Pope Francis’s visit to the United States was like the second coming of Christ. Francis, “known for being humble and unassuming,” did not ride into Washington on a donkey, like Jesus. But, as reported, he did ride in “a humble Fiat,” with “no fancy wheels . . . scooting around Washington”—which has the same effect. (“Pope Francis scoots around D.C. in humble Fiat,” By Chris Woodyard, USA TODAY Sept. 22, 2015) However, he was escorted by a caravan of big law enforcement SUVs and patrol cars.
But, to continue the Gospel effect, Francis held and blessed select children– hoisted up to him in his open Jeep pope-mobile– from among adoring throngs of people lining the streets. He ate lunch and dinner in Washington with homeless, mentally ill and other marginalized people. He visited prisoners in Philadelphia’s largest correctional institution—with a repeated, moving, TV news scene of one inmate giving him a big hug. And he told immigrant-bashing Congresspersons and presidential candidates that “thousands of persons”—who have the same dreams as they—“are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and their families,” and the response to their search should always be “humane, just and fraternal.” (“Transcript: Pope Francis’s Speech to Congress,” The Washington Post, Sept. 24, 2016)
These acts are right out of the Gospel of Matthew. Shades of a down-to-earth Jesus, who said that being “righteous”—and gaining “eternal life”– is about feeding those who are hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing people who are naked, caring for those who are sick, and visiting the prisoners. Which acts of compassion Jesus then emphasized: “Truly I say to you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (25: 32-46)
“Who are members of my family . . .” Therein lies the politically correct rub, which defined Pope Francis’s visit to the U.S.
Before and after Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey that Palm Sunday, the Gospels record him as speaking truth to power: to those Jewish religious leaders who accommodated Roman oppression of the “members of [his and their] family,” and to the imperialistic Roman rulers themselves. And he ended up crucified on a cross. Pope Francis’s Gospel Reality Show, however, was choreographed to avoid any disastrous political fate. He carefully chose the “members of his family” to honor.
In a fashion, Pope Francis did speak truth to today’s equivalent of the Roman imperialists: the U.S. Congress. But he spoke with a political correctness that was eloquently captured by status quo-guarding media anchor Scott Pelley, who gushed, “Pope Francis scolded the lawmakers and they loved it.” (“CBS’ Scott Pelley: Pope Francis ‘scolded the lawmakers and they loved it,’” grabien.com, 9/24/2015)
“The people’s pope” did “scold” the Congressional lawmakers with some hard truths—and cushioned them with generalities and congenial appeals. He lauded the “millions of people” who “came to this land to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom.” He called himself and the lawmakers “the sons of immigrants,” then gently recognized the lawmakers’ genocidal history: “Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected,” and “for those peoples and their nations, from the heart of American democracy, I wish to affirm my highest esteem and appreciation.” (“Transcript: Pope Francis’s speech to Congress,” Ibid)
Nevertheless, Pope Francis’s “esteem and appreciation” for the non-family members “who were here long before us” was not that “high.” Just the day before, he canonized Spanish missionary Fr. Junipero Serra, who founded Catholic missions in 18th century California, and whom he championed as “one of the founding fathers of the United States.” (“Sainthood of Serra Reopens Wounds of Colonialism in California,” By Laura M. Holson, The New York Times, Sept. 30, 2015) As reported, “During the canonization Mass at Catholic University in Washington,” Francis said that Serra “was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life.” He also “praised Serra’s treatment of the Native Americans, saying that he ‘sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.’” (“Pope Francis canonizes controversial saint Serra,” By Daniel Burke, CNN Religion Editor, CNN.com, Sept. 23, 2015)
“Fifty different tribes in California condemned the sainthood conferred on Serra ,” Washington and Lee University professor Deborah Miranda was reported as saying. Her “objection and the objection of many California Indians is that he is being honored for in fact dishonoring many of our California ancestors.” She said “the missions ended up killing about 90% of the California Indians present at the time of missionization, creating all kinds of cultural and emotional baggage that we still carry to this day.” (Ibid)
A Guardian story goes into detail about Fr. Serra’s imperialistic Catholic faith. “Under Serra’s leadership, [Spanish] soldiers violently captured California’s Native Americans, forced them into labor and imprisoned them until they died . . . he brutally converted them to Christianity and wiped out entire cultures, languages and villages in the process.” This so-called “founding father of the United States” brought “enslavement, malnutrition and the introduction of diseases” to the native inhabitants: “the missions were responsible for the deaths of 62,000 indigenous Californians from 1769 to 1833.” (“The pope should not grant sainthood to a brutal missionary,” by Rose Aguilar, Sept. 22, 2015)
