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Pope Francis’s Challenge to America

| September 24, 2015

pope francis america

Pope Francis at St. Patrick’s Cathedral Thursday evening. (CNN/FlaglerLive)

By Chris Patten

It’s a dollar to a cent that Pope Francis’s visit to the United States is one of the biggest news stories of 2015. Take the sheer number of American Catholics, add the diplomatic skill of the Vatican’s purple-and-scarlet-clad officials, then throw in Francis’s powerful statements on a variety of subjects – often antagonizing America’s right wing in the process – and you have all the ingredients of an epic event.


Start with the diplomats. Vatican officials catch their share of criticism, not least from Francis himself. But their ranks include intelligent top-rank officials – led by the Pope’s chief adviser, Cardinal Pietro Parolin – who are experienced at working quietly for peace and social justice in some of the most perilous parts of the world.

When such smart diplomacy is put at the service of an appealing and influential Pope, not to mention the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, the result is an engine for doing good that is more formidable than anything the world has seen for some time.

Anecdotes about Francis – from his propensity for making personal phone calls to those in distress to his decision to wash the feet of criminals, Muslims, and women (to the horror of some churchmen) – ring true. Such acts of graceful nobility have contributed to his reputation as a kind, approachable, charismatic, and decisive leader – one who has proved to be highly appealing worldwide.

My personal experience with Francis suggests that his reputation is well deserved. Though, at age 71, I may be a little old to indulge in hero worship, I cannot remember a public figure to whom I have warmed more. He embodies the message, delivered in the Gospel of St. Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6).

The moral authority that Francis exudes makes his interventions in controversial contemporary issues – such as his condemnation of the Armenian genocide, Islamic jihadi violence, Mafia criminality and corruption in Italy, and the deaths of African and Middle Eastern migrants in the Mediterranean – extremely powerful. Before and during his visit to the US, his views on three issues – none of which is without controversy in the US – will have a particularly strong impact.

First, Francis is helping to end the decades-long standoff between the US and Cuba. Not only did Cardinal Parolin, formerly the Vatican’s man in Venezuela, play a key role in the restoration of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba; Francis plans to visit the island on his way to the US.

But the thaw in US-Cuba relations has not been welcomed by all US politicians. Indeed, despite President Barack Obama’s apparent desire to end the pointless diplomatic freeze, some right-wing US politicians would, it seems, prefer a pariah to a potential partner off Florida’s coast.

The second key issue that Francis will address relates to the Israel-Palestine conflict – a fraught subject for the US, Israel’s most important ally. The Vatican has announced its intention to sign a treaty that includes recognition of a Palestinian state. Given Francis’s long record of friendship with Jews, and his understanding of their religion and culture, no Israeli politician can possibly condemn him as an anti-Semite.

Nonetheless, in parts of the American political establishment, Israel – specifically, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party – can do no wrong. A US senator once told me, “We are all members of Likud here.”

The third issue – the most challenging for some American politicians, especially the most conservative among them – is Francis’s recent encyclical on environmental stewardship, climate change, and sustainable and fair economic development. He clearly intends to put the full moral weight of his papacy behind the efforts to conclude a deal on climate change at the United Nations conference in Paris in December. Obama’s recent statement on carbon-dioxide emissions is clearly very much in line with the encyclical.

Francis discussed the subject in his address to Congress, 30 percent of whose members – including House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican – are Catholic. Given that several of the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination – including Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Bobby Jindal – also are Catholic, Francis’s strong stance on climate change may create a serious political dilemma for some.

Already, some of the most conservative elements in American politics – backed by those, like the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, who benefit from inaction on climate change – are attempting to denounce Francis’s views. Whereas the Catholic Church once tried to suppress science and reason, most notably in its condemnation of Galileo, it is now defending them, while conservative US politicians deny the facts. The pope is on the side of reason, as well as that of the angels.

