We are compulsive god-makers. And this penchant was in florid display this past week as Pope Francis wasn’t just welcomed but deified. Pennsylvania Congressman Bob Brady was, perhaps, the deifier-in-chief as he pilfered the pope’s water glass, sipped reverently from it, shared it with his staff and loved ones and sprinkled the water on his grandchildren.
The crowds grabbing at the pope’s garb were in the spirit of the sickly woman in Matthew’s gospel who knew she would be healed if she could but touch the hem of his garment. Paul and Barnabas were impressive figures also and they had a devil of a time convincing the people of Lystra that they were guys and not gods.
But pause and peek through the pious papal haze and you will see that Francis is a man; a truly great man in some ways, and in other ways a failure.
So why the fervor, the tears, and non-stop adulation? Two reasons: hope and fright. Our spirits need hope like our lungs need oxygen. (Sorry old Juvenal, bread and circuses don’t cut it.) And the more scared we are the more we lunge toward any beacon of hope.
Important truths are felt before they can be expressed and the feeling is growing in our precordial depths that we are in deep doodoo! The 300-year binge and pillage of nature is ending. Our adolescent joyride is crashing. The Atlantic Ocean visits New York subways; islands are disappearing; Himalayan and other glaciers that supply water to billions are melting; the portents are horrific.
Francis asks: “Who turned the wonder-world of the seas into underwater cemeteries bereft of color and life?” Lord Byron exulted that the “deep and dark blue ocean” was beyond our polluting reach. He was wrong. Piles of plastic cohere in the seas like nasty little islands. The plastic grows brittle in the sun and the waves crash it into microscopic pieces that enter the food chain. We carry fish home in a plastic bag and do we then eat plastic?
Clive Hamilton writes the book for our season, Requiem for a Species; “The reluctant conclusion of the most eminent climate scientists is that the world is now on a path to a very unpleasant future and it is too late to stop it.”
Pope Francis is special because he is a realist who still can inspire. His encyclical Laudato si is an unparalleled diagnosis of our “greedalist” culture and the disasters into which it is plunging us. At times his tone is that of a Cassandra, the Trojan princess blessed with knowing what’s coming and cursed with knowing no one will believe her.
He’s no Pollyanna but he stretches urgently for the hope that we can mitigate the calamities we have unleashed. That’s why this man in his late 70s, in imperfect health, could display the stamina of youth. He knows he doesn’t have long and he knows it is likely Vespers for humanity as well. His visit was an exhausting impassioned appeal, pointedly rebuking the United Nations for verbalizing as the planet burns and pleading with a pathetic Congress to stop bickering like spoiled kids in a schoolyard.
But the same Francis who’s so so right is also so so wrong. He’s still hobbled by Catholic natalism and sexism. He doesn’t seem to know that there’s not a single topic he discusses in his encyclical that isn’t impacted by overpopultation. He says, ridiculously, that “demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development.” Every four and a half days a million people are added to our planet and most of those in the poor world. Contraception is an essential part of the solution and yet he maintains the Catholic taboo against it. That is sinful irresponsibility.
And Francis’ woman problem shows up starkly in his repeated condemnation of abortion. It is gross and raw sexism because it says that over forty million women who choose abortion worldwide each year—again, most of them live in the poorest regions—are either evil or ignorant. There is no gentle alternative. Yes, Francis has made it easier for women who have had abortions to get reconciled with the church, which is helpful for those Catholic women who have been made to feel that their conscientious decisions to abort were wrong. But even with that concession it doesn’t perform the radical surgery so badly needed on ingrained and long-tenured Catholic sexism.
If abortion regardless of circumstance is objectively evil and millions of women choose it then Francis, by continuing this condemnation, is stoning those women. He should put down the stones and get educated. If there’s any hope for the church’s survival it will come from women who right now are leaving his church in droves and taking their children with them.