Fr. Serra and his Spanish soldiers were operating out of the Catholic Church’s Doctrine of Discovery—that, sadly, still remains in effect. As the Romero Institute reports, this Doctrine– in the form of a papal bull, was first issued in 1452 by Pope Nicholas V— “grants the blessing to ‘capture, vanquish and subdue the Saracens, pagans and other enemies of Christ and put them into perpetual slavery and to take all their possessions and their property.’” In 1493, Pope Alexander VI extended the papal bull, called the Bull Inter Caetera , which “was issued after Christopher Columbus laid claim to the Americas.” It states “that if explorers come upon undiscovered lands that were inhabited by indigenous/Native/ ‘barbaric’ peoples, it was one’s civil duty as a European and Christian to civilize those peoples and to take their lands and possessions.” (“Doctrine of Discovery,” romeroinstitute.org) The indigenous peoples were not “members of my family.”
How can lands be “undiscovered” if people are already living in them?– unless they are The Other and don’t count as “members of my family.” It is about the superiority of the real “members” of Jesus’ “family.” The “sin” of the indigenous peoples of California was in being found by a missionary of an imperialistic faith. This basic query about human rights should have been on the Pope’s mind.
Rather than canonizing Fr. Serra, Pope Francis should revoke the racist and immoral Doctrine of Discovery—as various religious and indigenous groups have joined in calling for. (See “Doctrine of Discovery: Legal justification for GENOCIDE; sign the petition to Pope Francis,” romeroinstitute.org/petition)
In the face of this history, Pope Francis continues to rationalize away the United States’ imperialistic past to Congress with the words, ”Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent, but it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present. Nonetheless,” he continued, “when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and errors of the past.” (“Transcript: Pope Francis’s speech to Congress,” Ibid) Francis himself had just sanctified one of the “sins of the past”—which serves to reinforce the lawmakers’ own imperialistic history of reducing Native Americans to “savages,” stealing their land and confining them to reservations. (See “Five Hundred Years of Injustice: The Legacy of Fifteenth Century Religious Prejudice,” By Steve Newcomb, nativeweb.org)
Pope Francis then brought up the present to the lawmakers. “Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War.” And, “On this continent, too,” he said, “thousands of people are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and their loved ones.” Thus, rather than being “taken aback by their numbers,” we must “view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories.” He told Congress to “remember the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’” Which empathy he humanely expressed: “Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves.” (“Transcript: Pope Francis’s speech to Congress,” Ibid )
Pope Francis then made a passing reference to “fighting against poverty and hunger . . . constantly on many fronts, especially its causes (italics added), and stated, ” I know that many in America today, as in the past, are working to deal with this problem.” (Ibid) Was this a lost opportunity to elevate public and moral discourse about the causes?
Standing before the lawmakers of the country that internationally renowned political analyst Noam Chomsky has called “the world champion in generating terror,” Pope Francis remained “diplomatic.” He said to them, “Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and Religion.” He warned against “the temptation . . . which sees only good or evil . . . righteous and sinners.” And, “to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.” He then reassured the lawmakers that he was not talking about them, in saying, “That is something which you, as a people, reject.” (Ibid)
Certainly, understanding the “causes” is critical in assuming any serious accountability for resolving the “violent conflict,” “poverty and hunger” and refugee crises racking our world. But, obviously, Pope Francis was not talking about the “violent conflict” and related “poverty and hunger” triggered by the “good versus evil”- driven George W. Bush administration’s falsely based war against Iraq, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands to over a million of Iraqi civilians, and the uprooting and displacement of an estimated three to five million or more family members. A horrible war crime, justified “in the name of God and religion” by President Bush’s repeatedly stated belief, “Freedom is not American’s gift to the world; freedom is the Almighty God’s gift to each man and woman in the world.”
“Violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities”—yet, Pope Francis was not referring to the Obama administration’s drone warfare that violates other countries’ national sovereignty and kills innocents, creating “hatred” and vengeful blowback. Neither was Francis referring to the U.S.’s intense bombing campaign in Syria, which has forced people to flee their homes.
Nor was Pope Francis directing his words to the U.S.’s devastating, unnecessary war against Afghanistan, now in its 14th year. With the latest reported “atrocity” the bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kabul, which “killed 22 persons . . . including 12 staff members” [at least] and three children “and destroyed the intensive care unit.” The bombing of the hospital, which the group has called “a war crime,” leaves many Afghan people “with scant medical care,” as “it was the only free trauma care unit in northern Afghanistan, according to Doctors Without Borders.” (“Doctors Without Borders Exits Afghan City as Fight Worsens,” By Alissa J. Rubin, The New York Times, Oct. 5, 2015)
That hospital was also reported to have treated everyone as “members” of the “family”: “Taliban and government fighters” alike, who laid “side by side in the hospital and were given the best care possible, according to their medical needs with impartiality and neutrality,” said Guilhem Molinie, Doctors Without Borders Afghanistan representative. (“Toll in Hospital Airstrike Is Expected to Rise Sharply, Aid Group Says,” By Rod Nordland, The New York Times, Oct. 9, 2015) A model of those “who are members of my family” to be emulated.
While Pope Francis stressed to the lawmakers the importance of understanding the “causes” of “poverty and hunger,” he did not connect the present refugee crisis to the U.S.-launched wars and interventions in the Middle East. Unfortunately, he did not have as an advisor American Friends Service Committee staff person Raed Jarrar, whose reported comment would have helped to guide his speech to Congress: ”Iraqis, Syrians, Palestinians and Libyans are not running away from their homes because of a natural disaster. The U.S. should see this crisis as partially caused by its own actions in the region.” (“As Major Culprit in Cresating Crisis, US Rebuked for Failing Refugees,” by Sarah Lazare, Common Dreams staff writer, www.printfrieldly.com, Sept. 4, 2015)
Raed Jarrar would have said more to Pope Francis about the “causes” of the current refugee crisis and of “hunger and poverty.” Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting quotes Jarrar as saying, “The U.S. is very, very heavily involved militarily in Iraq and Syria and the rest of the Middle East, and claiming that what’s going on now is happening now because of a lack of US military intervention is laughable.” He explained: “We have wasted literally trillions of dollars destroying the Middle East so far . . . People need less bombs . . . and . . . more of political and economic solutions that are on the table.” (www.facebook.com, Sept. 16, 2015)
Raed Jarrar would have provided Francis with a timely corrective about former Preident Bush’s use of “God” and “freedom” to sanitize his—and Congress’s– war crimes: “In the great liberating tradition of this nation,” the prayerful president said, “we have lit a fire . . . it warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.” (“George W. Bush 2nd inaugural address, www.nbcnews.com, 1/20/2005) That “fire of freedom” darkened the corners of our world, laying the foundation for the rise of revengeful ISIS and today’s refugee crisis.
