The Saints March In: The Donald and the Pope

As the summer began and for many months before that, it seemed that the 2016 presidential election would be mind numbing and dreary.

On the plus side, it had been clear for some time that Bernie Sanders and/or Elizabeth Warren would rail against inequality — and, as news of developments in Greece, Spain and elsewhere broke through the media haze, against austerity as well. But nobody expected much to come of it. The plutocrats would call the shots — they always do.

As it turned out, only Sanders decided to run. Warren was not being coy; she really meant it when she said “no way.” Because she is younger than Sanders and Protestant, and because she has lady parts, she might have made the impending contest with Hillary Clinton more competitive than Sanders can. She would probably not have made it more substantive, however; and neither is there reason to think that her views on America’s role in the world are any better than Sanders’. In any case, the issue is moot.

Then Donald Trump barged in upon the scene; and, last week, under the media’s never ending gaze, Pope Francis came to the United States. Suddenly, electoral politics seemed less dull.

The Pope tried hard to stay above the fray, and the effects of his visit have already largely dissipated. But his example did expose the fatuousness of American politics, while putting the six Catholics running for the GOP nomination — Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, Marco Rubio and Rick Santorum – in perspective. A ray of light flickered briefly in a landscape otherwise bleaker than Purgatory.

Francis is gone and his trip to the United States will soon be forgotten; Trump is still here. The conveyors of conventional wisdom are now suggesting – or hoping? — that the Donald has peaked, and that, before long, the effects of his candidacy will dissipate too.

Don’t count on it, though; the evidence doesn’t back them up.

But even if they are right, Trump has already had a major effect on the Grand Old Party. He has put all its candidates for the presidency, regardless of creed, in their place – not, Lord knows, by the force of his example, but by revealing, in a way that even the most blockheaded Republican cannot deny, that, were the Catholic view of the afterlife correct, every last GOP candidate would be on the fast track to Hell.

In a slightly saner world, no one would need a real estate magnate or a Pope to call attention to the glaring deficiencies of the men — and woman — running for the GOP nomination. Even in the actual world, MSNBC has that covered.

In any case, this is not quite the message that the Donald and the Pope conveyed. Their “teachings” are no less obvious — only less acknowledged and discussed.

In the normal course of events, America’s “manufacturers of consent,” themselves part of the problem, would just as soon have kept it that way. But with Trump and Francis, they never stood a chance.

To be sure, countless others have been making similar points for a very long time — with great cogency and little tangible effect. Trump and Francis got through, even to the willfully obstinate, because they speak with an authority that recalcitrant liberals, centrists and right-wingers cannot dismiss, no matter how much they wish they could.

The obvious point that Trump pressed upon the electorate is that American politics is corrupt; that the Democratic and Republican Parties are, for all practical purposes, owned by plutocrats who, by throwing money around, get public officials to do their bidding.

This is not exactly news; it is high on the list of reasons why we Americans find politics distasteful and alienating, and why so many of us have little or nothing to do with it.

But, as a plutocrat himself who, over many years, has bought more than his share of political influence, Trump can honestly say that he has been there and done that. His testimony drives the point home because, as a beneficiary of a corrupt system, he can evince authentic disdain.

Francis’ list of obvious truths runs longer; and his truths are, or ought to be, even more troubling to plutocrats.

It must gall them no end when someone tells Americans, gently but in ways that they cannot ignore, that, among other things: capitalist development is causing ecological ruin; that our consumer culture diminishes the quality of peoples’ lives; that the arms industry is a moral abomination; that the inequalities that are rampant in our society offend human dignity; that capital punishment should abolished; that prisoners should be rehabilitated, not degraded; and that we should welcome asylum seekers and economic migrants, not shoo them away.

Trump disparages Hispanics and other immigrants, while Francis accords them respect. He is, after all, a voice of the global South, its Spanish-speaking regions especially.

However, the Pope is not beyond according second-class status to an even larger portion of the human race: its women.

Francis is not mean-spirited about it, the way that Trump is. But, as the leader of a patriarchal institution, he has duties to perform, and norms to uphold, that prevent him, or any Pope in the foreseeable future, from treating women and men equally.

