By David K. Shipler
Washington’s adoring reception of Pope Francis has been cleansing. Scrubbed of the toxic rhetoric that passes for debate in this town, his simple truths have been elevating. His calls for human decency have been inspiring. His embrace of dialogue as he faced Congress this morning was not merely a pleading but a moral teaching. And despite the tiresome babble of CNN commentators trying to squeeze his various messages into familiar political boxes, Francis summoned the best in America with a challenge to lift our gaze beyond those boundaries and see again, with exhilarating clarity, the reasons for our great ideals.
You do not have to be Catholic, or even religious, as I am not. You do not have to agree with every view that Francis holds, as I do not, to see him as a hero, a secular hero badly needed in the tumultuous vacuum of righteousness that afflicts our time.
The modern era has precious few: Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Mikhail Gorbachev (if you’re not a Russian who detests him), Malala Yousafzai (have you forgotten her already?).
We need heroes. We need figures to admire. We need our lives driven by something larger than ourselves. We need to play a part in a higher purpose. Occasionally, someone of goodness, or a mission of virtue, comes along to satisfy this yearning. As often, probably more often, it is someone of malice—or a corrupted idea. Religion can be either. As Francis said today, “Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion. We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism.”
Political leaders rarely lead, and so they rarely fill the emptiness. When they do, they sometimes become the vessels of unrealistic hope, as Barack Obama did during his first presidential campaign in 2008. Or they capture a population’s anxieties and angers by bullying “others,” by painting simplistic fictions over complex realities, and by conveying absolute certainty about everything they say.
This is Donald Trump: tough, combative, boastful, hostile to ambiguity—a demagogue meeting a need. This is Vladimir Putin, trying to cure a Russian sense of loss and humiliation with a strong hand at the top and a swagger back onto the world stage. This is ISIS, fabricating a totalitarian version of Islam to draw recruits disfigured by disillusionment and drift. This is the white nationalist movement of America, armed with the conviction that white Christians are victims. The hunger for heroes is not always uplifting.
Yet Pope Francis warned against “the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.”
That vote of confidence in Americans was skillfully cast by a Pope who somehow knew how to feel his audience’s pulse of pride and striving. He made us think well of ourselves by celebrating four Americans as gateways into an exploration of the common good: Abraham Lincoln; Martin Luther King Jr.; Dorothy Day, the socialist advocate of the poor and co-founder of The Catholic Worker; and Thomas Merton, the Catholic thinker, writer, and social activist for racial equality and peace.
A moment of reflection, however, leads to the uncomfortable facts that the first two were assassinated, the third arrested repeatedly in demonstrations, and the fourth excoriated for his political views by both the Catholic and non-Catholic establishments. Heroes, it seems, are bred by contention and nurtured by rejection. Take the views of many in the House chamber today, turn the clock back and imagine them in the 1860s or the 1960s, and you would not hear them singing the praises of Lincoln or King. Even now, they would brand Day and Merton as leftist enemies.
Significantly, Francis has to transcend political labels to hold high moral principles. One can quarrel with his opposition to gay marriage and abortion, as I would, but his consistent honoring of life led him to a strong statement to Congress on capital punishment. It was a delicious moment: Citing “our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” which got applause from Republicans, he then called for “the global abolition of the death penalty,” arguing, “Since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.” It may have been my wishful thinking, but I thought I saw Chief Justice John Roberts, a Catholic, squirm a little in the front row.
Near the end, the Pope gave us our charge: “A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.”
Soon, sadly, Francis will be gone, leaving us to the diminished candidates for president of a nation that “can be considered great.”