So the pope is now back home in Rome, after a triumphant tour of Cuba and the US. One commentator did a riff on Julius Caesar’s famous remark, when he send “Venit, vidit, vicit” (but shouldn’t that have been “vincit”? Oh, never mind!) A friend of mine commented that he went from Washington to New York to Philadelphia “slaying dragons right and left”! The manifest majority of those who heard and saw him were very happy to do so.
However, not everybody is happy with the pope. His critics fall into three main categories: Christian extremists–I say “extremists” rather than fundamentalists, since most fundamentalists are not as extreme as the people I am thinking of; those with an investment in the maintenance of the capitalist-consumerist order in its entirety, especially those who have shares in companies dealing with fossil fuels; and the confused and unhappy cohort of traditionalist Roman Catholics who are feeling that their faithful observance of all the rules no longer matters.
The extremists, then. Some of these are simply classic haters. I have seen items on the web in which the pope is described as anti-God, anti-Christian, not a Christian, indeed the anti-Christ in person. I hope and believe that this is not a large cohort, but they do make a lot of noise, and they pour all their resources into media time to propagate their retrograde views. One speaker I heard say that the pope ought to focus on telling people “how to get to heaven, since “isn’t that what religion is about?” No, it isn’t, not in the view of progressive Christians, including the pope, who simply note that almost everything Jesus talks about in the gospels is how we are to treat one another on this plane. When we love one another, he says, the kingdom of heaven will be found among us and within us (cf. Luke 17:21).
The second group, the supporters of the capitalist-consumerist approach in its fulness, are threatened by the pope’s frank acceptance of global warming as humanly originated. His emphasis on the importance of dealing with climate change they find abhorrent and dangerous to their financial dominance. They are alarmed by the impact the pope made with the release of his encyclical, “Laudato si'”, and with the warm welcome it received both within and beyond the pope’s own religious community, the Roman Catholic Church. The logic of his approach, together with that of many other environmentalists, is for a major cultural shift in response to a global spiritual revolution, in the direction of the reduction of use of the sources of greenhouse gases. Many years ago, Vaclav Havel, then president of Czechoslovakia, said that we would not be able to deal with climate change until we came to a new appreciation of the earth as sacred. It may be that the pope is the instrument of this awakening on a global scale.
Ah, the third group, for which I feel considerable sympathy. Let me use the parable of the prodigal son (sometimes, in my view more appropriately, called the parable of the prodigal father–in the other sense of prodigal, of course, meaning overflowingly generous) as a paradigm of what I see happening (Luke 15:11-32). Bad kid takes half the family wealth, squanders it, comes to himself, and apologizes to his father, who welcomes him home warmly, calls for a party and kills the fatted calf. Good kid hears the sound of merriment, asks what is happening, is told that it comes from the welcome-home party for his misbehaving brother, and gets very upset. (I’ve always felt he had some justification in saying to his father that he never gave him even a young goat so that he could have a party with his friends. Bad kids typically take up more parent time than good kids; the same thing is true in schools.) The father, who of course loves the good kid as much as he loves the bad kid then speaks one of the most beautiful lines in scripture: “My son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.” That’s where the parable ends; so we don’t know if that satisfied the elder brother, the good kid.
The parallels: traditionalist Catholics have obeyed all the rules. They went to mass every Sunday, they fasted twice in the week, as it were (see Luke 18:12). They have rejected abortion, contraception, homosexuality and divorce. These were all concerns that form part of what John Paul II called “Catholic identity,” the marks of being a good Catholic. Now–without contradicting or denying any of these–the pope is offering a different set of markers of Catholic identity: compassion, concern for the earth, abolition of nuclear weapons, pastoral flexibility, concern for refugees–all summed up in his special word, “mercy.” And these conservative Catholics are asking themselves if somehow they were mistaken to try to be “good kids” when Dad is more interested in the “bad kids”–those who have had abortions, gays and lesbians, the divorced and remarried, and so on. They are feeling like second-class Catholics in the eyes of their spiritual father. I feel for them, truly. He does love them as much as he loves the others, of course; and somehow he has to convey this to them as the father in the parable did. They need to hear from him “My children, you are always with me; and all that I have is yours.” They need to experience the paternal embrace.
The first group can be safely ignored. The second group cannot be ignored; they will do everything they can to sabotage the pope’s efforts to help humanity act decisively on climate change. The third group, at least most of them, I conjecture, will come around once they have experienced the pope’s embrace.
One of the implications of the existence of the second group is that those of us who are not Roman Catholics will do well to support what the pope is doing and saying; and this I will address in the fourth blog in this series, which will deal with the pope and the other Christian churches.