The sexes may be equal in the mind of God, for whatever that is worth; but they are not equal in the Church, and neither are they equal in the “teachings” of the Church – especially those that have to do with reproductive rights.

These days, this is the Church’s, and therefore Francis’, original sin. Because women who cannot control their own reproduction cannot control their lives, they cannot fully attain the dignity that they are due. Insofar as the Church gets its way, women remain at the mercy of men – individually and collectively.

Since the Pope is a kinder man than Trump, his ways of speaking about the human beings whose social and political disadvantages he is committed to reinforcing are less noxious.

This is an important difference; vile words validate vile impulses, and there is no telling how much harm Trump’s words will do.

In the end, though, the Donald’s effects on American politics may actually be more salutary than the Pope’s.

The Pope made some dim witted, self-righteous Republican politicians look even more ridiculous than they already do. But Trump has already done the GOP irreparable harm. If he keeps it up, he just might do that wretched party in.

Then, regardless of his intentions, the Donald would be more worthy of canonization than a thousand Junipero Serras — not only because if there really were a God and a Heaven and a Hell, Serras, a perpetrator of cultural and physical genocide, would already be rotting in Hell’s lowest circles, but also because nothing that could come out of the coming electoral season could be more beneficial than the infliction of mortal harm upon the GOP.

Serras deemed the native population of California sub-human. Who knows what Trump thinks about the peoples of Mexico and Central America? Probably, he doesn’t know himself; he may not care enough to think anything at all.

It is a good bet, though, that he harbors no particular animosity, no matter how vicious his words and deeds. For him, as for the Godfather, “it’s not personal; it’s business.” His business now is to get himself elected by telling Republican primary voters – characters out of Morons R’Us — what they want to hear.

Telling all kinds of stooges what they want to hear has been the Donald’s modus operandi from the moment he started wheeling and dealing. It is called “working the room.”

On the other hand, anyone who saw the Pope in action knows that he is a man of deep convictions.

But with patriarchal power deeply entrenched in the Vatican and throughout the Church, Francis probably could not do much, even if he wanted to, to get women into the priesthood, or to change the Church’s positions on marriage or abortion or contraception.

Does he want to? There is no reason to think that he does. The Pope is Catholic, after all; and Catholicism’s commitment to patriarchy is not just political. To a degree that is extreme even within the Christian fold, it is also theological. If Francis has any problem with that, he has shown no sign of it; plainly, the College of Cardinals had no inkling.

But who cares what he thinks! Even more, who cares what Trump thinks!

In an ideal world, nobody would, of course – unless one or the other of them could come up with compelling arguments. Francis would have a hard time doing that on matters pertaining to the patriarchal institutions and attitudes of the Church he leads. Trump would have a hard time doing that on anything at all.

But in the actual world, Trump’s money – and the fact that his opponents in the Republican primaries are buffoons, even scarier than he – makes it necessary to take him seriously.

With Francis, the situation is more complicated.


Any religious tradition that has been around for a long time has resources that equip it to survive and flourish as circumstances change.

The Church of Rome has been around for nearly two millennia. From its beginnings as a persecuted sect of Palestinian Jews, it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. It went on to survive heresies and schisms, pagan invasions, conflicts with Islam and other non-Christian faiths, and epochal transformations in the ways that economies and societies are organized.

It has withstood wars, social and political upheavals, the Protestant Reformation, the rise of modern science, the Enlightenment, the emergence of democratic political institutions and the influence of modern political ideologies. In recent decades especially, it has accommodated to wide-ranging cultural transformations.

In theory, though not always in practice, the papacy leads the Church – controlling its “commanding heights – but that institution too has had a long, complicated, and often sordid past. The intrigues and hypocrisies associated with it are legion.

Popes do lead, but they seldom take the lead. When they have in the past, it has been mostly to establish mechanisms intended to foster ideological conformity. These have included torture, corporal and capital punishments (of the cruelest and most unusual types), censorship, and public displays of submission to ecclesiastical authority.

Most of the more congenial changes in Church policies have been launched outside the papacy’s sphere of influence – often outside the Church’s ambit altogether.

