Pope Francis and the Magic Kingdom of Inconvenient People

stephen colbert with roman catholics

Pope Francis Visits America, Film at 11

Part of what has fascinated me about this papal visit was watching us watch him.

On the surface the Roman Catholic church should be an institution that culturally left leaning Americans should hate, and many of course do for a variety of reasons:

  • The priest sexual abuse scandals whose stain won’t go away
  • The RC position on contraception, abortion, women in church office, gay rights
  • It’s role in European and colonial history around the world in terms of religious wars, persecution and colonial mistreatment of indigenous peoples.

If Americans talk about “the church” doing bad things in the past, most of those things were done by the institution of the Roman Catholic church. You would imagine that activists would be ready to pounce on the institutional leader for contemporary and past sins that get the most press in today’s moralistic public square. That might have been true for past pontiffs, but for many on the cultural left Pope Francis feels different.

Pounce on Protestants, Cheer for Catholics

One compare and contrast moment might be between Tony Campolo’s announcement to affirm same-sex marriage and the response he got. While some in the affirming camp applauded him others criticized his announcement as “too little, too late.” This is in contrast with Pope Francis’ “who am I to judge” line which derived widespread celebration from the cultural left. On the plane back to Italy Pope Francis makes a comment that seemed to give some clearance to Kim Davis and her stand to not sign marriage certificates but this doesn’t seem to bother anyone at all. This Pope’s Teflon faces the left as much as John Paul II’s faced the right.

Why the difference? Skye Jethani on the podcast he does with Phil Vischer once noted that many hold Protestants and Catholics to two different standards. Protestants are expected to adapt to changing social norms while the Roman Catholics are expected to not change at all even while many in the West simply ignore their teaching. No one really expects the Roman Catholic church to change its doctrine on these matters.

He Brought Roman Catholics out of the closet and onto the air

Another thing I noticed in this recent trip was how prominent Roman Catholics are not only in government but also in media. Many have noted that six of the nine justices on the Supreme Court are Roman Catholics while the other three are Jews. Also during the papal address of the joint session of congress both the Vice President and the Speaker of the House seated behind him are Roman Catholics. (Did you notice the “In God We Trust” above the podium in the House chamber?) I regularly watch “This Week” on ABC News on Sundays where Cokie Roberts, Matthew Dowd, Donna Brazile and others represent as Roman Catholics. Also note the Roman Catholic presidential candidates. If you were a Roman Catholic in the media or in office during the visit you didn’t hide your status or your upbringing.

One thing is clear by this brief survey, to be Roman Catholic does not mean your political views are monolithic.

With Stephen Colbert

Watch Stephen Colbert’s interview with VP Joe Biden. Also watch the interview with Andrew Sullivan, Jim Gaffigan and Maria Shriver on 9/24/15. Later he interviewed a Roman Catholic archbishop.

What came through especially clear with the interview with the three were themes that sounded very familiar to me and to anyone from a Reformed background.

  • We are all sinners
  • God is good and merciful
  • God wants us to care for each other and for the weak

Diverse and Incongruous Excellencies

In the build up to the visit I was thinking about who the Pope is in the Roman Catholic imaginary. He is the “Vicar of Christ” and in that way when he arrives in this sacramental worldview there is something of Jesus coming to town. With all of the security considerations and royal welcome preparation I couldn’t help but think about how this triggers questions in our mind about Jesus’ presence among us.

What this triggers are some of the natural tensions we have with the incongruous excellencies of Jesus.

  • Jesus is God incarnate who in a priestly role comes to suffer with and for his creation
  • Jesus is the fiery prophet who denounces injustice,  rebukes the spirits and cleanses the temple
  • Jesus is the exalted king who is robed in glory, has a sword in his mouth and holds stars and candlesticks meaning he controls the world’s affairs.

Much of this imagery is lost on the viewers of Roman Catholic pageantry. Why the robes, the crown, the staff, the servants, the pomp and ceremony? The church is attempting to manifest Jesus and his followers as prophet, priest and king but there are ways in which these agendas work against themselves when it comes to actual manifestation in real time and space.

