The pope has gone home, flying out of Philadelphia about 7 p.m. Sunday night.
An apt moment to ask what, if anything, the visit meant, and what its lingering effects might be.
Pope Francis certainly got a warm reception, adoring crowds, incessant, respectful media, an unprecedented address to a joint session of Congress.
“There is another temptation which we must especially guard against, the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil,” the pope told one of the most bitterly divided legislative bodies in history. “Or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps.”
If life were a movie, then Speaker John Boehner would have leapt up and resigned on the spot, the way that the corrupt senator played by Claude Rains in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” bolted from the Senate chambers, tried to shoot himself, then returned to publicly confess his guilt.
Life is not a movie, alas, and Boehner waited until the next day, quitting, not so much in opposition to the right wing schismatics who have destroyed his party as in submission to them. While the resulting disarray might temporarily thwart their efforts to bring the United States government to a standstill, the long term is thought to be an even more bitterly divided government, assuming such a thing is possible.
Our leadership certainly seemed unmoved by the pope’s heartfelt appeals, keeping with the central tenet of extremism: you don’t change in light of facts or rhetoric, but merely cherry-pick the facts and arguments you believe help your case. For instance, when the pope issued an unequivocal call for an end to capital punishment, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s reply was a masterstroke of convolution.
“I believe the death penalty is a recognition of the preciousness of human life,” he said.
Pope Francis handed out plenty of manna to feed the entire political spectrum — something for everyone! — and you could argue he is just putting the same old my-way-or-the-highway theology in a shiny new box.
Was the pope’s visit a feel-good waste then? My gut, or at least my hope, tells me it was not. Anyone living in a generation where the civil rights of gay people took such a dramatic turn has to believe in the cumulative effect of time and argument. Change happens the way Mike Campbell went bankrupt in “The Sun Also Rises”: “Gradually and then suddenly.”
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So those who habitually deny science and boost big business can argue against climate change. But climate change is still real. The evidence of it manifests itself day by day, and having the head of the Catholic Church start focusing on the fate of the planet instead of what goes on in its bedrooms can’t be a bad thing. Maybe not this week. But over time. I’m old enough to remember when recycling seemed a concern that granola-gobbling oddballs cared about. Now it’s almost kind of a secular religion.
Of course, I’m only doing what everyone has been doing: spinning the pope my way. Consider this, said by the pope in Philadelphia’s Independence Park:
“In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others.”
The first part seems a big thumbs up to the Kim Davises of the world, who twist being demanded to respect the civil rights of others into an infringement of their own religious liberty. But the second part seems to be telling the Kentucky clerk to issue the marriage licenses.
As much as religion is used by those trying to argue they have no choice, religion, as Pope Francis reminds us, is a vast treasury where you choose what to emphasize, finding whatever it is you seek. Davis chose to stand in the doorway barring gays, citing Scripture. But she could have just as easily cited her Christian faith as requiring her to sing “Ave Maria” at those gay weddings, despite her personal objections. The choice, as Pope Francis points out, except when he doesn’t, is yours.