Regarding “the thousands of people who are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and their loved ones, “ Pope Francis could have challenged the lawmakers to repeal the 1994-enacted North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which benefits big agribusinesses and corporations like Walmart and Ford and General Motors. NAFTA devastated the livelihoods of Mexican farmers and other low-wage workers, driving millions to the U.S.—“in search of a better life for themselves and their loved ones.” NAFTA also robbed thousands of U.S. workers of their “dream” when Ford and General Motors closed and moved plants to Mexico, to profit from the low wages that could be paid to poverty-stricken Mexicans. (“See WHEN NAFTA WAS PASSED TWO DECADES AGO, ITS BOOSTERS PROMISED IT WOULD BRING ‘FIRST WORLD’ STATUS FOR THE MEXICAN PEOPLE. INSTEAD, IT PROMPTED A GREAT MIGRATION NORTH,” www.politicalresearch.org, Oct. 11, 2014)
“Violent conflict?” Pope Francis could have “scolded” the U.S. lawmakers for allowing Special Operation forces to be deployed militarily in a reported “135 nations, according to Ken McGraw, a spokesman for Special Operations Command (SOCOM)” That deployment involves “roughly 70% of the countries on the planet.” (“Tomgram: Nick Turse, A Secret War in 135 Countries,” By Nick Turse, www.tomdispatch.com, Oct. 5, 2015)
For good measure, Pope Francis could have asked the lawmakers why the U.S. has 800 to 900 military bases throughout the world, which has increased the “hatred” and “extreme poverty” he lamented. American University professor David Vine would have informed him of an outrageous fact about his audience: “Members of Congress spend billions of dollars on base construction  and maintenance every year in the region, but ask few questions about where the money is going, why there are so many bases, and what role they really serve.” (“America Still Has Hundreds of Military Bases Worldwide. Have They Made Us Any Safer?,” www.motherjones.com, Nov.14, 2014)
Pope Francis did challenge the lawmakers to be “at the service of dialogue and peace,” which “means being truly determined to minimize and . . . end the many armed conflicts in the world.” He said the problem is sale of “deadly weapons,” for “money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.” He challenged the lawmakers with, “It is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.” (Ibid)
Pope Francis could have become more morally and religious specific, and asked the lawmakers themselves how much in campaign contributions they have received from weapons corporations and the gun lobby. He certainly was speaking to the right audience. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), “the United States has taken a firm lead as the major arms exporter globally. (“16 Mar. 2016: The United Statres leads upward trend in arms exports, Asian and Gulf states arms imports up, says SIPRI,” www.sipri.org) Sadly, Congress is also beholden to the U.S.’s own gun lobby, continuing to sit idly by as citizens use guns to kill other citizens, often in mass shootings—the latest being the mass killing of ten persons, the wounding of seven, and the death of the shooter, at Umpqua Community College in Oregon.
If Pope Francis’s speech about “violent conflict,” immigration and refugees, “poverty and hunger” “environmental deterioration” or “capital punishment” made any members of Congress squirm in their seats, their unease would have been dispelled by his final words: “God bless America!” (Trancript: Pope Francis’s speech to Congress, Ibid)
“Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Pope Francis also shared with Congress his concern about the family: “Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.” He “reiterated the importance, and above all, the richness and beauty of family life. In particular,” he said, “I would like to call attention to those family members who are most vulnerable, the young . . . so many . . . trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair,” he went on. “Their problems are our problems. We cannot avoid them.” (Ibid)
In fact, Pope Francis’s visit to the U.S. was orchestrated to avoid confronting a major problem: the sexual abuse of children by priests. A problem that has victimized an estimated 100,000 children in the U. S. alone, cost $3 billion in settlements, and has threatened to undermine the moral authority of the Catholic Church. (“Vatican abuse summit: $2.2 billion and 100,000 victims in the U.S. alone,” By John L. Allen Jr., National Catholic Reporter, Feb. 8, 22012; “Pope Francis’s words on clergy sex abuse ring hollow for some survivors” By Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Rome, theguardian, Sept. 27, 2015)
Pope Francis’s first reported comment on the critical sexual abuse problem was that of identifying with the bishops, and not with the children and their families. He “chose to comfort and praise his fellow clerics, and said nothing at all about the victims.” He “felt” the “bishops and priests . . . pain and suffering.” He even “praised the bishops– some engaged in legal battles with abuse victims—for their ‘courage’ and their ‘generous commitment to bring healing to the victims.’” (“After Criticism, a Pledge of Church Accountability for Abuse by Priests,” By Laurie Goodstein, The New York Times, Sept. 28, 2015)