Popes sometimes acquiesce to changes for the better, but they seldom initiate them. There is no reason to expect that Francis will be an exception.

On the other hand, the Church does have a long record of helping people in distress – especially the poor and the infirm. All religions do. When as throughout most of human history, there were no secular institutions capable of filling that role, there was no alternative.

It has been pointed out many times that, for Catholics, helping others has always had more to do with saving souls – their own and the souls of the people they help – than with ending poverty or otherwise changing the world for the better. This was, for the most part, a distinction without a difference when it seemed that the poor would always be with us.

However, in the modern era, poverty has had more to do with the maldistribution of wealth than with its scarcity. Yet, to an exceptional degree, the old ways of thinking have held on in Catholic circles.

In practice, though, it can be a small step from charity to solidarity with “the wretched of the earth.” In the global South, the connection has been made time and again.

With few exceptions, the Church hierarchy has been on the wrong side of these developments, doing its best to quash “liberation theology” and the social movements upon which it draws, and which it inspires. Could Francis be turning the page on that sad moment in the history of the Roman Church?

It is more than likely. He certainly seems at peace with similar expressions of solidarity in the developed world.

Perhaps of all the things that Pope Francis said while in the United States, his praise of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, is the most amazing – not least because, before a joint meeting of the House and Senate, he put her, along with Thomas Merton, in the same category as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King.

Those two were once reviled throughout the nether regions of the American political universe.   But they have both, by now, become American icons to such an extent that even the most abhorrent Republicans sing their praises.

No doubt, many of the Senators and Representatives to whom the Pope’s speech was addressed didn’t even know who Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton were.

The hapless commentators on CNN and the other networks had a tough time too. They barely mentioned Day’s progressive politics, her pacifism, or her social activism; and the more learned among them had to scramble to point out that, having once had an abortion herself, Day came in time to endorse a “pro-life” view. It was a nice try, but they could hardly mitigate the essential point.

With Day and Merton, the Pope went out on a limb. But his words were in line with the letter and spirit of longstanding Church teachings.

For as long as capitalist development has been undermining forms of life that the Church holds dear, there have been strains of Catholic theology that promote what is sometimes called “the social gospel.”

The rationale has mainly been conservative, not liberationist, but with capitalism causing all that is solid to melt into air, as Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto, the difference is often moot.

Francis pushed the limits, but he did not venture out far into alien territory. On the other hand, his pleas for tolerance, notwithstanding their anodyne veneer, were anything but old school.


The Pope endorsed tolerance generally – and religious pluralism in particular — on principled liberal grounds.

In one sense, this is like praising Lincoln and King; tolerance has always been a central tenet of the American civil religion, always honored, even if not always observed.

In another sense, though, the Pope’s case for tolerance was remarkable enough to cause anyone with a sense of history to be amazed.

He pressed his case most directly in the speech on religious liberty that he delivered at Independence Hall.

Protestant know-nothings and socially conservative Catholics have lately debased the idea of religious liberty, construing it as an individual’s or business’s or institution’s “right” to opt out of duly enacted laws and regulations – provided they do so for religious reasons.

Days after the Pope returned to Rome, news leaked out that he had met secretly in Washington with Kim Davis, the lachrymose Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue same sex marriage licenses, despite the law and despite being ordered to do so by the courts. Davis’ defiance has made her a hero to the Protestant know-nothings and the social conservatives in the Catholic fold.

There are now reports that he was hoodwinked by rogue bishops or perhaps by lower level staff people at the Vatican’s Washington Embassy. Maybe so; more likely he felt obliged to placate the right-wingers in his flock.

This would not be surprising: clergy are notorious for speaking out of both sides of their mouths. At least Francis had the decency to keep his meeting with Davis a secret – for a while. This was shrewd. Associating his message with Kim Davis et. al. would have taken the luster off his Independence Hall speech.

What the US Constitution defends, and what Francis endorsed in Philadelphia, is a cornerstone principle of philosophical liberalism; one that is opposed, conceptually and historically, to the theory and practice of a Church that has proclaimed, since its inception two thousand years ago, that, in the words of Saint Cyprion of Carthage, there is no salvation outside its domain — extra Ecclesiam nulla salus est.