In 1891, Pope Leo XIII produced Rerum Novarum, an encyclical on workers’ rights that fundamentally challenged the contemporary political discourse and approach to policymaking. Francis hopes to have a similar impact today, helping to catalyze action on climate change. In this manner, he hopes, the world can achieve sustainable growth that improves the lot of the poor, while safeguarding the planet on which we depend.

The 78-year-old Francis often talks of the limited time he has ahead of him. Most Catholics pray that this is not the case. Given the positive impact that such a charismatic and forward-thinking pope can have on the world, we should all share that hope.

chris patten pope francisChris Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong, is a former conservative member of Parliament, a former EU commissioner for external affairs, and a former chairman of the BBC Trust. He is Chancellor of the University of Oxford. He oversaw Pope Benedict’s visit to the United Kingdom in 2010. (© Project Syndicate)

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19 Responses for “Pope Francis’s Challenge to America”

  1. YankeeExPat says:

    “Indifference is dangerous, whether innocent or not.”
    ― Pope Francis

  2. DwFerg says:

    The Pope has moral authority. It’s curious how many people want to ban religion from all public walks of life(separation of Church/State/Schools), yet, when the agenda suits them(e.g. climate change), let’s allow the Pope to lead the world. Maybe if we want the Pope to lead the secular agenda, let’s start with the sanctity of life “from all stages of development”. Or maybe that is just an Inconvenient Truth ! Sorry, had to add some context.

  3. Enough already says:

    Why is it all ways America needs to change? How come nobody ever says China, Russia, North Korea, etc needs to do more about global warming? On immigration it’s just like I said years ago when Sen Ted Kennedy made a speech about more public, low income housing in residential established neighborhoods needed to be built, I said ‘ when you allow low income, public housing in Hyannis Port or on the grounds of the Kennedy mansion in South Florida then I’ll agree 100%. However nobody is stopping the refugees from Syria to take shelter at the Vatican, it’s closer than America, or perhaps Obama should of done something about Syria in the first place.

  4. Sherry E says:

    Huh. . . while visiting the USA and addressing “our” congress and our people . . . a Catholic leader should talk about the responsibilities of non-catholic countries. . . WHY????

    This is a man who is eloquently reminding us to love all our fellow brothers and sisters of the human species, to follow the Golden Rule. . . just as protestant leaders should be doing. How is that so terrible and controversial? Oh yes, I forgot where I am sitting, for a moment there. . .

  5. Anonymous says:

    You conveniently overlook recent instances where Francis has waffled on the Palestinian issue. His general support and sympathy for the plight of Palestinians, which was over-hyped by the Anti-Zionist press in the past as they tried to make it seem like Francis was taking sides with them against Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish State, has forced him to pull back…Only to venture forth once again, where he can expect the same distorted response…as you exemplify above.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I believe it was also an unfortunate mis-step for him to publicly apologize to the Catholic CLERGY for being placed in a bad light for their systematic and historical abuse of children.

  7. Anonymous says:

    He also made public references about how SOME nations are leaning on developing nations to adopt progressive contraceptive laws and Gay rights agendas as pre-requisites for aide and assistance. As though the Catholic Church itself has NEVER had agendas of their own that they have been guilty of pressing on global nations, all throughout their history, threatening everything from withholding of assistance to potential converts being doomed to hellfire and brimstone for all eternity.

  8. Kevin says:

    Hopefully the Flagler County Commissioners will reflect on the message to all inhabitants of our home, mother earth, to respect and care for it. It starts with our local policies and guidelines to balance development and conservation to protect a sense of place. Protecting the natural beauty of our county from unbridled development makes not only environmental sense but economic sense. Property taxes are not lowered by allowing every acre of open space to be bulldozed and paved. Compare the congested counties in south Florida or Tampa/St Petersburg and you’ll find their taxes are actually worse than ours but their quality of life is not better than ours. The recent actions to replace a voice of reason with a developer shows the failure of these commissioners to listen to the will of the people to protect our environment from reckless development. Not all development makes sound fiscal policy except of course for the developers themselves and their well campaign financed political cronies.

