Don Pesci: Is the Pope Catholic?

VERNON, Conn. Catholics will recognize the line– “Is The Pope Catholic?” – as a joke punchline. Some non-Catholics, and even some laypeople who self-identify as Catholics, must wonder, on reading some encyclicals with which they heartily disagree, “Should the pope be just a trifle less Catholic?”

It would suit progressives, for instance, if the pope would be so good as to repeal thousands of years of Catholic teaching on abortion. No matter the pope of the moment, this will happen only when Hell freezes over. But progressives welcome the present pope’s views on climate change and capital punishment, while on the right, such views are anathema.

Pope Francis’s antipathy toward raw capitalism cheers such as socialist Bernie Sanders, who is running for president this year, as well as President Obama, who, during welcoming ceremonies at the White House, extravagantly praised the pope on his resemblance to himself. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but, however flattering, imitation falls far short of self-praise, which is always intensely sincere.

A master at co-opting moments, Mr. Obama gave it his best shot. As a community organizer in Chicago early in his political career, Mr. Obama told the 11,000 guests gathered on his lawn to hear the pope, he had worked with the Catholic Church to bring hope and change to the poor.

“Here in the United States, we cherish our religious liberty,” Mr. Obama said, but around the world, at this very moment, children of God, including Christians, are targeted and even killed because of their faith.”

Perhaps from a sense of delicacy, Mr. Obama did not identify the chief persecutors of Christians in the world. ISIS, a confederation of Islamic terrorists, has been particularly oppressive. The beheading of Christians, the burning of Christian churches, the rape and enslavement of Christian women never occurred in Chicago when Mr. Obama was evangelizing on its mean streets.

The pope acknowledged that “American Catholics are committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive, to safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities, and to rejecting every form of unjust discrimination. With countless other people of good will, they are likewise concerned that efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respect their deepest concerns and the right to religious liberty. That freedom remains one of America’s most precious possessions.”

As if to underscore his remarks concerning religious liberty, the pope on Wednesday made what is being called “an unscheduled stop” to a convent of nuns, The Little Sisters of the Poor, “to show his support for their lawsuit against U.S. President Barack Obama’s healthcare law.” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi characterized the unscheduled stop as a “brief but symbolic visit.”

Congress doubtless was pleased to host the pope and listen to his message, but the Holy Father did not dine with Congressional leaders after the presentation, because the keeper of the pope’s schedule already had booked him for lunch with the poor in Washington D.C.

Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, who describes himself as “a non-practicing Catholic,” was stirred by certain portions of the pope’s remarks. We should not let Mr. Malloy’s self-characterization pass without noting that since Catholicism is largely a praxis, there is little difference between “a non-practicing Catholic” and a non-Catholic. Receiving the Pope with 11,000 others on the south lawn of the White House, Mr. Malloy said, was an “amazing” and “moving” experience for him.

According to one paper, Mr. Malloy had “embraced the progressive movement within the Catholic church known as liberation theology. Believers of the movement felt it wasn’t enough to simply care for the poor, but felt it was necessary to pursue political changes to eradicate poverty.”

The pope, Mr. Malloy told the paper, “seems to be inviting that back.” Not true. This pope and others – most dramatically, Pope John Paul II, who was canonized in 2014 – sternly rejected liberation theology, a theological-political movement in the Latin American of the 1970’s that attempted to combine Catholicism with revolutionary socialism, but then one cannot expect part-time Catholics to be current with the theological niceties of their church.

The pope is much more interested in liberty than in liberation theology. He holds, along with Catholics throughout the ages, that true freedom is attained through a love of the good and beautiful, whose exemplar is the Christ of Holy Scripture. All of us will do well to remember that popes are not presidents or congressmen or governor, for which we should all drop to our knees and thank God. The pope’s kingdom, like that of the Christ he serves, is in some sense not of this world.

Don Pesci ( is a  political writer who lives in Vernon, Conn.