Pope Francis has published an encyclical on the family that clearly states that contraception is a mature and moral practice that ensures that children grow up in a loving environment. We’ll see how this interacts with the Supreme Court’s decision in a recently-heard case brought by Catholic nuns who insist that they shouldn’t be forced to offer contraception as part of their health care insurance. The nuns, who have children only under the most irregular circumstances, had argued that the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom trumped the requirements of the Affordable Health Care Act, which requires in part that health care plans offer contraception.
During the motorcade through Washington, Pope Francis elevated the human reality of our immigration crisis by calling to him a beautiful Hispanic child. The circumstances of the little girl’s arrival upon the guarded road are suspicious – even the mildly cynical would surmise that she was put there by an adult. The appeal for relief from fear for her parents was also remarkably mature. Of course, that may reflect the constant working of her thoughts against the pressure of her fear. Children are sometimes forced into maturity.
The Pope’s response to her was spontaneous, specific and human, having her lifted up so that he could embrace her. That it was this child that caught his attention may reflect a deep internal resonance of her experience with his own experience as the child of Italian immigrants to Argentina.
Unfortunately, that personal identification is a weakness in his appeal for immigration reform in America. It seems to generate in him a confusion over two very different motivations for immigration: the search for opportunity, and the flight from desperation.
The two narratives – of opportunity and flight – are mingled in the American story. Many of the settlers were fleeing religious or political persecution, but chose America (rather than another European country) because it was a place of opportunity. That opportunity was secured by the huge imbalance in cultural and immunological sophistication of the settlers relative to the Native Americans. These two factors supported population densities that guaranteed that the European tide would eventually sweep aside the native way of life.
But as of 1950 or so, that process had been concluded. The West was settled, parceled and titled to its new owners. The appeal of America shifted: no longer the land of unfettered opporunity, we became the “land of the free.” The “Statue of Liberty” was installed with a plaque that called for the world to send “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.” But the logistics of arranging a trip across the ocean created a filter that biased the arrivals more towards the clever, industrious and opportunistic. This is cemented in current American immigration policy, where heavy preference is given to those that come with exceptional skills. With its mantra of freedom, America now draws to it the most productive citizens from states that do not respect political rights.
What is faced by the refugee – one among the many waves fleeing fear – is an entirely different reality. It is a world of abusive employment practices, first brought to national attention by Caesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, but reborn in the housekeeping business and meat packing plants. It is a culture dominated by aggressive men who establish diasporas enforced by intimidation and violence. Does this represent a shift in American immigration experience? No, for European immigrants, arriving in the densely populated East Coast, often did the same. What is different is that there is now no geographical outlet for those pressures.
So the Pope’s plea for unfettered resettlement of refugees is a little tone deaf. Where are the immigrants to go?
To those that cherish liberty, there is also a moral quandry. What about the tyranny, venality and incompetence that creates a refugee crisis? Would the advanced democratic societies, in guaranteeing the safety of refugees, become unwitting codependents and victims to oppression? In taking in the most productive and resourceful citizens of the affected nations, are we not simultaneously sapping them of the capacity to resist and recover from the side-effects of oppression?
The Catholic Church, as observed by the Canadian philosopher John Hall in Powers and Liberties, has some experience with this problem. As the curator of Europe’s shared culture heritage (including Latin, the libraries and universities, and religious expression), the Church facilitated the flourishing of the Renaissance by issuing letters of introduction for those fleeing feudal oppression. This meant that seizure of wealth actually facilitated the dissemination of ideas and technologies that drove the generation of wealth. However, it was only with the industrial age that the benefits of that dissemination reached down to the lower class, generating the era of relative wealth in the developed nations.
So do we ignore the Pope’s plea?
As a Christian, I cannot. I cannot ignore the misery of those fleeing societal collapse. But I would argue that we should be far more focused in ensuring that the wealth that is transfered from our societies to refugees is organized to ensure that pressure is brought to bear on the originators of their misery.
The uncoordinated dispersal of refugees should be prevented. Rather, I would recommend that they be admitted as a diaspora, seeking to maintain their cultural identification. Refugees should be integrated in the economy, contributing their energy and drive. But they should be encouraged to maintain a political involvement in the affairs of their home country, including participating in cultural exchanges (perhaps within the borders of a third country) that transfer knowledge and experience to those that remain behind. And I recommend that a portion of their earnings be allocated, under State Department oversight, to efforts to bring justice to their country. Their ultimate goal should be full citizenship through return to a reformed state.
The Pope should reflect that Jesus did not flee tyranny, but submitted to its ultimate injustice, and in doing so inspired others to shake off the chains of their fear. Obviously, those that can emulate him are few in number. But the founder of the Catholic Church would exhort it to not cater to cowardice, but rather to encourage others to “pick up their cross.” Of course, there is much that the Western democracies can do to facilitate that process, and in supporting the flowering of justice when chains are eventually cast off.
So I would exhort us not to seek to be free of immigration, nor allow unrestricted freedom of immigration, but rather to focus our policies to ensure that freedom is generated through immigration.
We Americans might be expected, as members of the most powerful nation on Earth, to be used to thinking that every political issue ultimately will be a domestic issue. I expect, upon reading the analysis of the Pope’s message, to be confronted with arguments regarding the merit of his pronouncements regarding the death penalty, immigration, climate change, economic justice and the primacy of statesmanship over armed might. I myself will offer analysis on immigration in a future post.
