Ever since his election, Pope Francis has enjoyed immense popularity in all corners of the world and across the political spectrum. Conservatives, liberals alike have sung the praises of the new Pope with his approachable manner and warmth. However, lately Pope Francis has run into a bit of rough waters and the magic seems to be fading.
First, conservatives realized that, except for abortion and same sex marriage, they have little in common with the pontiff. When it comes to economics, income inequality, climate change, illegal immigration, the Pope is a Catholic, i.e. he leans left. But Pope Francis is not the first, nor the last, to be confused for a conservative just because he supports legal bans on abortion and same sex marriage. That is what happens when a broader political movement is reduced to a couple of litmus tests.
This week, the Pope’s reaction to the Paris terror attacks is causing some liberals to rethink their enthusiasm for the pontiff. In his opening monologue on Friday, Bill Maher declared, “He [Pope] is dead to me,” and followed that sentence with very strong, graphic language. The cause of Maher’s angst is the Pope’s statement that freedom of speech has limits when it comes to satirizing religions.
During one of his informal press conferences held while flying to the Philippines, Pope Francis was asked about the Charlie Hebdo massacre. In response, the Pope decided to the join the “but brigade.” You now, the crowd that can never denounce anything without attaching a “but” at the end of the sentence that provides some measure of justification for whatever acts are being denounced. “Yes, targeting innocent civilians is always wrong but… [Insert rationalization].”
Despite being a new brigade member, Pope Francis performed like a pro. Of course, it is wrong to kill in the name of God. He called it an “aberration”. But……. “You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” Pope Francis, then, tapped into his ability to speak in very simple and relatable terms by saying that if, for example, his aide Alberto Gasparri insulted his mother he would respond with a punch. To emphasize his point, the Pope formed a fist and threw a mock punch at Mr. Gasparri.
Kind of ironic that while Islamic leaders worldwide were urging Muslims to protest peacefully against the survivor issue of Charlie Hebdo, the Vicar of Christ decided to go old school. He tossed aside the New Testament’s call to turn the other cheek and brought back the Old Testament’s eye for an eye. What is even more depressing is that the Pope missed what could have been a teachable moment, an opportunity to draw a distinction between Christianity – which categorically teaches that violence should not be met with more violence -and other faiths that still justify violence in some measure.
This is not the first time the Pope failed to promote his church over other faiths. Just this past Christmas, a school in Bergamo, Italy decided to stop the tradition of having a nativity display on its premises in the name of respecting the sensibilities of non-Catholics. Not a peep from Pope Francis. It was a politician who brought a nativity scene to the school. There is a real effort underfoot to strip Italy of its Catholic cultural identity and Pope Francis has been consistently MIA when he should be leading the fight against it.
Worse than simply failing to defend Catholic traditions in his backyard, the Pope seems to have wholly embraced multiculturalism. He has repeatedly said that all religions have equal value, dignity which is appropriate for a secular politician trying to win votes in a pluralistic society but not appropriate for a head of a religious organization whose main mission is to spread the Gospel. Different roles require different approaches, priorities.
Within 24 hours the Vatican issued a clarification of the Pope’s comments, a testament to a much more media savvy public relations operation of the Holy See. In a press release, Rev. Thomas Rosica said, “The pope's expression is in no way intended to be interpreted as a justification for the violence and terror that took place in Paris last week.” Unfortunately, protesters in Niger responded faster than the Vatican press office and decided to punch back by setting on fire Christian churches.