  9. snapperhead says:

    Preach values if you like Frank but if the leaders of the temples of fairy tales care to way in on public policy and legislation give up your free loading tax exempt status.

  10. Geezer says:

    @Enough already:

    As “leader of the free world,” the USA is supposed to set the example.
    That is why it needs to constantly change, correct, amend, and evolve
    into the Declaration of Independence’s premise:

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,
    that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable
    Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    We’re not there yet.

  11. Sherry E says:

    Again. . . us usual dear Geezer. . . you are so right!

    It is incredibly tiresome and sad to me that a person of faith and love travels all the way to the USA to try and give us all a little spiritual guidance and inspiration to love and care for our fellow brothers and sisters of human kind. . . and his words are met with messages of fear, hate and criticism. Geez, enough already. . . do you even hear yourselves?

    Yes, as clearly shown in the comments here. . . we still have a long way to go!

  12. David B says:

    The Pope is here, Why do I get the feeling that Big Brother is Watching ? Are our morals that bad ?

  13. Anonymous says:

    The Catholic Church has, itself, has been full of “messages of fear, hate and criticism” at times…or hadn’t you noticed?

  14. Sherry E says:

    David, Pope Francis has traveled to several other countries during these trouble, war torn times to bring solace, messages of peace and love, reminders about the Golden Rule. . . a spiritual up lifting. He came also to speak at the UN (which is located in NY) about our human responsibility to care not only for ourselves but also for our planet.

    All of these things are connected. Are we so perfect in the USA that we have become almost paranoid and reject any spiritual guidance? I personally am more a Buddhist than anything else and I’m very liberal. I believe in a woman’s right to control her own body and that it is not my place to say who should marry who. I’ve well aware of the darker side of atrocities committed in the name of religion. Yet, I am not the least bit offended by Pope Francis’ messages of peace, joy and love. David, and others. . . open your hearts just a little, please!

  15. Oldseadog says:

    I think this Pope has got it……..! LEADERSHIP by EXAMPLE

    “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.”
    Francis of Assisi

  16. Geezer says:

    Sherry E:

    You’re a breath of fresh air.

    Your comments are always thoughtful and compassionate.
    Even when you disagree with other readers – you keep it
    classy. One can glean from your comments that you are educated,
    and open-minded. Today’s closed-mindedness is all too common –
    all the more reason to appreciate a fellow FL reader such as yourself.

    I’m glad to comment alongside of you.

  17. Patriot76 says:

    It’s funny how the Pope can come here and give us moral compass guidance and the “conservatives” aka mostly non-Catholic Christians are in uproar over the fact we listen to him on a wide level more than their evangelist, money-driven speakers. Maybe something should tell you all there is a winning message and a losing message – just because your message is a losing one don’t fault the Pope for his

  18. David B says:

    Good for you Sherry. However many of us were raised in well educated homes, taught to seek our own paths in life, Be independent thinkers. Abide to morals Live by our own beliefs, whether it be of creativity or evolution. I was taught this by my parents, and my children were taught this.

  19. Sherry E says:

    OK. . . . let me pose this question. How does it benefit any one of us to always be looking and living on the “darker” side. . . the side where we always filter out the “good” and then focus only on fear motivated judgement of our spiritual and political leaders as well as our fellow brothers and sisters of humankind?

    Yes, this good pastor (Pope Francis) now leads a religion that I personally do not completely embrace. Yes, absolutely, the Catholic church has historically been responsible for atrocities that we should all learn from and that should never ever be repeated. However, should we not recognize that the Vatican now has a new leader. . . one that is endeavoring to move an incredibly massive bureaucracy towards the positive light of sacred caring for each human being “equally”? Can we not focus just on his words of loving kindness toward one another? Should we all not put the well being of our planet and of all people above money? Should we not open our hearts and love and care for one another regardless of religious preference, skin color, financial status, culture, language, gender or political thinking?

    Have so many of us become so very negative, that we cannot evolve and courageously open ourselves to the positive?

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