with any number of progressive or conservative values, he would still create tension. In this country we are so used to being divided by the powerful and influential that we expect to find problems with our leaders. We are encouraged to identify “the other,” take advantage of their weakness, and beat them into submission. (After all, isn’t that the basis of competitive capitalism that has spilled over into our electoral process?) Personally, I don’t expect a savior anymore. Barack Obama was my last chance for a great political hope and he has let me down left and right. No, I don’t believe in Messiahs anymore. I look inward, to my community, and to our (coming) democracy. 

What folks fail to realize about a leader as unique as the Pope is that he is presiding as a shepherd for billions of people. Those billions of people constitute a community. Communities live by certain social norms which are not subject to the whims, passions, and opinions of those outside it. If you live in a Muslim community you are free to live like a Muslim. If you live in a Jewish community you will observe Jewish law. However, the Muslim does not get to tell the Jewish faithful how to live anymore than the Christian or Atheist gets to tell either of them. Our government’s job is not to tell people how to live but to ensure that we all have the right to live as our cultures see fit (as long as those norms do not conflict with the common good). What I see people doing is expecting Pope Francis (and other powerful world leaders) to leverage his (their) power to validate their worldview. That is not his mission. His mission is twofold: lead his community and project the person of Jesus in the world.

For those who are not familiar with the concept, the Pope is the supposed “Vicar of Christ,” which in layperson’s terms could be interpreted as “Jesus on Earth.” The Vicar stands in the place of Jesus. Now, think back with me. (For those of you who know your Church history this is going to be a mental exercise) When was the last time that we could say that the head of the Catholic Church truly pictured the person of Jesus in his deeds? What Pope Francis says within the confines of his role as leader of the Catholic Church is meant to be instructive for his community. What the man does outside of the walls of his church is to project love, compassion, and tolerance for the world. For the naysayers, have you not read how quickly the Vatican is to undermine the Pope we he speaks out of love? They never fail to quickly retort with a “what Francis said is not the official position of the Catholic Church.” They are afraid that the love he is projecting is infecting a community that has become poisoned from the inside by lies, deceit, and straight up evil for millennia. Remember what I said earlier, as a critical thinker and a student of world history, it is my view that the responsibility of changing community norms, whether they be street, state, community, country, or religion, must come from the inside. It is not the role of those on the outside to redefine a community. Only the members of the tribe can do that. 

Where does that leave us? Pope Francis’ mission to the US is not to tell us how we, as a country, should or ought to function lawfully. That job is mine and yours, and if we want to change and restructure our society to be more fair, liberal (or conservative, depending on your POV), and equal, then we must engage our community and not expect a messiah to fix it for us. Which means that Pope Francis’ views do not affect us. They affect Catholics and if they do not like them then it is their responsibility to rebel or assimilate as they see fit. Our role as non- Catholics in viewing the man is to ask “does he project the character and love of Jesus in the world?” I would say yes. 

Here is a man who refuses to eat with the rich and powerful to dine with the homeless; who chooses to visit prisoners to wash their feet; who sneaks out at night to feed the poor; who installs showers for the homeless in the midst of a monument to empire (the Vatican); who defies police state security measures to receive little children; who stands on the floor of Congress, the high sanctuary of the capitalist empire, to stress the need for a “common humanity” and the “common good.” These are the deeds of a man concerned with love, not hate. 

If the naysayers were correct then he would be romping around New York and DC in Prada shoes paying lip service to the powerful. That is not what I see. What I see is a man who dresses simply, speaks slowly and thoughtfully, and wears his heart, not just on his sleeve, but in his hands, extended for any who would reach for his embrace. That, my friends, is the character of Jesus. "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” What Jesus didn’t say was “pass laws that prohibit abortions, pick yourself up by your bootstraps, and create laws out of the Bible.” 

Western governments, by the grace of God (or Allah or the Universe or the Great Spirit or whatever you choose to call “it”), are designed (ideally, at least) so that cultures can coexist alongside one another without war breaking out over norms. Neither Pope Francis nor the Dalai Llama nor Barack Obama nor Mitch McConnell should be directing the course of our history and laws. That’s our job and, frankly, we are terrible at it, which is why I think we scapegoat greater figures. However, what we can learn from a man like Pope Francis, as opposed to Barack Obama or Mitch McConnell, is that it is our human duty to live in harmony and diversity with one another and the Earth, bound by respect and animated by love. That is a calling we can only answer as individuals, families, and communities. Let us not confuse the role of governments and politics with our own roles as humans in life on this Earth. I don’t agree with all of Pope Francis’ positions myself. I just read a story about how he is against legalizing drugs. Personally, I disagree. I think we need to not lock people up who have substance abuse issues because the private prison companies needs their beds filled to make their dividends. However, that is my responsibility to communicate with my community. It is my responsibility to get involved with the political process to change the laws. Pope Francis is not concerned with the intricacies of US law. He is concerned with leading his community and urging us all forward for the “common good” for our “common humanity.”

If you are looking for a savior, look inside yourself. Pope Francis will not save you. A government designed to make all people act like you think they should act will not save you (e.g. I.S.I.S.). Only you, looking inside of yourself, can find the motivation that is driving you forward. Is it love or is it intolerance and pride? If we think the the LGBT community is not being treated fairly under the law it is our job to confront unjust laws. If we think drug users should not be criminalized for profit but treated as patients out of love then it is our job to confront those unjust laws. No amount of projecting our insecurities onto a head of state will change those laws. If you think they will, then we have much more poignant examples to stand in (Bashir Al-Assad, Yoweri Museveni, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, Kim Jong Un, etc.). 

Pope Francis has not come to the US to solve our societal woes by influencing our laws, nor should he. He has come with a message: compassion for our fellow humans and our Planet. Even if you finish reading this and think to yourself, “Still, he says X, Y, and Z about A, B, and C,” do me a favor and ask yourself a question: if any one of those people (the drug addict, the LGBT community, the Congressman) were to approach Francis what do you think he would do? Would he send them away because he disagrees with them on something intellectually or would he embrace them as Jesus would? Furthermore, ask yourself the same question: if someone who you disagree with spewed vitriol at you and condemned your worldview or a homeless leper approached you on the street or a Wall Street banker asked you for a meal would you send them away or embrace them like Jesus would? Pope Francis helps us ask those questions of ourselves—shall we love?

Shall we be “right” (which is a matter of perspective depending on your communities’ norms) or will we be compassionate? Pope Francis exhibits a life that inspires me toward compassion. If you disagree with him, fine. But realize neither you, nor me, nor he, are “right.” We are all simply people navigating a hard hard life with naught in our hearts but hope. As humans, we are at our best when we put down our weapons and love one another, even embracing those who would call us enemies. Pope Francis lives that life. I hope we can too. So, before we start pointing the finger, let’s point it in the mirror first.