Toot the horn, bang the drum – Pope Francis is in town, and he’s got something to say. Because, like any self-styled intellectual you meet at your friend’s weekend party, Papa Frank has an opinion about everything. It seems like he even has opinions about his opinions – and everyone else loves to dissect his opinions. All of this, to him, seems like it’s worth a chuckle and a shrug. But to his critics, he’s an arbiter of destruction, a loose cannon, an anti-pope. He’s a socialist, a Marxist, a liberal. Or, from his followers and admirers, Frankie is a model of charity, a friend of the down-trodden, a breath of fresh air after almost eight years of stuffiness and Emperor Palpatine-esque brows under Benedict XVI. For some, Pope Francis’ ascent to the Seat of Peter wasn’t just announced with white smoke and a hearty “Habemus Papam!” but with Flyin’ Padre Pio and the Blue Angels sonic-booming over the Vatican, sprinkling the ecstatic throng with confetti and free Fit-Bits.
For others, it was a moment of fearful introspection – a deep, unrelenting feeling that the trajectory of the Church of Rome was made that much more uncertain by the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope. Either way, no matter how invested one was as a believer in the monolithic nature of the Roman Catholic church, it was certain that heady times were ahead. And even those who were non-religious, or uninterested in the ins-and-outs of Roman dogma and theology, felt that this Pope was gonna be a game-changer, a mover, a shaker, a sound-byte maker. And, lawdy, were they right. But the Pope, ol’ Papa Frank, seems to be unfazed. Cue a flash of that now iconic toothy, endearingly goonish smile.
Why’s the Pope So Dope?
What was it about Jorge Bergoglio that got everyone so excited? Sure, it had a lot to do that he was from somewhere other than mainland Europe. And yes, it probably had a lot to do with the fact that his election seemed like a surprise, an unusually unfettered move by a church not necessarily known for it’s wildcard antics. And yeah, he wanted to name himself Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi – who cared for the poor and, at least according to most depictions of him, enjoyed petting dogs and fawns and letting birds relieve themselves on his shoulder. But the greatest feeling of anticipation stemmed from the fact that everyone knew that a new pope could mean huge change – a paradigm shift in a church whose claim to fame is that it desperately wants to avoid paradigm shifts (or, at least, claims to). A new pope is as significant as, say, a new US president – the difference, of course, being that the Pope wields substantially more raw power than our president does in that the Pope is beholden to no man. You better thank your lucky stars there are no Papal predator drones.
All of which is to say, it’s no small thing when a new pope is elected. And it’s no small thing when a pope speaks, because you have to remember – he is the leader of 1.25 billion Roman Catholics world wide, and when he talks people listen. And that, for any world leader, is a pretty big deal.
Yes – I said it. Pope Francis is a world leader. We’ve had so much debate about whether Papa Frank is a liberal or a conservative, but few seem to realize what they are implicitly suggesting – that the Pope is a politician, a world leader. There is a reason why so many try to cram him into the United States’ political dualism – it’s because when Americans look at Papa Frank, they see him as the policy maker of a country that boasts 1.25 billion citizens. What else can you call a leader with that much influence over an institution of that size? And not only that, but he commands the rapt attention of American politicians like no other. It seems like he speaks their language.
The Pope in the White City
Indeed, Papa Frank’s ability to somehow tell each side of the aisle what they want to hear is utterly fascinating, and shows just how political this pope actually is. In what other case of a religious leader have you had members of both the Republican and Democratic parties clamoring, practically climbing over each other, to claim him as their own? Not even the Dalai Lama can compete with Papa Frank. To put it in Baldwin terms, the Dalai Lama is Daniel Baldwin to Papa Frank’s Alec. (Side note: maybe the Dalai Lama should invade another country like his ancestors used to. That would get some good press.)
Alec Baldwin aside, the Pope’s words pander to both Republicans and Democrats, but hit both voting bases right in their sweet spot (not something you’d necessarily want to hear from a Roman Catholic cleric, but hey, it fits). He manages to coddle and and reassure both parties with his vague – or, at least, easily spun – sound-bytes. Look, for instance, at the Pope’s address to Congress. He says:
“…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. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.”
Pretty great statement, right? Who doesn’t want the concept of family to survive? – despite, of course, certain members’ seemingly endless attempts to destroy their own. Conservatives, at this moment, were probably thinking the Pope was referencing same-sex marriage, and Liberals were probably ready to start rolling their eyes at Old-World moralizing. But Francis, full of fun and games, decides to take it a different directions, with a quick shout-out to the youth:
“In particular, I would like to call attention to those family members who are the most vulnerable, the young. For many of them, a future filled with countless possibilities beckons, yet so many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse, and despair. Their problems are our problems. We cannot avoid them. We need to face them together, to talk about them and to seek effective solutions rather than getting bogged down in discussions. At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future.”
As the kids say: Boom goes the dynamite (except when the Pope’s in town, in which case you might get arrested)! Papa Frank is swinging back with one of his favorite memes: youth unemployment as the biggest threat to society. And with that, the hopeful members of Congress who were eagerly anticipating Pope Francis taking a hard line on same-sex marriage were…disappointed.
