“A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk.”
— Pope Francis speaking to the US Congress
Pope Francis’ speech to the US Congress struck me as a message with strains long demanded in the corrupt halls of our government. It was a message that took me back 30 years to my travels in Central America during the Reagan years, which was a pivotal moment in modern US history for the rise of a money class and the problems of inequity we currently face.
I was raised an atheist by a right-wing militarist. As a little boy, when my father worked in research for a pharmaceutical company in suburban New York, there came a time he aspired to enter the corporate end of the business. So I was sent to Sunday school for a brief period. There I learned that Jesus Christ was this cool guy in robes who loved people and was nice to them.
My father’s honeymoon with the corporate side of the company did not last long. I imagine it was a bitter affair, because soon enough he collected his wife and three sons and moved to a house in the truck farming area of south Dade County below Miami. I recall him saying he was going “bohemian.” He got a job lecturing in physiology at the University of Miami Medical School and he set up our rural property as an amateur nursery, where he worked a hobby of botany, treating seeds aimed at the creation of strange new versions of sub-tropical plants.
You might say dear old Dad was a bit eccentric. He had been a PT boat captain in the Solomon Islands, Peleliu and Okinawa for a couple years and, though it wasn’t an issue then, he must have had some variant of PTSD that contributed to his eccentricities. He and I fought most of our lives over politics, me taking a critical, leftist line, especially following my stint in Vietnam. Still, he was a complicated man and I recall him saying about me in public more than once, “Sometimes, at night, I wonder whether you might be right.” The one thing we saw absolutely eye-to-eye on was a disbelief in some kind of supernatural deity who knew or cared what we humans were thinking and doing. What he believed in was biology.
One of the things we regularly fought over was Ronald Reagan. “If I could I’d vote for him five more times,” he said at the end of Reagan’s second term. I once responded to him by saying, “When you were in your PT boat hiding in terror in the mangrove from the Japanese, some starlet was rubbing suntan oil on your hero Ronald Reagan’s ass beside a pool.” He grimaced and said, “You really know how to hurt a guy.”
When I went off to Central America in sympathy with the Sandinistas in the Contra War and got deported from Honduras for opposing US actions there under Reagan’s proconsul John Negroponte, my father took perverse pleasure in the fact his middle son’s deportation made it as a tiny story onto the front page of the Wall Street Journal.
What does this have to do with Pope Francis in America?
As an atheist, my second positive encounter with Jesus Christ — following that brief childhood meeting in Sunday school — was to meet radical priests and peasant delegates of the word and learn about Liberation Theology in places like Sandinista Nicaragua and the rebel zones of El Salvador. I traveled there as a curious documentary photographer. The Jesus these people loved was the same one I met back in Sunday school; but in this instance, the force that Jesus was working against was the arrogance of the imperial United States — my nation — that was supporting the wealthy exploiters and killers who had kept the peasantry destitute for decades. The fact is, if I had never traveled to Central America to see things for myself, I would never have been aware of any of this and I would never have appreciated the Jesus I had first encountered in Sunday school as a little boy.
I went on to read about Liberation Theology and some of its basic tenets like the preferential option for the poor, which I came to understand as choosing to view life, especially political life, from the bottom up, from the vantage point of the least among us. As with Saul’s transition to Paul on the road to Damascus, the scales fell from my eyes. Over the years it became a profound understanding for me that in North America — under what I came to grasp as an imperial reality — we lived an existence that could only be called a preferential option for the rich and the powerful. Never in my life has this out-of-balance condition been more true than today. Republicans whine about the need to return America to greatness, but as you listen to them, it becomes clear what they’re talking about precludes addressing the long-neglected needs of those at the bottom of the economic pile — now, it involves even those in the disappearing middle class. These needs have been neglected and exploited for so long you begin to understand that they are seen as a burden best left un-discussed other than in empty platitudes. America, they would say if they had the courage and the honesty, can ill afford to address this stuff because it’s a drag on making America great again. The glorious empire can only advance if we continue to neglect the damaged republic — that is, as Francis put it, if we don’t “satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all [society’s] members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk.”
