Christ – or Celebrities?

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Pope Francis recently added a celebrity gloss to his special project, Scholas Occurrentes (Schools of Encounter), when he honored George Clooney, Salma Hayek, and Richard Gere as his arts ambassadors to help build a “culture of encounter.” The award of the Olive Medal of Peace to these actors drew surprised responses. And rightly so.

Scholas is an organization born in Argentina, whose mission is to school-aged children the world over. It operates under the authority of Archbishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, also an Argentine and chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (PAS). It was Sorondo who arranged for the participation of Jeffrey Sachs, a global proponent of abortion and population control, at the Pontifical Academy’s climate change workshop in 2015. When the inevitable criticism of this collaboration surfaced, Sorondo defended it. Critics pointed to the use of children as “change agents,” where students are taught to embrace popular globalist agendas and policies, often contrary to the values of their own parents and sometimes even the Church.

Scholas promotes an “encounter of peace” in 430,000 member schools and educational associations in 190 countries that span religions, cultures, and ethnicities. The hope is that via shared interests in sports, arts, and technology the next generation will “encounter” each other, enjoy greater social integration, and create a more peaceful world.

Five months after Francis’ election, Scholas Occurrentes was designated as an “International Organization of Pontifical Right.” Since then, Scholas has built a very strong presence on social media – part of the technology component – as a means of connecting groups. There is a Facebook page, a busy Twitter account, and large YouTube channel featuring many encounters with Pope Francis. The Holy Father will publish a book later this year with answers to questions that teens submit to him through Scholas online platforms and Google “hangouts.”

In his remarks to the Scholas last week, Pope Francis urged his guests to “Help the world recover the language of gestures.” A handshake and a smile add to the words that we communicate. And, it might be said, so do the “leading figures” and ambassadors chosen to represent an initiative of the Catholic Church. “Important values can be transmitted by celebrities,” said Lorena Bianchetti, a representative of the event.

But what does George Clooney symbolize for a pontifical educational effort? Recently Clooney, like Pope Francis, criticized Italy for not accepting more Syrian refugees. This shared concern for refugees may be the basis of Clooney’s invitation and award. The celebrity spends part of the year in Italy in his 22-room, $50 million villa on Lake Como, where, so far, he and wife Amal have not yet transmitted the value of welcoming a refugee family.


Further, the Pontifical Academy cannot be unaware that Clooney is recognized for his advocacy of “rights” to abortion and same-sex unions, including the use of corporate “muscle” to force public acceptance of homosexuality. What, exactly, will Scholas students “encounter” through this papal ambassador?

Similar criticisms have arisen about Salma Hayek and Richard Gere. Parents of Scholas students would be unlikely to approve of Hayek, who appears in racy videos and movies and Internet posts unsuitable for anyone. Though she was raised in a devout Catholic home in Mexico, Hayek boasts that she no longer believes the teachings of the Church. In a 2007 interview to the popular women’s magazine, Marie Claire, Hayek explained:

The minute I started thinking it through, I realized all religions are a form of manipulation. And I started having problems with certain beliefs – like in Africa, where people are dying of AIDS and overpopulation, the Catholic Church is going over to convert them and take away the condoms! And I said, wait a minute.

Raised Methodist, Richard Gere is now a Buddhist. He reveals in his You tube videos that he admires Christian compassion: “I found [Christianity] to be incredibly compassionate. . .but when you ask difficult questions about the origin of the universe, about the nature of the self. . .there didn’t seem to be a basis for discussion in Christianity.”

Those who have looked carefully into Scholas Occurrentes raise worrisome questions. The associations, events, and materials – including a series of booklets for young children, With Francis by My Side – show no effort to evangelize. Every “encounter” is designed to promote concerns for secular issues that the pope has spoken about throughout his pontificate: climate change, integrating the poor into the global economy, the plight of refugees, an end to violence from war to bullying. Many of these concerns, to be sure,  find a wide audience in Catholic communities.

But what critics find most unsettling is the utter absence of Jesus Christ. Catholics believe and teach that Christ is the way – no true peace on earth will be achieved under any other banner. Why not share that truth in a Catholic, Vatican-sanctioned outreach to the children of the word?

Jose Maria del Corral, director of Scholas, posted this exhortation to the Scholas Twitter feed, “We have to organize to change the world!” Catholics want to build a better world too, of course, but know that the way is though evangelization.

Francis said it beautifully in his first homily as pope:

we can walk as much we want, we can build many things, but if we do not confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail. We will become a pitiful NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of Christ. When one does not walk, one stalls. When one does not build on solid rocks, what happens? What happens is what happens to children on the beach when they make sandcastles: everything collapses, it is without consistency. When one does not profess Jesus Christ – I recall the phrase of Leon Bloy – “Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil.” When one does not profess Jesus Christ, one professes the worldliness of the devil.

Strange, then, that this profession forms no part of Scholas, and its choices of people to honor.


Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and public speaker. She has been a frequent guest on “Abundant Life” on EWTN TV, and her “Global Watch” program is heard on EWTN radio affiliates nationwide. This is her first column for The Catholic Thing.