The next day, Pope Francis’s empathy was reserved for church leaders. In an address to priests and nuns, he said that “he understands that priests have ‘suffered greatly in the not distant past by having to bear the shame of some of your brothers who harmed and scandalized the Church in the most vulnerable of her members.” But it was not about “the most vulnerable of her members.” It was about his audience—and him: “I accompany you at this time of pain and difficulty, and I thank God for your faithful service to his people.” (“Francis again praises priests and nuns for their faithful service,” By Michael O’Loughlin, national reporter, www.cruxnow.com, Sept. 24, 2015)
Leaders of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) believe Pope Francis has no intention of really confronting the sexual abuse of children racking the Catholic Church. National SNAP director David Clohessy was quoted as saying about Francis’s speech to the bishops: “He essentially made one oblique reference to the crisis . . . . didn’t apologize. . . . More importantly, didn’t suggest much less mandate any reforms at all by the U.S. church hierarchy.” And, “instead of praising victims for coming forward, the Pope praises the bishops which he (Clohessy) says have continued to cause the issue.” (“SNAP Dissatified with Pope on Abuse Crisis,” By Fred Bodimer, CBS St. Louis, Sept. 24, 2015)
Chicago SNAP president Barbara Blaine believes that Pope Francis’s sympathetic comment to the bishops reveals he is not serious about resolving the abuse “of the most vulnerable by priests.” She writes that the bishops have not made any “great sacrifice” in response to the sexual abuse crisis. She says that “only four U.S. bishops (out of hundreds) have resigned because they hide and enabled horrific crimes.” Furthermore, “Virtually none of the other US clerics (out of thousands) have ever been punished in the slightest for protecting predators, destroying evidence, stonewalling police, deceiving prosecutors, shunning victims or helping child molesting clerics get new jobs or flee overseas.” Her ending comment about Francis’s speech to the bishops: “His remarks today confirm what we have long said and suspected: this pope, like his predecessors, is doing and will do little if anything to bring real reform to this continuing crisis.” Her last sentence warns of a politically correct pope: “Those who care about kids must focus on secular authorities, not church figures (however popular they may be).” (“Victims blast pope’s praise of bishops,” snapnetwork.org, Sept. 23, 2015)
Pope’s Francis’s avoidance of the sexual abuse of children afflicting the Catholic Church was obviously seen in his waiting until the last day of his U.S. visit to meet with five survivors (“three women and two men”) and their families—for 30 minutes, with some “molested,” not by priests but, by “teachers and relatives,”The Washington Post reported. Afterwards, Francis was quoted as saying, “God weeps.” He also said, “It continues to overwhelm me with shame that the people who were charged with taking care of these tender ones violated their trust and caused them tremendous pain.” (Pope Francis finally met with sex abuse survivors but more action is critical, activists say,” By Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Abby Ohlheiser and Terrence McCoy, Sept. 27, 2015)
SNAP national president David Clohessy’s quoted response to the meeting: “Is a child anywhere on Earth safer now that a pope, for maybe the seventh or eighth time or ninth time, has briefly chatted with abuse victims? No.” Referring to Pope Francis’s meeting with the victims, The Washington Post story itself stated, “This choreography also struck some advocates as a deliberate deflection of responsibility for a scandal that continues to reverberate through the Catholic church.” (Ibid)
The ingrained sexual abuse of children by a significant number of priests is a systemic problem that cannot be resolved by reforms that are limited to treating the symptoms. The solution lies in fully embracing all of “the least of these who are members of my family.” Pope Francis could lead in the ordination of women as priests, liberating them from their second class status. He could call for the ordination of married men. Instead of the Catholic Church stigmatizing gay and lesbian persons as ”intrinsically disordered ,“ he could declare that homosexuality is a natural and vibrant sexual orientation, created in the image of a diversity-loving God—and that” those “members of my family” are entitled to stand behind the altar, and not merely kneel in front of it. He could also affirm that “sexual pleasure” outside of reproduction is natural and not “morally disordered.” And, he could transcend sectarian and political walls by teaching that human beings are not inherently sinful; rather, their universally shared humanness provides the empathy that builds an inclusive community and nourishes “the least of these who are members of my family.”
There are countless caring Catholic people. Just as there are countless caring U S. citizens. But both the head of the Catholic Church and the lawmakers of the U.S. have much work to do to move beyond their institutions’ arrogant and immoral interpretations of those “who are members of my family.” It should be about all members of the human family—the preciousness and rights of everyone, everywhere—equally!