Mark Shields: A mixed papal blessing

Mark Shields

Mark Shields

When the Gallup poll last asked, Pope Francis was rated favorably by 76 percent of Americans (including 78 percent of Protestants and 73 percent of those with no religious affiliation) and unfavorably by only 9 percent, a better than 8-to-1 favorable rating. These are numbers that almost any political candidate would die for.

Politicians, being human, enjoy being seen in the company of popular heroes, which may explain why the Republican speaker of the House, John Boehner, with full support from leaders of both parties on Capitol Hill, invited the Holy Father to address a joint meeting of Congress. On Sept. 24, when Francis becomes the first pope to address Congress, you can be sure that every pol in shoe leather, liberal or conservative, will be enthusiastically applauding while angling for a personal photo op with the charismatic pontiff.

But there is a problem: Pope Francis insists on speaking the uncomfortable truth to the powerful and the pompous, both clerical and secular. Democrats cheered the pope’s criticisms of “trickledown theories,” which have “never been confirmed by the facts.” He said, “We can no longer trust in the … invisible hand of the market.” When the pope stated that climate change is “mostly” man-made and denounced “the globalization of indifference” in the mistreatment of immigrants, Dems were confident he was on their side.

Until, that is, Pope Francis indicted the “throwaway culture” that reduces people to “mere cogs in a machine” and “treats them as items of consumption to be exploited.” He said, “Whenever a human life no longer proves useful for that machine, it is discarded with few qualms, as in the case of the terminally ill, the elderly who are abandoned and uncared for, and children who are killed in the womb.” Most liberals would agree that this pope makes great sense on the economy but that he knows nothing about sex, whereas the majority of conservatives would give him high marks on sexual morality but find him hopelessly naive on economics.

John Carr of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, who is an insightful observer of the Roman Catholic Church, offers a most interesting assessment of the Holy Father: “I would say that Pope Francis’ first miracle is getting political leaders in the U.S. to talk about poverty.” Carr is right. Forty-five years ago, poverty and poor people were still very much at the center of our national policy debates. But in recent years, nearly all the rhetorical — and political — attention has been fixed, safely, on the middle class. Pope Francis, by his example and his popularity, has managed to change our public dialogue. Not only is Barack Obama speaking more openly about inequality and the poor but so, too, are Republicans, including, but not limited to, Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio.

Pope Francis belongs to no political party. He is not a partisan. What this good man teaches is that the human race is a family, that we must look out for one another — care for one another — and that humans are not created to serve the economy but rather the economy is created to serve humankind. Now that’s really a new politics.


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