Although there are nine Supreme Court justices, only four turned out for the pope’s address to a joint session of Congress this week (John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sonia Sotomayor). I have not read anything explaining the absence of the others, so at this point anything I say is mere speculation. But if their absence were due to principle; that is, they were uncomfortable hosting a religious figure given the importance of the separation of church and state, then we probably would have heard about it. Perhaps we will.
What I am afraid of is that the five–Samuel Alito, Stephen Breyer, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Elena Kagan–stayed away for ideological reasons. By that I mean that Alito, Scalia, and Thomas, all conservatives, disagree with the pope’s position on a number of issues. For instance, Scalia believes that the death penalty is not only moral but consistent with God’s justice. I find that troubling, since I respect his legal acumen even while disagreeing with his originalist approach to the Constitution. In addition, Alito’s support of unlimited, corporate campaign contributions in the Citizens United case runs against the concept of personhood in Catholic social teaching. As for Breyer and Kagan, their reasons are unknown, although Breyer was in the Bay Area to promote a book. It is possible that these justices did not object to the pope being in Congress as much as to what he said while there.
I am not sure how I feel about the pope speaking to Congress. An invitation to the White House is one thing; it consists of one head of state meeting another. But things get muddled when that same figure is welcomed into the legislative chamber to address the people’s representatives. Does the church have something to say about poverty, refugees, the environment? Of course. Political and economic realities inform ministry. Evangelization and catechesis begin with the lived reality of the people. That reality must be acknowledged and dealt with. But the church needs the freedom to involve itself politically without being beholden to any party or system of government. In other words, it needs to be independent.
The pope is still in Philadelphia and already the media has begun analyzing his trip in terms of its impact on politics, public policy, and the 2016 election. Much of the analysis misses the mark as in a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal asking why the pope’s “handlers” weren’t more informed about the deaths in Mecca. Richard Wolff, the socialist commentator, has even said that by focusing on ecology, the Vatican has been able to rebound from the sexual abuse scandals and fill a leadership void worldwide. These comments, perhaps well-intentioned, provide proof that the pope’s message is unfathomable to some. And what is that message? Help the poor. By helping the poor, we become more human and less of a commodity. So far, it’s been a hard sell.
I am researching the pope’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, for a book on business ethics. I have been surprised by the amount of opposition and even vitriol toward it on the Internet. I expected the usual anti-Catholic rantings from certain groups, but the opposition and even ridicule of the pope himself is ungracious. Apparently, some people adhere only to those church teachings they approve of or that meet an ideological litmus test. These are so-called “cafeteria Catholics”: people with a personalized magisterium. It worked when the emphasis in Rome was on sexuality, but it’s different now that the menu includes social justice. Picking and choosing are acceptable. The hypocrisy is palpable.
It is ironic that Pope Francis’ advocacy of dialogue and debate over entrenched party politics has been met with such disdain. But people understand and respond to his call for peace regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof. Just look at the crowds everywhere he goes. He speaks their language.
And if there were ever a question about the need for grace and civility, all one need do is compare the pope’s appearances and speeches, which have included visits to shelters, schools, and prisons (Matthew 25:31-46), to the insults and demagoguery of Donald Trump. Actually, I would be relieved to hear that the Trump campaign had planned it all along as political theatre. In a certain sense, I would understand. But I don’t think that’s the case. Trump’s venom is real, and it is encouraged by people who should know better.
Some of those people, unfortunately, wear black robes.