Later in the speech, Papa Frank looks like he’s about to go into a spiel about the sanctity of human life and the evils of abortion, but instead he decides to comment on…climate change. Again, one has to wonder whether the right-wing Republicans in the room were feeling a bit of the ol’ Social Conservatism blue-balls. So, the Pope must obviously be in bed with the Liberals! He avoided those hot-button issues for the favorite Democrat preoccupations of income inequality and climate change. He must be sporting a “Feel the Bern” pin underneath his pellegrina.
Well, except that he’s not on the Democrats’ side, either. Yes, he’s in favor of combating climate change, and he’s a happy warrior for the War on Poverty and other Liberal economic policies, but that doesn’t mean he’s Elizabeth Warren with a face-lift in a cassock. When pressed, Pope Francis always comes out in favor of traditional marriage, and against abortion. While his approach to these issues may change, perhaps seem less strident, less hard-line, Pope Francis will never come out in favor of gay marriage or abortion. His theology will not allow it, and, if he did, the backlash would be so extreme that he might even end up dead under ridiculously suspicious circumstances. Lookin’ at you, Pope John Paul I.
So, Frankie ain’t a tried and true member of the Grand Old Party, but he also isn’t rubbing shoulders with Harry Reid in a DC bathouse. So that must make him a non-influential political force, a person that so transcends dualism of Washington that he has no effect on it – he just stops traffic for a few days and then all is back to normal?
Wrong. Pope Francis’ policies may not fit neatly into the American politics, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a politician.
A King With a Pointy Hat Who Sits on a Throne In Rome?
To act as if the Papacy does not function as a political force is absurd. It’s kind of always been that way. But some will insist that the Pope merely functions as a glorified pastor, a simple, earnest man of God who is simply looking out for his flock. Emma Green, in her September 22 piece in The Atlantic, “Pope Francis Is Not ‘Progressive’ – He’s a Priest”, says: “Trying to understand Francis as a political figure is also tricky. It’s essentially meaningless to try and place him on the spectrum from ‘left’ to ‘right’ in the United States, contorting the poor pope to fit the mishmash of statism and individualism that plagues U.S. politics.”
Unfortunately, Green’s assessment is flawed in that while Francis isn’t a registered Republican or Democrat, and doesn’t directly conform to the left/right spectrum of American politics, but that hardly makes him apolitical. In fact, in a time in American politics when politicians seems more and more likely to go off the reservation and embrace causes that traditionally have been held by the other side, and where more and more American voters feel alienated by either party, having a Pope who transcends American political dualism makes him all the more potent as a politician. This is why he’s the “People’s Pope.” He has made himself everything to all people. The perfect politician. He has styled himself as more of a populist than even Trump, or Bernie Sanders. He can do no wrong in the eyes of most media outlets, and in the eyes of most of those politically minded. He’s everyone’s pope.
This is a problem.
A Shepherd Without a Crook
Ultimately, the problem with Pope Francis isn’t that he’s too liberal, or too conservative. The problem with Pope Francis is that he seems incapable of using the fame that he’s garnered as “The People’s Pope” to promote his own church, or Christian theology. His persona is not a theological persona, but one of a man more interested in curating a broad following. While the theology of traditional Christianity should actively be in the world, but not of it, Pope Francis gives the impression that he avoids conflict at all costs. He’s viewed as a beautiful, kind old man who loves everyone and has no axe to grind.
Unfortunately, Pope Francis has done little to dispel this image of himself as a lovable, rheumy-eyed pushover, and has done even less to show support for those who fight for the principles that the Roman Catholic church has traditionally backed. His preoccupation with buzzy issues like climate change and income inequality has made those who fight for traditional social-conservative concerns seem even more backward and tone-deaf than they did before. If even the Pope of the Roman Catholic church, which is seemingly the bastion of social-conservatism, seems apathetic or even dismissive of issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, then where does that leave those who still find those issues worth fighting for? Answer: it leaves them in a lurch.
What makes this particularly astounding is that no Pope prior to Francis has ever had the kind of publicity that Frank now enjoys. His Tweets alone get tens of thousands of retweets, and countless views. He is quick to engage the media, and has the ear of more non-Roman Catholics than even universally popular Popes like John Paul II ever had. He has been in front of Congress, and spoken to the UN. If a Pope ever had the platform to publicly support traditional marriage, the Pro-Life agenda, or Roman Catholic values, it would be Frank.
Again, one cannot make the argument that Pope Francis is Pro-Choice or pro same-sex marriage. But one can say that the Pope’s inability to clarify, take a stand, or make enemies in these issues has deeply undermined those who still find the Pro-Life platform and traditional marriage important. This does not prove Papa Frank is a Marxist, a Progressive, or a closet-Communist, but it does show that if he does actually want social-conservative issues to continue to be relevant, he has been deeply imprudent with his public persona.
The word “pope” comes from the Greek word, pappas, which means “father.” Similarly, many refer to the Pope as the shepherd of his church and for the world, a guardian and, even more importantly, a guide for his sheep. But in the case of Pope Francis, he has failed to keep his sheep in line, and they have taken over the flock. They prance around him, spinning his wisdom to their own ends, undisciplined and unchecked. The shepherd’s loyal sheep sit confused, unsure why their master would neglect them. They look longingly to him for support, for guidance, for anything – but the shepherd simply sits there, meekly, smiling that toothy smile.