Who is Pope Francis Speaking to?

The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal – by anyone’s reckoning, our most influential newspapers, and with differing political orientations – all published stories within minutes of the pope’s first speech in the United States yesterday, noticing its highly political nature. CNN observed that it took him only two sentences to get to a political issue: immigration, via a subtle hint, mentioning that he himself is a descendant of immigrants. And those mainstream media outlets were – all of them – quite right. By contrast, President Obama was (for him) rather apolitical, even spiritual, speaking about: common values, religious liberty (implausibly, to say the least, for most active Catholics in America) – but, to the surprise of many, even emphasizing how Christians are being persecuted around the world and their churches burned. Something Francis did not mention.

That was the way, a sadly unfortunate way, that the pope’s American itinerary got started Wednesday: a mild pope speaking politics, an aggressive anti-Catholic politician speaking about faith. Though that was not the whole story, no doubt it will be the organizing narrative as Francis heads over to speak to a joint session of Congress this morning and tomorrow addresses the U.N.

In his remarks to the U. S. bishops at St. Matthew’s Cathedral later yesterday morning, Francis spoke in a much more spiritual and almost entirely apolitical manner, and remarked:

I appreciate the unfailing commitment of the Church in America to the cause of life and that of the family, which is the primary reason for my present visit.

The “primary reason”? Who knew? The blame for that lack of awareness lies – to speak frankly – with the Vatican. It did almost everything possible, in word and deed, to give a very different message to the world.

Few journalists are interested in what the pope said to the American bishops, even though they might be surprised to know what he really thinks is the “primary reason” he has come among us. The secular media did take note, however, when he alluded to the sex-abuse crisis in his talk to the American bishops, though he never mentioned the word “abuse” as such. Instead, the pope talked about how “the pain of recent years has weighed upon you, and I have supported your generous commitment to bring healing to victims – in the knowledge that in healing, we too are healed – and to work to ensure that such crimes will never be repeated.”


The press didn’t much notice, either, when – something very much worth noting – in the admittedly and unfortunately political address at the White House, Francis also spoke about the “founding principles” of America, which ought to restrain the unconstitutional and anti-Catholic forays of the Obama administration.

And you probably haven’t heard a peep about the fact that the pope, in that same speech at the White House, invoked American Catholics, who “With countless other people of good will,” hope that “that their efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respect their deepest concerns and their right to religious liberty” [emphasis added]:

That freedom remains one of America’s most precious possessions. And as my brothers, the United States Bishops, have reminded us, all are called to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.

A fair observer would have to say that Francis was, on balance, far too chummy with the Obama administration on environmental questions, to be sure, which took up one-half of his White House speech. But it’s puzzling to think how that happened, given that the Obama administration is a Machiavellian regime that has attacked Catholic institutions in a way that we haven’t seen in America since the age of the Know Nothings.

Herein lies a problem that seems to have no solution within the papacy of Pope Francis. He meets with a figure like President Obama, a skillful rhetorician who talks (as the pontiff sits nearby) about cherishing religious liberty. But it doesn’t take much insight to see that Obama’s actions, at the end of the day, are aggressions, pure and simple, against Catholics and other traditional Christians. If he really wanted – Obama could easily find multiple accommodations for believers, which would respect their religious liberty even as he pursues his own ideological moves – something Francis is quite sensitive to in other contexts.

Inexplicably, at the same time, the Holy Father – in his address to the bishops – warned them about being harsh, about failing to offer the people of God that attractive light that is the Gospel of Jesus Himself. Situations around the world differ, to be sure, and the pope may have some concrete experience of his own in mind. But those of us who consider ourselves unshakeable friends, and supporters, of the papacy – and who have knocked about in various corners of the world – have a fair bit of difficulty in identifying who, exactly, the Holy Father thinks he is speaking to, when he frets about harshness and rigidity, especially when Catholicism is under assault, even in the developed nations of the world.

Far more people, in our experience anno Domini 2015, in many parts of the world, are less troubled about a Church that is too judgmental than a Church that has lost its way – and has nothing distinctive to say to the secular world. If the pope wants to say something truly revolutionary in America, he might propose to us that Christianity might be something more than openness, tolerance, kindness. The secular world doesn’t need Christianity to appreciate that. So exactly who do we think we are speaking to?

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.