This doctrine may not entail intolerance – Catholics could, after all, hold that people have a right to condemn themselves to eternal torment — but it plainly encourages it.

The contrast with liberalism is extreme. Tolerance is the cornerstone of liberal political philosophy. Adherence to its principles, and to the spirit behind them, is paramount in the liberal worldview.

The core liberal idea is that people should be free to believe anything they like so long as, in so doing, they do not harm others. It then follows that religious identifications are, or ought to be, of no political significance; that religion is a matter of private conscience only.

In the liberal view, the state has a duty to prevent coercive interference with the exercise of religion and, of course, to protect the rights of those who would be free from religion altogether. Beyond that, church and state go their separate ways.

If the religious convictions of an agent of the state, like Kim Davis, oblige her to become a conscientious objector in a way that makes it impossible for the state to enforce its own laws, the proper recourse for her would be to resign her office, not to defy the law.

Perhaps the Pope met with Davis to remind her of this, and also of her duty, as a Christian, “to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”   Somehow I doubt it, however.

If indeed he did know what he was doing, he was more likely tossing the social conservatives in his flock a bone. In view of how many of them there are, that would be a judicious thing to do – regardless of his personal views. Doing it on the sly was judicious too.

Classical liberalism focused on relations between individuals and the state.

Contemporary strains of liberal theory endeavor to take identity issues into account as well – to uphold individuals’ liberties while, at the same time, “celebrating” their (cultural) differences.

In his Independence Hall speech, Francis identified implicitly with this strain of liberal theory – insisting, to new immigrants and others entering the American melting pot, that integration into American society, and respect for individuals’ liberties need not, and should not, entail homogenization.

He urged immigrants to be proud of their cultures and to celebrate their differences, and he urged descendants of immigrants to welcome new arrivals, and to acknowledge the contributions they make.

Take that – Ted Cruz et. al.!

Of course, the Church has always been good on cultural diversity issues. It is a Church of many peoples and many cultures, after all. But, in its view, there is only one true doctrine. There can be no diversity there.

This is why, from Day One, the Church has been doing its best to enforce doctrinal conformity. And it is why a liberal Pope is a sight to behold.

Yet, there it was – at Independence Hall and at other venues on the Pope’s US tour.

Francis can’t take all the credit; he is riding a long wave. In modern times, the Church has had to accept religious diversity to survive. It has done so, for the most part, grudgingly. But even this has been changing. A more enthusiastically liberal turn has been in the works at least since the Second Vatican Council.

By now, the Church has changed so much that, in most peoples’ minds, it is no longer marked by the intolerance it demonstrated repeatedly over almost the entirety of its existence.

Even so, for a Pope to endorse religious pluralism so boldly is remarkable. In devising intolerant ways and means, the Church of Rome had been without equal in the entire history of the world; it set the gold standard. And yet now its leader tells us all to get along. What would Torquemada think?

It is enough to give us something to think about the next time some wit repeats the old quip: “is the Pope Catholic?”


Papal words have effects – for a brief moment, they relieved the American political class, and the many Americans who were paying attention in the streets and on TV during the Papal visit, of the dead weight of our decrepit political scene.

Unfortunately, this effect won’t last – uplifting feelings are soon forgotten.

Still, what Francis had to say was helpful because he is a good man, a Mensch –his, and his Church’s, on-going problem with women notwithstanding.

To be sure, there was an air of hypocrisy around it all, especially around the Pope’s vaunted humility – symbolized by that comparatively tiny Fiat, surrounded by a battalion size motorcade of monster SUVs. Apart from the fawning commentators on the cable news networks, who did they think they were kidding?

And, for all the Pope’s fine words about the harm global warming is doing, and his warnings of the evils perpetrated in and through financial markets, Francis has yet to lift a finger to cause the Vatican and other Catholic institutions to divest from corporations involved in fossil fuel industries.

For the Church as much as for Donald Trump, business is business. In recent decades its business – at least insofar as the Vatican Bank is concerned — has been, if anything, the sleazier of the two.

