So this guy in white robes showed up at the Capitol Building in Washington DC on Thursday, and the freak-out was comprehensive. Some 5,000 law enforcement officials were brought to bear in the name of “security” for the visit by Pope Francis, a number that sits in the shade of the 7,000 law enforcement officials prepared for his arrival in New York City. Both towns are effectively shut down; fences up, fences everywhere.
The pope’s speech before a joint session of congress was riveting television. The crowds outside were huge, and hugely enthusiastic. The cameras flashed to various crowd shots, one including Senator Ted Cruz looking like an extra from “Grease,” with Chris Matthews on MSNBC claiming that suddenly-retiring and very weepy House Speaker John Boehner “wanted personal help from the pope” at one notable point. Ponder that a moment.
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The only person Francis personally greeted when he entered the chamber was John Kerry. When the pontiff assumed the podium, Speaker Boehner shook his hand and said, “Good luck.” It was not a jocular statement; Boehner delivered it in the tones of a World War I officer ordering a doughboy over the side of a trench and into machine-gun fire.
Pope Francis defended working people and retired people, invoked Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, defended religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms while denouncing the “simplistic reductionism that sees only good or evil,” defended immigrants and immigration, made a stout argument in favor of the reality of climate change, described the profits made from weapons sales as “money drenched in blood,” and kicked the death penalty square in the ass.
…but he also gave a coy, soft-pedaled semi-apology for the ravages committed against Native Americans hot on the heels of his canonization of Friar Junípero Serra, one of the first and worst perpetrators of genocide to arrive on this continent.
He chose to end his speech to congress with a thinly-veiled attack on the LGBTQ community by saying, “Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family” … as if LGBTQ people don’t – and haven’t always had – families of their own.
All that being justly said, it is oddly difficult to dislike this pope, even as one reviles and rejects the institution he represents. Beyond the good words he spoke about poverty, immigration, equality and climate change, there was the simple fact of the man himself. In a nation where our discordant and belligerent political discourse can be summed up with a sound clip of Donald Trump’s bellicose noise, which has him all over the papers and at the top of the GOP polls, the soft voice of Pope Francis was a breath of fresh air.
As a gone Catholic, Pope Francis to me is the distilled essence of the conflict people of sound progressive morality have with the Church. Perfect example: After his speech before Congress, Pope Francis made a surprise visit to Little Sisters of the Poor. This organization does incredible, wonderful work for senior citizens all across the country … but they also have a lawsuit pending over the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, and the Vatican made it clear in a statement that the pope’s visit there was deliberately intended to be a “sign of support” for the nuns pushing the suit.
The Little Sisters care for old people, and do it well, while working to deny the right of contraception to everyone. The Church has a long history of providing hospice care to LGBTQ people dealing with HIV and AIDS in the San Francisco area, while denouncing their very existence as a living sin. It goes on and on. The whole organization is an existential brain cramp. If you’re able to be good/bad binary about it, things are pretty simple, and God help you if you can … because it isn’t that simple, and that is what grates.
Some nitwit in the House chamber was caught on an open microphone saying she wanted to throw a shoe just before the pope entered. GOP Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, who embraced Cliven Bundy and the goons who leveled assault rifles at federal officials, called the pope a “socialist” and refused to attend the speech. Silly people like Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter coughed up their two cents. Fox News did its thing.
Generally speaking, however, the harshest criticism the hard-right of the GOP has summoned was muted applause in the House chamber during the pope’s speech, a golf-clap of distaste, as the pontiff calmly and quietly scolded the assemblage on the need to address climate change and help the poor while discontinuing the worldwide sale of war weapons. You’d think these haters of women, these enemies of choice, would be thrilled to have such a man in their presence. Most of them looked like they were sucking on old lemon slices, but they’ve kept quiet so far.
Such is the fact of the complexities orbiting this pope like a nest of planets. He champions the poor while his doctrine would force millions of women into poverty and servitude. He champions equality while his doctrine denounces LGBTQ people for simply being who they are. He denounces the “simplistic reductionism that sees only good or evil” while leading an organization that has made doing exactly that its meat and mead for centuries. He is so good. He is so bad.
It was a fine speech, delivered in the timbre this nation desperately needs… but it’s just not that simple. Not by a long chalk.