But is that how we should interpret the lesson on political civics offered to us by Pope Francis in his oration before the Joint Meeting of Congress? For that is indeed what it was: a reminder that politics is an act of service to the people, and that the measure of political success is not the towering monuments of wealth, but the hope and opportunity served to the most desperate of our citizens. Did Francis attempt to resolve the delicate balance between, on one hand, the creation and maintenance of infrastructure that generates opportunity, and, on the other hand, the basic needs that sustain individual initiative? No, he did not, but long experience has shown that a resolution is impossible, and so could not have been his goal.
His goal was far simpler: to remind the United States how important it is as an example to the world. To this end, he raised to our attention four great personalities: Lincoln, MLK Jr, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. He did not dwell on their accomplishments, only offering the briefest analysis of their virtues before plunging into an elaboration of how those virtues relate to the challenges facing the world today.
Many will not see it that way. Many will see his pronouncements on immigration, for example, as meddling in domestic politics. But from his perspective, the problem is a global problem. The displaced refugee does not appear only as an illegal within our borders, but on every inhabited continent. If America cannot sustain the compassion to see them as human beings in need of support, then what nation can?
And so with his civics lesson: our tolerance of aggression in American politics is to authorize tyrannical pronouncements by despots all around the globe. That we tend to use economics to elaborate Clauswitz’s dictum (“War is the continuation of politics by other means”) cannot be expected to register on those without our economic sophistication. Tyrants will use the tools available to them when hostility is sparked by rhetoric, and often their tool of choice will be violence. Our political discourse should be civil, and thus set a better example for the rest of the world.
So I stand in awe of the presentation today. The negative was left implicit. Instead, Pope Francis offered us a paean to American excellence, and exhorted us to heed our better angels when crafting policy.
I do wish that Pope Francis would have extended a practical hand to the politicians that resist collaborative policy making. Early in his speech, he did offer that his goal was to reach not just those present, but all those they represent. The tenderness and humility of this man are a manifestation of divine authority that has changed many hearts over the course of human history. To have indicated some of the many Catholic initiatives intended to address our shared difficulties might have – as did Kennedy’s exhortation to reach the moon – provided an impetus to those that fear the problems are too large, and nothing can be done.
And I know that as an observer of reconciliation in Argentina, Pope Francis must have many profound personal stories to share regarding the political power of love, and the healing that it brings. While his personal example of charity and compassion is profound, those engaged in the cut and thrust of politics may see indulgence in such demonstrations. For those struggling with that resistance, personal testimony of political reconciliation might have been beneficial.
The Republican climate-change deniers were busy this week pre-empting the expected declaration by Pope Francis that responding to global climate change is a moral necessity. The foundation of their argument was that the Pope is not a scientist, and he should leave scientific matters up to those that understand the issues.
But is that the authority upon which the Pope Francis will issue his declaration? I certainly hope not. I think that the Pope should boldly speak for God, because in my meditations on this matter, it is clear where God stands on the issue.
To establish the scriptural basis for this assertion, I re-iterate the Book of Revelation. God sits on his throne surrounded by the twenty-four principal angels (in whose image we are made). In one of the most beautiful passages of the Bible, John describes (NIV Rev.4:9-11)
Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives forever and ever. They lay down their crowns before the throne and say:
“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created,
and have their being.”
What this is telling us is that the virtues of the angels are expressed and tied to life on earth. When life flourishes, the joy of its expression flows up through the angels to God. This is not just the joy of humanity, but the joy of all forms of life. The power of that gratitude is enough to force the angels to surrender their sovereign independence in deference to unconditional love.
But it is not limited thus. If joy and thanks is transmitted, so too must pain. I have felt this pain, a great crying out from the heart of life as it succumbs everywhere to humanity’s merciless exploitation of the bounty of the earth. Reading this passage, can anyone doubt that God would not hear and heed that grieving?
Pope Francis does not need the authority of science to speak out on this issue. That’s too bad for those who have purchased “scientific” opinions. No, if Pope Francis speaks, he will speak with religious authority, the authority of a true representative of God on earth. He will speak for all of Life. He will speak the truth of God’s anguish for the hypocrisy of those that claim to speak in his name while carelessly murdering his creation.
Last week, the Irish Republic, long dominated by the Catholic Church in its management of public morals, stood up on its feet and granted marriage rights to same-sex couples.
The response of the Pope is to claim that humanity “lost” on that day. That claim is rooted in a Biblical passage that asserts marriage is between a “man and a woman.”
As I have discussed before, many same-sex couples involve a masculine personality and a feminine personality. Since I hold that the domain of religion is the soul, I see such pairings are sacred before God. Actually, I would assert that any relationship that brings love into the world is sacred to God, because as we were taught by John, God is love.
Pope Francis, unfortunately, has submitted to a philosophy known as “scientific materialism.” In that world view, it is only the material presentation that matters in judging right and wrong. A “man”, in that world view, possesses a penis that is used to penetrate the vagina of a “woman.” And, of course, God’s primary purpose is in seeing to it that the global ecology is destroyed by human overpopulation.
Yes, Francis, humanity has lost something indeed when even the Pope holds that what we do with our bodies counts more than what we do with our souls.