Is anyone surprised? Hypocrisy is and always has been the medium in which godliness flourishes.

But all this pales before a stubborn fact that cannot ultimately be denied: that Francis represents a brand whose sell-by date expired centuries ago.

Therefore, apart from their merits, which, in Francis’ case, are considerable (patriarchal attitudes aside), why should a Pope’s words be accorded special weight? It is a question worth pondering.

Is it because he is a religious leader and therefore a “holy man?” Anyone following the Pope’s visit on TV would have heard this said many times. But it is an odd explanation – and not just because reasons for according special attention to the words of the “holy,” or for taking them seriously at all, are dubious at best.

The world is full of holy men (rarely women), after all. Even if we exclude those who are identified with traditions that most Americans and other Westerners deem unkosher – Muslims, for instance, and Hindus, Buddhists, and so on – there are still quite a few left.

Because Francis is a modest man, he would surely agree that there are many, even in his own flock, who are holier than he.

So that cannot be the reason; not the whole reason, anyway.

As with so much else, mainstream media is partly to blame. CNN in particular had not gotten so worked up over anything since they set out almost a decade and a half ago to drum up support for the Bush wars — by showing the Twin Towers collapsing over and over again.

There were important things happening in the world last week – some of them at the UN where the news cameras were primed and ready to report on any and all Popish activities.   CNN was too busy morphing into the Catholic Channel to notice.

Civility played a role too, especially in leftish quarters. It is a sign of the times that what passes for a Left in the United States these days has become cloyingly respectful. Where once there were “pigs,” now there are “officers”; where “fuck the army” was once a proud slogan, liberals now “support the troops.”

And where revolutionaries used to talk of advancing human happiness by strangling kings and aristocrats on the entrails of priests, only “new atheists” and other thoughtless boors would even think of deriding anything having to do with “Judeo-Christian” religiosity.

Other religions aren’t cut quite so much slack; Islam is cut no slack at all. But it is telling that large chunks of Washington, New York and Philadelphia were put into long periods of lockdown for the convenience of priests while Francis was present, and that it all transpired with hardly a grumble reported.

Even people who would rather swim through vomit than pray in a Catholic church think that it would have been churlish – like blaming babies for being annoying or puppies and kittens for soiling inside the house – to complain about the checkpoints and surveillance they had to endure.

The fact that the Pope’s message, though obvious, comes as a breath of fresh air at a time when our elections are bringing out the worst in the worst of us must also be factored into any explanation for the rock star reception that Francis received.

And there is also the fact that we Americans, deprived of a feudal past and born into a country with traditions based on Enlightenment thinking, are crazy about pre-modern, pre-Enlightened institutions and rituals – the sillier and more anachronistic the better.

How else to explain the similarly bizarre fact that Americans go gaga over the British monarchy? Surely not because the Queen of England is also the head of a Church and the Defender of a Faith. Most Americans don’t even know that about her.

The mania around the Pope’s visit is one thing. The deeper mystery is why there is still a Papacy – and indeed a Church – at all? God is dead. All the world’s theistic religions – not just the one that the Pope leads – lost their reason for being long ago.

Or did they? Might it not be that, appearance aside, their reason for being is not and never really has been to worship some purported divinity; that instead it has always involved fundamental human needs that humankind has so far been unable to address in more intellectually satisfactory and morally defensible ways?

There must surely be some plausible explanation, other than the patently ridiculous ones that the worlds’ religions themselves put forward, for their resilience in the face of the plain untenability of their beliefs and the bizarre nature of the practices that they use those beliefs to underwrite.

There must be some worthwhile function these religions serve. Either that or the worlds’ peoples are even more insane than the most pessimistic among us think.

We live in a world in which, for example, “pro-lifers,” toeing the Catholic line, can put an utterly blameless and, estimable organization like Planned Parenthood in mortal jeopardy on the strength of heavily doctored videos about fetal tissue donations, while the Church of Rome, a proven haven for child molesters, is praised to the skies for its moral probity and constructive influence upon the world.