So now along comes Pope Francis, following on heels of a conservative pope whose legacy was as the Vatican’s Cold War policeman against Liberation Theology in Latin America. If Benedict had continued as pope, it would have meant a narrowing of scope, and a diminishment of the flock, for the Roman Catholic Church. He resigned and the cardinals elected a priest from Argentina who had headed the Jesuits there during the notorious Dirty War when leftists were tortured and “disappeared.” Many of these disappearances were bodies regularly flown out to sea and kicked out the door of planes, their bellies cut open so the corpses would sink when they hit the water. It was a horrible, dark time; and the US supported much of it or turned a blind eye.
Pope Francis — his given name is Jorge Mario Bergoglio — survived the Dirty War, but he arguably did so with some baggage. In a controversial instance, two radical leftist Jesuit priests under his authority — Orlando Yorio and Franz Jalics — were arrested and severely tortured. It has been suggested that Bergoglio was in cahoots with the fascists, but this has been completely discredited. The truth seems to be in a moral gray zone where his support for the two priests was not loud and clear enough to restrain the military from coming to the conclusion it was safe to arrest and torture them. Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize winner from Argentina, has said: “Perhaps he didn’t have the courage of other priests, but he never collaborated with the dictatorship.” Yorio died in 2000. Reportedly, Bergoglio met with Jalics, who extended his Christian forgiveness to Bergoglio, leading to a very emotional meeting and an embrace between the two men. Again, it was a very dark time.
All humans have things in their past they’re not particularly proud of, and often such incidents, turned over and over in their minds over the years, become fuel for a sense of clearer moral determination in the future. Based on personal experience and a general reading of Latin American political history, for me, this explains a lot about Pope Francis and why he delivered the incredible hour-long speech he did before Congress. I have many friends who disdain Pope Francis for not being more radical. I fully understand their position. But it would be naïve to expect this of the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, an institution with many corruptions in its often sordid history, many still buried in its closets. In this sense, it’s very much like the United States of America.
It’s the combination of this human fallibility and Francis’ determination, as he put it in his speech, to “dialogue” with the world, especially with North America, that makes him so interesting politically and effective delivering the once-radical message of the preferential option for the poor to Washington/Babylon. His little Fiat traveling amongst a stream of menacing, black official-Washington SUVs symbolizes this visually. His decision to lunch with the homeless rather than the leaders of Congress. The way his face lights up when he’s connecting with a child. And, of course, the content of his speech, emphasizing the least among us and the need for American politics to get beyond the do-nothing stasis of polarization and begin to address the real problems of the republic that fester from neglect and our obsession with capitalism and imperial glory.
As he gave his beautiful speech to Congress, you could not help noticing Speaker of the House John Boehner’s face in emotional contortion as he periodically wiped tears from his eyes. One could only imagine the tortuous drama of moral shortcomings going on in that man’s head. The same went for Joe Biden and presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio, also caught wiping his eyes. I have never seen US congress men and women listening to a speech with such rapt attention. It was as if they were listening to a voice they were uncertain of, maybe even a little afraid of — yet they were entranced and in total awe.
Change is in the air as we endure the media clown show our quadrennial presidential election campaigns have become. The American imperium seems to be going through some sort of painful self-examination process, and the addition of Pope Francis’ mainstream message of the Christ-based preferential option for the poor can only make the dialogue that much richer and more profound. Bill O’Reilly tried futilely on Fox News to selectively distort the pope’s remarks as anti-Obama and about abortion and homosexuality. It felt like the desperation of a Catholic right-wing bully. I agree with Joe Biden: Abortion is wrong, but the question is who should assume the moral burden for the act, the individual taking it or the state and its need to punish. On homosexuality and marriage, the Catholic Church is still living in the dark ages, especially considering its worldwide scandal of priests abusing young boys. The pope’s emphasis on the importance of family is something the right and the left share.
During his remarks in Spanish to the thousands of people gathered before the US capitol building, Pope Francis spoke to atheists. After asking Christians to pray for him, he asked those who “do not believe” to, in their own way, keep him in their hearts and think about him and his message. This exhibited the man’s openness and strength. My wife was raised a Catholic and, therefore, she knows what it means to “pray.” I really do not have a clue what “praying” means. But as Francis requested, I’m putting him in my thoughts. His message may be more pragmatic than radically pure, but it’s one of the clearest, most effective calls for ordinary Americans to get off their apathetic asses to work for positive change I’ve heard in a very long time.
Here in Philadelphia, the city awaits the pope’s arrival this weekend. It’s booked as a meeting with the American people. It looks to be both an ungainly circus and a profound event in the dialogue of American politics.