As Pope Francis prepares to make history by becoming the first pope to address a joint session of Congress, one Congressman has made news by declaring he will boycott the pope’s visit, because the Congressman believes the pope is going to focus on climate change (which is probably a fair bet) instead of other Catholic social teachings. The Congressman goes on to outline all the Catholic doctrines he believes the pope is ignoring – like defense of religious liberty, advocacy for Christian refugees, defense of life – and states he cannot as a good Catholic and American leader allow the pope pass on this misguided agenda. I linked to his words, so you can read them for yourselves.
American liberals are loving this. After years of being labeled “cafeteria Catholics” for picking and choosing what elements of church doctrine they chose to embrace, they are reveling in the Schadenfreude of turned tables. They are hoping for a counter-push in which the new pope demands conservative Catholics embrace the more liberal elements of Church teaching or be turned away at the Communion line. (Digression: has The Onion done the story on the Midwest archbishop who warns Francis not to come to communion in his diocese for risk of being spurned?)
Not me. Here are five reasons why the Congressman’s decision brings me nothing but sadness:
- He ignores the pope’s records on the issues he cites. If there has been a more vocal defender of persecuted Christians (and other religious minorities), or care for refugees, I can’t think of who it would be. He has been consistent in defending the Catholic defense of life from conception to natural death, and I would be shocked if, during his discussion of the”throwaway culture” of the developed world he didn’t clearly reference the unborn and unwanted in multiple settings. To object on grounds that he hasn’t done enough on those issues requires a willful ignorance or a concerning lack of information.
- He ignores the continuity of Francis’ statements with Church teaching. If he read even just my blog, he would know that Francis’ encyclical actually plows very little new ground.
- He missed the real issue. I mean, I know climate change is the hot button, but Francis will say much more about inequality and the defense of the poor. Which, again, draws on doctrine central to Catholic teaching since at least 1891. If you’re going to boycott a pope, it seems like you ought to do it based on his primary disagreement with your policy, not a down-ballot issue. (More on this in the next post.)
- He made the most common choice that leads us astray. Look, for all the “Jesus, meek and mild” images, there is a disconcerting theme that runs through the Gospel about how Jesus and His message ultimately divides us from each other by forcing us to choose if we are with Him or with something else. Whether you are a liberal Christian or a conservative Christian or a (insert descriptor here) Christian, the sword of the Gospel will eventually cut through the word you put before “Christian” and make you choose. “Which is it?” And most of us, at least those of us who live in societies where Christianity is socially acceptable, will probably choose the adjective over the noun at the end of the day. This should be to our shame, but we usually wrap it around us as a prophet’s mantle of defending the true faith, because the alternative is to be exposed as selfish, idolatrous, wrong. It’s not an epic fail but a depressingly mundane one. Gloat only if you are blind to the ways it could happen to you. Feel the sadness Jesus feels when the rich young ruler fails to answer the bell.
- Boycotting shows how dysfunctional our political culture is. We knew this, of course. But when a member of Congress proudly proclaims that the way he treats people he disagrees with is to boycott them, to intentionally and publicly refuse to engage them in an encounter (to use a common Francis term), it acknowledges painfully and publicly how horribly off-course our non-discourse is. Disagree all you want (more on that in the next post), but really? Turn your back on people you disagree with, even if they lead the Church you attend? How effective can a legislative body, or a nation, be that embraces that as a tactic for dialogue?
Here’s what I hope Pope Francis does. I hope he gives the speech he planned to, and then, as quietly as a pope in DC in the social media world can do, I hope he seeks out this Congressman, embraces him, and tells him that, even if he is not ready to embrace the entirety of truth, he can join the rest of us imperfect sinners, Francis included, in a journey together.