Did any of those hapless CNN explainers, commenting on the Pope’s every move, bother to point out that the reason why Francis had to stay at the Charles Borromeo Seminary when he was in Philadelphia, rather than at the nearby Cardinal’s residence as a visiting Pope normally would, is that the Philadelphia archdiocese had to sell the stately mansion where generations of Cardinals and arch-bishops used to live in order to pay off litigants in sexual molestation cases? They might also have mentioned that, for the same reason, the Church had to sell off some of the land around the Seminary itself.

Yet it is the conventional wisdom in alarmingly many circles – not just in the Republican caucus in the House and Senate — that the Church exemplifies all that is good in the world, while Planned Parenthood is the work of the devil.

Does it get crazier than that?

Part of the explanation, of course, is that God is not quite as dead as He ought to be; that there are still plenty of pre-Enlightened souls around. This is hardly news. All a clear-headed observer has to do is look at the Republican base to see that we are not yet done with the Dark Ages in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

But this is only part of the explanation.   The deeper issue is what “God” means these days for true – or not so true – believers.

In some cases, the answer is clear – the Nation, or the ethnic group, has come to take the place that God once filled. This is how, for example, Judaism survives among practicing Jews whose heads and haberdashery have evolved beyond the standard common in backwards quarters of Eastern Europe four centuries ago.

Despite its commitment to universality – “catholic” means “universal” – the Catholic Church in the United States and other countries settled by immigrants from the four corners of the earth has also served as a vehicle for asserting and maintaining ethnic identity.

It has served similar functions too in parts of the world where Catholic communities coexist with or exist close by non-Catholic communities. This consideration too must be taken into account.

Is it all just a harmless folly, a useful psychological crutch? Maybe sometimes, when religious passions remain matters of private conscience only.

It is very different, though, when they motivate murder and mayhem, as they often do when tribal identities and other worldly idols take the place formerly occupied by a no longer living God.

However, even when religions are benign atavisms only, they are hardly blameless, inasmuch as it offends human dignity for people who should know better to hide from reality by being mired in what Immanuel Kant called humanity’s “self-imposed nonage.”

If nothing else, ordinary human decency obliges adult men and women to face reality squarely – even in a world as debased as ours, a world that takes the likes of the Clintons and Bidens and Donald Trump, and Trump’s rivals for the Republican nomination, seriously.


While the Pope was in the United States, I made a point of watching Luis Buñuel’s “Milky Way,” one of the greatest anarchist-surrealist films ever made.

Buñuel follows the trek – through space and time — of two pilgrims en route from Paris to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

At one point, the pilgrims find themselves at a “spectacle” performed on the grounds of a Catholic girls school, as their bourgeois families picnic on the lawn outside.

One of the pilgrims sees and hears – in his head – anarchists executing a Pope by firing squad. As it happens, the actor playing the Pope bore an uncanny resemblance to Francis – or rather to the Francis of a few years ago, before he moved to Vatican City and started gaining weight.

A man from a family sharing food with the pilgrims hears the rifle shots too. He asks if there is a firing range nearby. The pilgrim replies that it was just him dreaming of anarchists shooting a Pope. The man then tells him, with a note of sadness in his voice, that one could live forever and never see anything like that.

Meanwhile, the youngest group of girls is on stage, reciting one or another tenet of Catholic dogma in a litany that follows the formula: “and if anyone should deny that…., as determined at the Council of …., in ….., qu’il soit anathème, let him be anathema.”

The scene then changes to a dungeon where Inquisitors are passing judgment on doubters and other tormented souls.

The Pope’s visit did cast a ray of light upon an otherwise dreary electoral landscape, but Buñuel’s purchase on Popery was nevertheless salutary – if only for putting all those good Popish vibes in perspective.

Ditto for a New Yorker cartoon that I saw around the same time that pictures the future President Trump meeting with military officials. The caption reads: “Look, lets just nuke them and build something terrific.”

How pathetic is it that, in this electoral season, a Pope – perhaps the best of all possible Popes, but a Pope nevertheless — and an egomaniacal real estate developer have been, so far, the only antidotes to gloom!

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).