The president of the United States invoked the pope during his annual speech to the National Prayer Breakfast. It was not his first time, and it won’t be his last. As a political matter, it makes sense. Pope Francis has become a pop-culture icon, and the luster is off Barack Obama’s “Hope and Change.” But treating the pope like this year’s winner of St. Peter’s Idol misses the richness of the source of his joy and the implications of the proposal he embodies.
“Papa was a rolling stone” had become an overused headline and tweet in previous days as Pope Francis got cover treatment from Rolling Stone. Fr. Steve Grunow, CEO of Word on Fire, observed that Pope Francis might be the first free man whose image graced the cover of a publication that typically features entertainers living in prisons of fame and addiction, the intense loneliness and insecurity that has wrecked the lives of many a rising star who falls, overcome by the temptations and the darkness.
Much of what Pope Francis is most cited for — particularly by politicians — is his love for the poor. He urges us to go out to the peripheries and serve all who might otherwise be forgotten in societies that have become indifferent and transactional, throwaway cultures all too casual about the value of human life. In his Lenten message, he implores us to go deeper in our understanding of poverty and freedom.
He writes of a poverty that “frees us and enriches us.” He points to the Incarnation at the heart of Christianity (thus the Christ part of Christmas), the redemptive generosity of God in “taking flesh and bearing our weaknesses and sins as an expression of God’s infinite mercy to us.” He writes: “What gives us true freedom, true salvation, and true happiness is the compassion, tenderness, and solidarity of his love.” He continues: “Christ’s poverty is the greatest treasure of all: Jesus’ wealth is that of his boundless confidence in God the Father, his constant trust, his desire always and only to do the Father’s will and give glory to him. Jesus is rich in the same way as a child who feels loved and who loves its parents, without doubting their love and tenderness for an instant.”
That’s countercultural and, as you may expect, is a challenge missed by most media coverage. It reminds me of the news from just a year ago this Tuesday. Pope Benedict shocked the world by announcing his resignation on February 11, 2013. Who does that? You’re a household name. You’re a world leader. You’re a head of state. And you walk away? Pope Benedict did so because he discerned it to be God’s will — that the chair of St. Peter was no longer where he needed to be. This is what we used to call the examined life, back when we didn’t have our eyes permanently glued to our computer screens.
The most significant picture of the past year will never be on a magazine cover.
On July 5, Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict appeared together — their one shared public event. They consecrated the Holy See to St. Michael the archangel. The symbolism and the spiritual reality were unmistakable. “Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the Devil” is one of the petitions in the traditional prayer asking for St. Michael’s intercession. The two priests looked to St. Joseph in intercessory prayers and as a model for a revolutionary understanding of fatherhood in the priesthood and the family.
Pope Francis is leading a revolutionary renewal at a time when our sense of purpose and belonging and direction are all too often muddled, at a time when we lack a common vocabulary and experience to even try to understand so much of our religious and cultural imagery and history. And yet President Obama, having forced the Little Sisters of the Poor to seek relief from the Supreme Court from his Obamacare abortion-pill, contraception, and sterilization mandate, adds to the problem by proclaiming a Gospel According to Secularism, where the only acceptable faith is superficial and sentimental and adapted to ideology and political campaigns. Real religious freedom leaves room for a radical exercise of freedom, where religious faith doesn’t have to be compartmentalized but can be the core of one’s identity, infusing one’s life, one’s vocation.
“We . . . also say that there is only one real kind of poverty,” the pope writes in his Lenten message, “not living as children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ.” Doing so is a radical lifestyle choice that requires an integrated commitment that does not shut off when we go to work. Nuns who run homes for the elderly poor simply should not have to choose between following their consciences and paying coercive fines because the White House insists on mandating sexual-revolutionary values in the name of “women’s health” and “freedom.”
During the same week in March when the president and the pope will meet for the first time, the Supreme Court will hear its first cases involving the HHS “preventive services” mandate, which the Little Sisters and so many others are fighting. The plaintiffs are the Green family, which runs the Hobby Lobby arts-and-crafts chain, and the Mennonite Hahn family, which runs Conestoga Wood, a lumber company in Pennsylvania. Both of them sued to regain the religious freedom that the HHS mandate was trying to take away from them. The president wants you to look away from what’s happening here at home and feel good about his lip service to protecting innocent human life and religious freedom abroad.
But we’re better stewards than that. Aren’t we?
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.