Why I think the time wasn't right for an American Pope
I was laying under a blanket this last Wednesday afternoon with a case of stomach flu. However, I did have EWTN on the TV expecting to await the disappointment of black smoke. As I lay there, the commentators covered several of the rumors that were out there as to who would be the next Pope. I was relieved to find a station that didn't analyze things in terms of "liberal" and "conservative" so I kept listening. Shortly before the unexpectedly white smoke emerged, the announcers took up their own skepticism that it would be an American Pope. I listened intently as they said that, historically, the biggest concern has been the ideology of Americanism that was an ideology of some American bishops whereby certain they seemed to be pushing towards greater democratization in the church. I found it fascinating when they said that in the past there were some who were concerned that, by electing an American, the president could have undue influence on the Pope. Sort of the inverse of what President Kennedy felt when people worried that, by electing a Catholic President, he would be beholden to the Pope. Nonetheless, the commentators felt that this had largely been overcome by the USCCB opposition to the Obama HHS contraception mandate led, primarily, by Cardinal Dolan but supported by all the American bishops.
In any case, the second point EWTN commentators made was just as fascinating. They said that if they elected an American Pope, we would send a deeply detrimental message to the Islamic world. It was thought by the commentators that Islam would see this as the Catholic Church siding with America in its foreign policy decisions. I thought this was an interesting insight but, in my opinion, probably not the nail in the coffin of an American Papacy.
The more I think about it, the more I think it has to do with the state of the Catholic Church in America. Let's face it, folks. We're in a mess. Not even 24 hours after the election of Pope Francis, several liberal websites posted a story that alleged that Pope Francis deliberately removed Jesuit protection from two priests who were abducted and held captive by the Argentinian government in 1976. Shortly thereafter, it moved from left-wing websites like Slate.com and huffingtonpost.com to more moderate sites like cnn.com and msnbc.com. The transition also meant that it moved from internet to television. Now, you may say that this is really a world-wide story that the Pope had to explain and move past and you may be right. Plus, some of you will say that they are all liberal websites and you can't trust them for news about the church. And that's precisely my point. I don't believe it's going too far to say right now that, in general, the Democratic Party is openly hostile to the Catholic Church. I frequently listen to MSNBC on my way from parish to parish and I cannot tell you the last time I heard anything positive about the Catholic Church on it. Well, let me take that back. When the news of Pope Francis first hit, the Catholic commentators seemed ecstatic to have a real "Dorothy Day style Pope". However, when it became clear that this Pope is not for gay rights or abortion, even Chris Matthews seemed to be losing his excitement for the social justice pope in favor of "the best that we can get." Now today they're all about how the Pope abducted and tortured two priests in 1976...I mean how he encouraged the government to abduct and torture two priests...I mean how he removed magic albino Jesuit protection from two priests who were abducted and interrogated by the government.
Sarcasm aside, you may be asking: So what? The problem is that many of our Catholic lay people agree more with everything that the media preaches than what any Pope preaches. This is the party of John F. Kennedy after all. Many lay people feel completely conflicted when Father preaches on Sunday what is labeled as hate-speech on Monday. In my opinion, this is one of the reasons that American Catholics have stopped coming to mass, moreso than distrust of the church because of sexual abuse. At least, when I talk to my college friends who no longer go to church they acknowledge that this is one of the reasons why.
And so, what do many younger clergy say is the solution: If the liberals hate us then we should become conservative! After all, we agree on abortion and abortion is really the only thing that's important, right? Let's all listen to Fox News and read breitbart.com! Let's demonize media by calling it all "liberal media" and tell our people that they can only watch Fox News or EWTN. That's great until you remember the strong objections that Pope John Paul II had with the Bush administration with regard to the two middle-eastern wars and, in particular, the war in Iraq. Remember Pope John Paul pleading with the Bush Administration to not invade Iraq and further weaken the area? If your answer to that is no, it may be because you only listened to Fox News, which was (arguably) one of the best propaganda devices for the war the Bush Administration had at its disposal. I'm pretty sure Fox News is the only network that still to this day believes weapons of mass destruction were hauled out of Iraq at the beginning of the war and that President Bush was perfectly justified in invading. Everyone else knows that the war was an inevitable oedipal war that has done nothing but anger the Islamic world...and made an American Papacy seem inconceivable to some commentators.
So, where do we go from here? One side is openly hostile toward us and the other uses us when we agree with them and ignores us when we don't. The animosity and hatred is just too deep on the one hand and the roots of anti-intellectual, anti-catholic Know-Nothing evangelicalism too present in the other. How do we become a moral voice again in a culture that seems increasingly only to accept the moral voice of the dominant political party in their life? What if we took seriously the model of an Argentinian Cardinal who seeks to remove the "pomp" of the job in favor of humble service? What if, instead of looking at Pope Francis as the exception to the rule, if we, clergy, tried to model our life after his? What if we clergy first and foremost wanted to be people of prayer and study and left nice rectories and cars to the concerns of the CEO. What if we became THE place that people went to in order to feel closer to God? Let me pause there for a day or two and come back to what that might mean. Your comments are welcome.