Ahead of pope’s address to congress, an outsider looks at contradictions

Swiss Guards at Vatican

Swiss Guards at the fortress, Vatican City, 1903. (US Library of Congress; Underwood and Underwood)

When I learned House speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had invited Pope Francis to address Congress, I said via Twitter I did not think it appropriate. Imagine, for a moment, the furor ensuing if the official head of a major Islamic body or for that matter a high profile Wiccan was invited to do the same. 

I concede that my Christian faith has been an integral part of the development of my country, but I also know, having studied history, that when faith and government merge for political purposes, the consequences can be very unpleasant for those outside the political class.

There’s also a personal hangover of sorts because of my own upbringing as a Lutheran. Had various regional rulers not protected the father of my own faith, Martin Luther, he would likely have been executed after being excommunicated by the Catholic faith he sought to reform.

That is all history now, but the current pope, like a number of his predecessors, has not hesitated to wade into political rhetoric. A preferred issue seems to be migration. That’s understandable. Just as I am a product of my own upbringing, he is too.  His home country of Argentina, The CIA World Fact Book said, has been “primarily a country of immigration for most of its history.” The same source also provided an analysis of that country’s current debt woes and approach to the economy: “The government’s delay in reaching a settlement and the continuation of interventionist and populist policies are contributing to high inflation and a prolonged recession, according to private analysts.”

The pope has not hesitated to comment on the ills of wealth, as recounted by a Mother Jones writer obviously smitten with the pope largely due to left of center social positions:

“On the ways income inequality leads to violence: ‘But until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence…When a society—whether local, national or global—is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programmes or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility. This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root.’”

That statement,  combined with a left of center approach to migration, is at odds with the infrastructure the pope presides over as de facto monarch. The governing entity, at least the top positions, are all male.  It is also useful to point out that in numerous countries where socialism (full-blown or soft) takes root, volatility will follow because a country eventually runs out of producers to tax. Look to Venezuela or to the vulnerable democratic socialism models in economies in countries in Europe.

To his credit, Pope Francis is credited with attempting to clean up the practices of the Vatican Bank after, as The Daily Beast put it, “decades of scandals.” Money laundering was a problem, and it may still be although media say reform is taking place.

In 2013 left of center Slate took a look at the collective wealth of Catholic institutions:

“The main thing we know about Catholic Church finance is that in cash flow terms, the United States is by far the most important branch. America is a rich country with a large population of Catholics. What’s more, America’s Catholic population is a religious minority. That’s meant that, rather than using political clout to influence the shape of mainstream government institutions, as in an overwhelmingly Catholic country such as Brazil, the Catholic Church in the United States has created a parallel state: a vast web of schools, hospitals, universities, and charities that serve millions of clients.

Our best window into the overall financial picture of American Catholicism comes from a 2012 investigation by the Economist, which offered a rough-and-ready estimate of $170 billion in annual spending, of which almost $150 billion is associated with church-affiliated hospitals and institutions of higher education. The operating budget for ordinary parishes, at around $11 billion a year, is a relatively small share, and Catholic Charities is a smaller share still.”

As the pope encourages countries like the United States to open arms and borders  and taxpayer wallets to all who come here, regardless of migrant status or until lately, national security risks, the geographic turf he presides over is surrounded by walls. Vatican City is a virtual fortress.

Nor does Vatican City automatically confer citizenship on those who might—it is admittedly very unlikely because it is guarded—breach those walls. There is a process for citizenship just as there is technically a process for every sovereign state whether presidents uphold the law they take an oath to uphold or not.

The Catholic faith, like my own Lutheran faith, plays a pivotal role in the resettlement of refugees. Such resettlement initiatives have become an industry.  Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have continued to provide generous federal funding to organizations affiliated with these faiths. Obama has been criticized by a number of Catholics for his political positions on contraception and marriage, but in 2012 left of center Mother Jones noted:

“Under Obama, Catholic religious charities alone have received more than $650 million, according to a spokeswoman from the US Department of Health and Human Services, where much of the funding comes from. The USCCB [United States Conference of Catholic Bishops], which has been such a vocal critic of the Obama administration, has seen its share of federal grants from HHS jump from $71.8 million in the last three years of the Bush administration to $81.2 million during the first three years of Obama. ”

I offer these observations respectfully. I have had little experience in worshiping in a Catholic facility, other than on occasion attending a wedding or other ceremony. I do sharply recall a personal experience with our younger child, however.

We enrolled her in a Catholic school for a brief time when she was young. My husband and I liked the school. The teachers were excellent. The parents were welcoming, even more so than parents who are active in volunteering in public schools. We liked the emphasis on faith as a central part of education. We ended up moving her to another school, though, because of Mass.

I remember attending Mass with her—she begged me each week to do so—and the look on her face as she walked in a line of students who were taking part in what we Lutherans call Holy Communion. Our daughter could not receive Holy Communion in a Catholic church—she is Lutheran. So she was always one of a very few children instructed to cross their arms across their chests and receive a blessing instead. I do not know if this is still the case. My own faith also had requirements for participating in Communion. None of these restrictions have ever made sense to me.

My point is that every governing body has rules, limits, and practices. In the article at Mother Jones, there’s a passage addressing the role of the central power in a country:

“While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.”

A country’s government may well be “charged with vigilance for the common good,” and vested with power to do so. At present people in countries around the world are questioning their governments’ powers and practices, and in the United States, there is an energetic debate about the same. Here, however, there is a difference because of the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. A faith leader may well address the ills of one’s spirit. When such a leader conspicuously injects himself into political policy and governance, concerns about the US First Amendment arise.

It is likely the pope will dominate media for days after his address to Congress. Will any questions will be asked about rhetoric versus reality before the pope returns to his well-guarded “fortress” where citizenship is limited more strictly than in most sovereign states around the globe? Will questions be asked about redistributing wealth and treasure from coffers at Vatican City?

I am respectful of the leader of most any faith, but I perceive contradictions. It is likely they will not be addressed although I am certain thousands and thousands of words will be written about the pope addressing the government body elected to represent We, the people—all of us.

While the political left routinely assails those Christians whose beliefs are at odds with left of center cultural positions, the political left is at the same time gleeful in anticipation of potential for the head of a single faith to influence our politics and government on behalf of one party’s philosophy.

Contradictions.

(Commentary by Kay B. Day/Sept. 16, 2015)

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About Kay Day

Kay B. Day is a freelance writer who has published in national and international magazines and websites. The author of 3 books, her work is anthologized in textbooks and collections. She has won awards for poetry, nonfiction and fiction. Day is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the Authors Guild.
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