In an article today in the NY Times Donald Trump declares that Americans want a President who is a winner! Jimmy Carter famously carried his bags off Air Force One. Trump scoffs at this. “Carter was a nice man but we want someone who’s going to kick ass and win” not “someone whose going to come off carrying a large bag of underwear.”

Pope Francis? Yes he carries his own bag.

Now take a little quiz. Do the same people like Jimmy Carter, Pope Francis, but not Donald Trump? Probably.

The Power of an Icon

Pope Francis, however, still wears the vestments, has his attending security, has the golden chair, but rides in a Fiat and stops the parade to kiss and bless children and the disabled. He passes on the congressional lunch to eat with the homeless.

What I’m about to say will offend some, and what I’m about to say should not be interpreted as claiming that the Pope is insincere because nothing I know suggests this. There is a sense in which his stopping the parade and driving in a Fiat and eating with the homeless is just as much stagecraft as are the vestments and the ceremony and the royal visits he makes. It’s all part of the same drama, intended to attempt to express these diverse and often incongruous excellencies that are inherent in Jesus’ story. This is a show that is intended to evoke what it is evoking and this is the part that Pope Francis, including the embrace of his papal name, is intending to convey. There isn’t anything wrong with this kind of show. Church services are all about this kind of show in many ways. “Do this in remembrance of me” invites us into a sacramental worldview.

If the goal of this Pope on this visit were to create an image of Jesus that would be accessible and attractive to this American audience through today’s media across the political and cultural divide then this pope (and the people around him who make the whole drama work) have succeeded beyond what I could imagine could be done. In these moments and through these images the drama he “elevates” (notice how often this word comes up in the Colbert interview) us through our dramatic imagination into a vision of power brought down to lift the lowly and give hope to the discouraged.

The Limits of Image

When I was a student at Calvin Seminary in the 1980s I remember a presentation by Viv Grigg, a missionary who lived a radical incarnational mission to the slums in the Philippines. I was so moved by how this man could give up so much, sacrifice so much to be one with the poor in their communities. He wrote a book Companion to the Poor which I read and was moved by. I remember Roger Greenway, our missions professor who had been a missionary in Asia and Latin America making some practical comments that felt to me to undercut some of what Viv Grigg had said. I couldn’t at that point appreciate his comments nor did I stop to ponder who and why he appeared at our rather insignificant seminary and what he was doing there.

I thought about Viv Grigg when I was a missionary in the Dominican Republic, not living anything like the incarnational strategy Grigg was pronouncing. I had a wife and one infant son at the time. When I was there I used to imagine what it would take and what it would be like to live WITH the Haitians I ministered to in Viv Grigg’s sort of way.

I came to the conclusion that it would be impossible. I would never be a Haitian. Even if I divested myself of my wealth, my salary, my American passport, and did my best to cut off every relationship I had in North America it would never work. My white skin and my accent would make me an oddity and a novelty and in an ironic way my divestiture would have been viewed as cutting off assets that gave me value in my relationships there. As I young missionary I didn’t like this reality while some of the national pastors kept trying to help me understand it.

This tension highlights the incarnation of Jesus. He wasn’t someone “playing” a national in Judea, he was born one in ways I never could become. The Gospel of John makes clear that it is precisely his connection to heaven that gave him value in his incarnation for both sides.

The Pope lives with these lines too. He tries to straddle the line by crossing it now and then, living in a simple apartment, driving a simple car, stopping to bless and kiss the small and disabled, yet he has a security detail, travels by jet plane, holds press conferences and audiences with the wealthy and powerful. He is a man of tremendous power and authority who plays someone who has less on TV. The homeless were moved for his trip to Philadelphia.

I did a Google search for Viv Grigg. He lives in California teaching at Azusa Pacific University with an impressive CV teaching what he learned by for a short time in his life living amongst the poor. Roger Greenway basically told us “he won’t be able to sustain this” and I didn’t want to hear it.

If you had said “Viv Grigg will do this and then take the experiences he had with the poor and shape them into a career” I would have been disgusted. It is the way that the wealthy and powerful like myself, Viv Grigg, and Pope Francis derive power, credibility, and privilege even from the poor. All three of us are often only tourists on the other side of the line.

