Pope Francis and the Renewal of American Religious Ideals

Pope Francis leaves after a meeting with a group of Cuban youth in Havana, Cuba, Sunday Sept. 20, 2015. Pope Francis met with
Pope Francis leaves after a meeting with a group of Cuban youth in Havana, Cuba, Sunday Sept. 20, 2015. Pope Francis met with Fidel Castro on Sunday before finishing the day with a vespers service in Havana's cathedral, and a meeting with the youths. In the background at right is Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

What message will Pope Francis give to the American people amidst the cacophony of contending moral and ethical issues facing America and the world? Listening to the political debates and the public discourse in the United States is not only interesting but also intriguing. The passion for religiously informed standpoints has been transformed into a new art especially by the religious right. It is also often driven by ideologically encrusted political perspectives often removed from the inner virtues and essence of religion. And the issues are as long as one can imagine: abortion, same-sex marriage, climate change, gun control, immigration reform, Obamacare, foreign policy, war on terrorism, right of America to defend itself and the limits of self defense or preemptive strikes against terrorists etc. Within the Catholic Church in America the battle goes on between culture warriors who embrace a classic and unchanging notion of Catholicism, and progressives who will like Catholicism to become a religious guinea pig for testing every social experiment. There are those Catholics who support the quiet revolution of Pope Francis and those who see the changes as a passing fad which will fade soon after Pope Francis is gone. There is also the unresolved question of authority and leadership in the church in the United States, the place of women, the need to renew American philanthropy and social outreach to the marginalized in the U.S. and people suffering in many parts of the world. There is also the question of priestly celibacy, pastoral ministry to families and divorced and separated Catholics among others. There is the lingering question as to what extent the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002 has helped to protect our children from abusive priests. So Francis has a full plate awaiting him!

This seventh papal visit coming 31 years after the United States established full diplomatic relations with the Holy See is significant in many ways. In the first place, Francis comes to the United States as a friend of the country and a messenger of peace and goodwill. In helping to negotiate the detente between the U.S. and Cuba, he indicates his willingness to help build bridges and heal the wounds which separation, fear of each other and mutual suspicion impose on nations, communities and peoples. Secondly, Francis comes to the United States as a leader of the Catholic Church and one of the most influential religious leaders in the world today in order to waken again in these great lands a renewed sense of ultimate concerns and greater respect for the values and virtues of Christianity as reflected in the priorities and practices of Jesus Christ. Finally, the visit of Pope Francis and the significant amount of good will and enthusiasm about his visit shows to use the words of Martin Marty that "the worldview of fearful and defensive Protestant, anti-Papal America" is fading.

This is the first time that a Roman Catholic pontiff will address a joint session of the U.S. Congress. Pope Francis will speak to American law makers as a pastor, priest and servant, and not so much as a political leader. He prefers to see himself not in the mould of power and pomp conferred on him by this ancient institution. He was not invited to address the joint session of Congress because he is a head of state. I think he was invited because of how he has embodied in his lifestyle, his kind words, and outreach to the world, those fine Christian ideals which the Founding Fathers of this Great nation wanted to preserve through the First Amendment on religious liberty. Religious liberty was meant to make better Americans and not to create an a religious nation.

Pope Francis represents not only a new face of Catholicism, but also a new face of religion. One of the victims of the post-Enlightenment secularizing momentum was religion which was relinquished to the sphere of personal and private life. Stripped of its sacred aura and validating canons, the status of limitations with regard to religious claims gradually faded away. Gone too were any generally accepted quality control with regard to the claims and actions which people promote in the name of any religion and also what people do in opposition to people of faith. Many years ago, French sociologist, Gilles Kepel warned in The Revenge of God that the resurgence of religious groups in the three Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) seems to be driven by more radical and violent ideals and theocratic apocalypticism. He argues that emerging religious patterns not only in the Middle East, but also in Europe, Africa and North America are not only fundamentalist in nature but also resistant to modernity and the secular ideals of Western liberalism. Kepel is right to some extent. However, one cannot characterize religious revivals especially every religiously motivated spiritual revivalism or political activism as fundamentalism. On the other hand, many people are wondering what role religion (and more specifically for this essay Catholicism) should play in America today? What kind of religion do we need in the world today? What kind of Catholicism does Pope Francis present to the world which is so attractive to American people and which cuts across denominational and creedal differences?

Pope Francis is bringing his quiet revolution to the United States. He will teach Americans that religion still matters but it is not a religion of ideologies and dialectically opposed positions, but that Catholicism is a religion of inclusion, a religion of both/and. He is teaching the world that power does not lie in materialism and liberal capitalism but in the beauty of the spirit, and the freedom of sharing every good things around us with everyone in need. For Pope Francis the force which will defeat evil today is the force of love, justice, truth, compassion and mercy, not of violence, guns, national or cultural hubris or ecclesial triumphalism and the exclusion of others. He will show the American public that what is required to heal and restore the world to its beauty are simple acts of kindness and humble service and that the church speaks credibly when she shows in her priorities and practices the face of the simple man of Galilee (Jesus Christ) who went about doing good. So today what the world is looking for from the church is not a hierarchy of power but a hierarchy of service through sacrifice for the good of our neighbors. Pope Francis is reminding us that the concerns and needs of the ordinary people, especially those on the margins and those who are poor, is the new Gospel revealing to us where God is present in history. This is the kind of religion the world needs today and I think it is the kind of religion whose fruits the Founding Fathers wanted to preserve for all ages. The measure of the true value of any religion is not the beauty of her creeds, rituals, and rites; nor is it in the ordered nature of her ranks and the splendor of her officials and the political and economic power and influence which they wield. The true value of religion is found in how it projects the ideals of love and friendship; how it transforms people into loving and lovable creatures who are at home with themselves, the world of nature, and their neighbors. Such a religion brings forth people who see others as subjects of love and dignity, whose intrinsic goodness calls us every moment to ponder beauty, to imagine the impossible, and to engage the possible through simple acts of loyalty, fidelity, and surrender. Such religious ideals are written in the very arc of the history of America, and I hope America and the world will be reminded of these ideals in the words and actions of Pope Francis during his visit.