Our Fallible Pope

(Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty)
The pontiff presents a challenge.

He wasn’t the Messiah they were expecting.

There are many (many, many) competing analyses of the life of Jesus, of what happened and what it meant, and some of those are, inevitably, political. Many scholars hold that the Jews rejected Jesus’ claim of being the Messiah because they were expecting a political and military leader, a great liberator who would drive out the hated Roman occupation and restore Jewish sovereignty over Israel. Pontius Pilate and Herod both seem to have been perplexed by Jesus’ understanding of His own kingship — “My kingdom is not of this world” — because they had only one model of monarchy at their intellectual disposal; for them, a kingdom not of this world was a concept devoid of meaning. If anything, Luke’s Gospel finds Jesus engaged in the opposite of good politics, reinforcing the Roman position and Herod’s position at the same time by making peace between the two men. (The sneakiness of Jesus in such matter is an underappreciated aspect of His ministry.) As Luke reports: “Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that day: for before they were at enmity.”

Pope Francis is not the Messiah, but merely the chief bureaucrat in His service. He is very much in the world and of the world, and he must perforce deal with the world and its realities. But the kingdom he serves is not of this world.

So much of the world is Pope Francis that he communicates via Twitter (@pontifex, if you are inclined), by which means he recently sent out a request that is characteristic of the man and his public style: “I ask you to join me in praying for my trip to Cuba and the United States. I need your prayers.” The response to this request, particularly from the right, was dispiriting. “I pray for those in Castro’s dungeons whose suffering you callously ignored. Screw you, Peronista pontiff,” wrote one critic. “He’s forfeited his moral authority.” Others, apparently unaware of the actual ministry of Pope John Paul II, averred that Pope Francis’s sainted predecessor would never have met with Communist thugs like the Castros. In reality, Pope John Paul II visited Poland many times when it was under Communist occupation, and met with Wojciech Jaruzelski, the brutal Soviet proxy who ruled Poland at the time, who had imposed martial law, imprisoned some 10,000 political opponents, and murdered at least 100 for good measure. The pope had some hope that Jaruzelski, who had been baptized in the Catholic Church, eventually would come around. He did, in his way. At Jaruzelski’s funeral Mass, one of the first men he had thrown in prison, Solidarity leader Lech Wałesa, knelt in the front row.

But those were heroic times. These are piddling times.

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#share#Pope Francis has an irritating (and more than irritating) habit of saying ignorant and destructive things about economics and public policy, and conservatives, myself included, have not been hesitant to criticize him for this. Nor should we forbear — the pope has no special expertise, and no special grace, in these matters, and, like any leader of a large and significant organization, he needs to hear criticism and the forcible presentation of different points of view. But surely the political distance between us conservatives and Pope Francis is a good deal narrower than the chasm between Pope John Paul II, the great scourge of Communism, and Wojciech Jaruzelski, the scheming front man for Soviet brutality. Lech Wałesa prayed for the man who had imprisoned him for eleven months — surely we must not withhold our own prayers over a mere political disagreement.

Pope Francis presents us with an interesting challenge: What do we do when we find ourselves in a political disagreement with a good man? We’ve had bad popes, no doubt, but it is difficult to make the case that Pope Francis is one of them, that he is motivated by malice. Errors? Surely. Ignorance? Without doubt. But wickedness? Please.

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It’s easier when history has worn away all but what was truly important about a man: Mohandas K. Gandhi and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. indulged any number of bad (and occasionally batty) political ideas, and each had substantial personal failings. We might say the same about Thomas Jefferson. But each of those men was right about one big thing that mattered, and we remember and admire them for that. Political perfection, to say nothing of personal perfection, is not a precondition for anything worth talking about.

#related#It’s a lot harder when dealing with a much lesser figure from whom we are not insulated by some comfortable historical remove, who is right in our faces every day. Joe Scarborough has been castigated by conservatives for affirming his belief that President Obama, for all his flaws, is a man who loves his country. Barack Obama is a failed president, a practitioner of a deeply destructive, distorted, self-interested, and vanity-driven brand of politics, and every instinct he exhibits tends toward detriment, privation, and chaos. But the fever-swamp version of his presidency — that he is a foreigner, a closet Islamist, a man singularly bent upon the destruction of the United States of America — is wrong. President Obama is himself certainly no exemplar of treating political disagreements with charity of spirit — he is quite the opposite — but his failings need not be our failings.

We conservatives want liberty, for ourselves and for the world. On that front, Pope Francis, unlike some of the great men who have walked before him in those fisherman’s shoes, does not appear to be a man who is going to be a great deal of help. But what do we want liberty for? For the things of this world alone, or for something more? That, despite his lamentable adventures in political economy, is more Pope Francis’s game.

And he asks us for our prayers. Maybe the appropriate prayer is wisdom for the pontiff, and humility for his critics — for me and you and the rest of us.


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