2015-09-25 14.23.19

Living With the Inconvenient

On one hand I appreciate the impact of the Pope’s visit on our culture and the shadow Christian imaginary that is maintained and perpetuated even in our sometimes formally anti-Christian cultural left. All of the wealthy and powerful on TV with one voice raise the cry that every human person has “dignity” which should be preserved, which I’ll take as a contemporary reasonable facsimile to them being bearers of the image of God, which is its theological foundation, and that they see the Pope as proclaiming this in word and deed.

On the other hand, and this is not the fault of the Pope nor the Roman Catholic church, in that medium this agenda all too often becomes a cheap illusion that care for the poor can be had inexpensively. The family that was able to bring their disabled son or daughter to the papal parade knows the cost of caring for a permanently disabled child. The vast majority of families with disabled children will receive no papal kiss. While our culture loves the images of momentary rescue of the plight of many we have little stomach for allowing these inconvenient people to get in the way of the lives we wish to live.

Inconvenient people may not be homeless or disabled. They might not have a diagnosed mental illness nor anything that a health care professional would pay any attention to. They may simply be annoying, selfish, petty, or even just a child who gets in our way. A friend of mine pointed out to me a #shoutyourabortion post on Twitter.

The teenage her got a late term abortion so her college, career and motherhood wouldn’t be off track.  A darker, snarkier side of me would be tempted to suggest to her living son that he should be a good boy and never be an inconvenience to his mother.

While the Pope was here part of why folks on both sides were watching was how much he would say about abortion. Too much or not enough. Abortion of course is only one example of commonly inconvenient people and the ways that they disrupt the real agenda of America which is the enshrinement of the expectations that we can actually create the life we’ve always wanted. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is a right endowed by our creator. We are more skeptical about the existence of that creator than we are about the right he supposedly endowed us with.

Back to His Big/Little Kingdom

So back he goes to what some might call the other “magic kingdom” which doesn’t have the tagline “the happiest place on earth”. His departure again brings me back to reflect on the departure of the one he wishes to represent.

Jesus ascends leaving the disciples a bit bewildered. The angels declared he will return as he departed, on the clouds. What his departure brought on was of course Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit. That Holy Spirit of course brings Jesus into his church. This way gets little press and the images and experience aren’t always that pretty. The church is a mess, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, pedophiles, pornographers, but mostly the petty and the annoying.

What will the pope leave behind? My expectations are low. I think about the ending of “The Truman Show” (tru-man, Christof, his father who lives in the sky… get it?)

“What else is on. Where’s the TV Guide?”

We can all resume what we were doing before, and likely will. While a visit like this is fun, revealing and I’m sure for many Roman Catholics a tremendous encouragement, it is the quiet work of the Holy Spirit and the faithful service of all of those people who day in and day out love inconvenient people that really bears witness to this strange kingdom that imagines the mess of this world like the brutality of the cross will yield a glory that we can dream about and desire but have little power to finally inaugurate.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in Culture commentary and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Pope Francis and the Magic Kingdom of Inconvenient People

  1. Harris says:

    As meditation on power: isn’t this always the challenge? In one sense, to have or acquire power means being focused; yet too focused and the same power deserts you. So the big public gesture is at once symbol but also actuality. In a related way, this is the notion of the two bodies of the king (king as transcendent office, king as the actual person; thus ‘the king is dead, long live the king.’)

    Moreover, to have power is something of a separation; it is a lonely thing. So the minister is friendly but possesses few friends. In this, I’m inclined to take Francis’ gestures as paths of self-limitation, a way of trying to keep from being enclosed by the bubble.

    Of course for us observers there is another task: not to see the power; or perhaps to be on guard for how the public gestrual rhetoric aligns with our own views. Think here of the Evangelical love of heroes which Ross Douthat pointed to recently. If I know that Francis is not my guy, then I can look at him, at his gestures and read them better. To do that, I also have to have that indifference to power, noted above.

  2. Pingback: The Pope and I | Leadingchurch.com

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