When you begin your speech to Congress with references to Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, then you have sent a very loud signal to everyone that you are a pope of peace and justice. Indeed, Pope Francis even used that phrase as he used a velvet hammer on the noggins of a Congress that has used up most of its vital energy devising ways to overturn the Affordable Care Act. I had thought progressive Catholicism to be nearly extinct but in one speech and then in a whirlwind of activity aimed at uplifting the marginal and at-risk, this pontiff has single-handedly revived it.
Mind you, as a Baptist (and let’s keep in mind that of the three individuals noted above and referred to by the Pope as models of what it means to be a Christian citizen, King was the Baptist clergyman in the list), and as someone then who believes strongly in separation of Church and State, I do not believe the pope should have been invited to speak to the Congress. We would never, ever consider inviting an Islamic Imam of a country like Iran to speak before the Congress and that is as it should be. But allowing the pope to do so merely obfuscates the separation and is a dangerous thing to do. Why? Because our founders knew personally how terrible a thing it is when religion and state combine in their efforts to control people. The Church armed with the power of the State and the State armed with the rhetoric of God is flat out dangerous and comes very close to blasphemy. But leaving this important issue to the side, what Francis said penetrated the brassy patriotism of a deformed Christianity pawned off by politicians who resemble goats, not the sheep brought into the kingdom for their acts of justice and compassion. The cynical invitation to bring the pope here as a way of embarrassing the President–much as bringing Prime Minister Netanyahu before Congress to embarrass the President–backfired. Francis blessed the President for his efforts on behalf of immigrants and the uninsured while declaring to the Congress that they should take their moral lessons from three progressive Christians: Day, who was a pacifist and resisted WW1 and set up soup kitchens in NY to feed the poor and unemployed; King who denounced racism and led America’s second revolution, the Civil Rights Movement; and Merton, a contemplative monk who with his pen denounced the Vietnam War and worked for peace and interfaith understanding.
This is a special pope, a Jesuit with a Franciscan heart of service to the least of these.* It was a joy to hear him and watch him and he reminded me, a Baptist, why I find Catholicism to be so beautiful and rich in both history and liturgy. May God bless his efforts and the efforts of all those who seek peace and justice in our world. And may the Congress of the United States, sent to serve the People of the United States, move past religious rhetoric and do its utmost to live up to the sacred documents of the United States–its constitutional guarantees and Bill of Rights. ~See you Sunday
*So now I need to add an asterisk to the statement that Pope Francis is a special pope with a Franciscan heart. What a deflating disappointment to know that this pope who cited peace and justice warriors like King, Day and Merton and seemed compassionate for the least of these actually sided with a homophobic, misguided clerk from Kentucky. Yes, she has a right to be a conscientious objector but CO’s bear the consequences of such objection. She should not be clerk of a court anywhere. Those on the right who compare her to Dr. King are delusional for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that King worked tirelessly for the freedom and human rights of all people. Kim Davis is a homophobe who loves Jesus. And the pope just smeared his own remarkable visit with us in the United States by his embrace of her behind closed doors. Shame, shame, shame. Dear Gay Brothers and Sisters, God bless and keep you. You are fully human and thus, you should have all the rights and privileges of being a human being, including marriage. I, like you, am so disappointed . At the same time, we welcome you into our church!