During his first visit to the United States, Pope Francis is going to feel a lot of love from hundreds of thousands of people, but he is well aware that a large number of Americans beyond the adoring crowds view him with angry disgust. To them, his teachings on climate change, indulgent consumerism, excessive wealth and capitalist exploitation of the poor are nothing short of socialism. Add to that his open embrace of the refugees from Syria who are flooding into Europe, and quite a few folks on the right are convinced that, far from being a good Christian, Francis is a dangerous charlatan.
In recent days, I’ve heard from a couple of these people. They disagreed with a column in which I said Francis sets a better example of Christianity than does Kim Davis, the devout county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. A real estate agent in West Hollywood sent me a brief email rebuttal to that view (I’ve fixed his punctuation and paraphrased certain words that are not allowed in a family newspaper):
“A man who preaches that Europe should be flooded by Muslims so that Christianity in Europe is wiped out is a good voice for Christianity? Are you (rhymes with trucking) stupid u subhuman stinking (coarse slang for feces)?”
An email from an entrepreneur in Oklahoma City took me to task at greater length and commendably managed to do so without profane insults:
“Before attempting to inform others about what Christ teaches, perhaps you should actually read a Bible. You are no better at telling anyone about Christ's teachings than the corrupted Socialist Pope. As Christians we are to show love. We are not the judge and jury. In addition, we don't support people who are blatantly sinning against God. Christ said nothing about global warming or embracing an evil cult like Islam in any of His teachings. Unfettered Capitalism? Amazing. Why don't you cite your sources from the Bible for these cookie cutter progressive ramblings of yours that you and those like you in the media parrot over and over?”
I give both these men credit for signing their real names to their messages rather than hiding behind an online nom de plume like most of the critics who comment on my cartoons and columns. I give them less credit, though, for understanding the breadth of Christian and, especially, Catholic teaching.
Off the top of my head, I could cite the parable of the Good Samaritan as a guide to how Jesus felt about generosity to refugees. And I could suggest a rereading of Christ’s many words about helping the poor and sharing personal wealth and the difficulty a rich man may face getting into heaven. That might give a sense of how the man from Nazareth might look at the global gap in wealth between the tiny few who have extreme riches and the millions who barely scrape by. But, like the gentleman from Oklahoma implied, I am no Biblical scholar.
However, the pope has a better theological understanding than most people. It is what he does for a living, after all. What conservative critics of Francis ignore is that Catholic social teaching has been consistent for more than a century, stretching back to the age of sweatshops, child labor and the robber barons. When Ronald Reagan’s partner in Cold War diplomacy, Pope John Paul II, came to the U.S., he too preached against the abuses of the capitalist system, though his fans on the right conveniently closed their ears to what he had to say. The concern Francis has for the environment grows out of that tradition.
Growing up in South America, the future pope not only witnessed the extremes of wealth and poverty, he also saw how unrestrained greed was destroying the Brazilian rain forest, polluting rivers and fouling the air. If one truly believes that Earth is God’s creation, it is no stretch to conclude that profit-driven, destructive exploitation of that creation is a religious concern. Conservatives, such as Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, do not see it that way, of course. Santorum has said the pope should “leave science to the scientists.” That’s pretty laughable, considering how climate change deniers in Congress refuse to accept the vast scientific consensus that global warming is real and is exacerbated by the industrial world’s dependence on fossil fuels. Those congressmen are clearly more eager to cater to profits than to any prophets.
Whether it is Santorum and other conservatives (including many American bishops) who disagree with Francis on economics and the environment, or liberals who are uneasy with the pope’s stand against abortion and contraceptives, we all have a tough time resisting the temptation to pick and choose among the bits of religious teaching until we find something that supports our political views. The kind of person I would guess is least likely to do that is the man from Argentina who has devoted his life to serving his church, caring for his people and forging a deep understanding of what it means to be an authentic Christian in this crazy world.
Pope Francis, welcome to America.
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