Papal pull in the US
America is increasingly secularist, with the rise of the 'nones' - those who profess no religion - being a notable phenomenon, and its standard religious fare solidly Protestant. But you would never know that from how mesmerised that country has been all week with the visit of Pope Francis.
Not even Donald Trump has been able to knock him off the headlines. The mystique and pull of the Pope is irresistible. The international media, particularly the American media, have had a particular fascination with this Pope. His every word is scrutinised to test how liberal he is; how different from other traditionalist Popes. Early in his Papacy, a narrative started to emerge that this Pope was rocking the boat, was breaking with tradition, was softer and gentler on homosexuality, divorce, contraception, etc.
Journalists obviously unfamiliar with religion coverage and theology would latch on to various speeches and phrases used by the Pope to announce how radical he was. Religion is not one of those things the international media cover well, except when it is covered by specialist religion reporters, but we don't have the quality and incisive religion reporting we used to get from Kenneth Briggs at the New York Times, Russell Chandler at the Los Angels Times, and Richard Ostling at Time magazine in the 1970s.
With that decline in religion writing has come a lot of half-baked analyses about this Pope. Liberal news-people scramble to find quotes to bolster their own agenda, framing this Pope as a radical and someone on their side. They are often unaware of Catholic social teaching and the Catholic philosophical tradition. There is nothing this Pope has said that has differed substantially from what has been said before. There is no indication he is going to change Catholic doctrine on any of the major controversial issues. Don't hold your breath!
A COMPASSIONATE POPE
This Pope is not gong to ordain women, homosexual priests, do away with celibacy, okay contraception, legitimise divorce and remarriage, and sanction abortion. It won't happen. He will show compassion, urge empathy, and will not be strident like a Fundamentalist. Don't mistake that for backpedalling on traditional Catholic doctrines.
Pope Francis, however, will continue to justifiably impress the world with his eschewing of pomp and ceremony. He loves simplicity. (But, again, that is at the heart of Catholicism.) His personal lifestyle and avoidance of some of the traditional things afforded to Popes has been very impressive to many, and rightly so. I was particularly pleased by his visit and lunch with people in a homeless shelter, rather than with big-wig politicians and officials.
And I was particularly delighted that ordinary street people could get prominent interviews on CNN just because the Pope honoured and elevated them by his presence. This Pope has the human touch while holding the office of the Vicar of Christ.
His address to the US Congress was the highlight of his visit, and he used that speech to further confuse binary journalists who struggle to put him in a box. This Pope is neither conservative nor liberal. He transcends those categories. As a Catholic thinker, he can't help being progressive in politics. That is why he is so strong on climate change and in his call for us to care for the global commons. Conservative Republicans and right-wing Evangelicals are in denial on climate change and Pope Francis is not giving them the time of day.
He sounded almost apocalyptic in his address from the South Lawn of the White House: "Mr President, I find it encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution. Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation. When it comes to the care of our common home, we are living in a critical moment of history."
FIGHT AGAINST HUNGER
On Thursday, he stood proudly in the tradition of progressive Catholic social thought, though he could have been even more potent. "The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes. It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth."
Pope Francis made the important point that "if politics must truly be the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance". I hope Wall Street - and those Congress men and women whom it controls - was really listening.
In that speech to Congress, Pope Francis praised that great and illustrious progressive activist Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker movement, as well as Martin Luther King Jr. And to show you how hard he is to categorise and put in a box, he also quoted former slave-owner Abraham Lincoln and mystic Thomas Merton. And Pope Francis was not afraid to rankle Republicans by speaking up stoutly in the defence of immigrants. Here, he was most potent.
"In recent centuries, millions of people came to this land to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom. We the people of this continent are not fearful of foreigners because most of us were foreigners. ... Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected." He went on to say at a time when immigration is a major political issue in the US that "when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past. We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our neighbours".
ADOPTING THE GOLDEN RULE
He directly challenged the xenophobic Republican agenda when he said: "On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and their loved ones. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best as we can to their situation."
He urged Congress to adopt the Golden Rule "... if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life. If we want opportunities, let us give opportunities." The Pope would have also disturbed conservatives with his strong call for the abolition of the death penalty.
The Pope gave important food for thought and truth to power, but I wished he had more profoundly challenged secularist America. He should have directly engaged the ascendant secularists. Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II would have done so - and done so forcefully.
The Pope cannot be unaware of the influence of the New Atheists and the growing disaffection from religion in America. He failed to intellectually challenge secularism. He was too weak and wobbly on the issue of religious freedom, referring vaguely and vacuously to "safeguarding religious, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms", which are definitely under attack in America today through political correctness gone mad, absurd hate speech codes - on university campuses of all places - and threats to the exercise of one's religious conscience. This was a major failure on the Pope's part.
The Catholic intellectual and philosophical tradition is too robust for Pope Francis to have failed so miserably to utilise it to engage secularists. There should also have been a critique of consumerism, materialism, and hedonism. In my view, this Pope is more pragmatic than philosophical - and I say one can be both.
To seriously engage a largely post-religious, industrialised society, the Papacy has to rely on more than its tradition. A world with more questioning, sceptical people needs more than a call to faith. Any encouragement to social and political action informed by faith will naturally lead to the question, Why can't I drop the faith and just do the political and social action? In other words, do all the good things the Pope called for in his speech to Congress without explicit faith. The Pope has really given us no philosophical answer to that.