A journalist friend and I have a running debate about whether American politics or the Catholic Church is in more trouble. It’s often close, with destructive polarization and enormous difficulties facing both, including the continuing impact of the sexual abuse crisis in our church and the many costs of two wars hurting our nation. Ironically, this summer Pope Francis is making the church a place of “hope and change,” while Washington in the Obama era is an increasingly sad place of stalemate and dysfunction.
The Senate has adopted bipartisan immigration reform, but the House will not consider it because it would pass without a majority of Republicans. It is supported by the American people, business and labor, evangelicals and Catholics, but Republicans are worried about challenges in the fall primaries. This dysfunction is not unique. Gun safety measures were defeated by pressure from the National Rifle Association. In the House, the farm bill initially failed because some insisted that food stamp cuts for hungry families were too small. What happened to compassionate conservatism?
Supreme Court rejection of a centerpiece of the Voting Rights Act brought relatively little comment or action. But overturning the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s vote against same-sex marriage led to massive celebratory coverage. The decisions suggest voting rights protections are relics of the past and gay marriage is the wave of the future, holding that traditional convictions on marriage could only be motivated by bias or hostility.
A new heroine is a state senator in Texas who filibustered legislation restricting abortion. Most coverage celebrated her “courage and stamina” with no reference to the lives of unborn children or public opinion. The administration announced its revised contraceptive mandate will be implemented next year, but the employer mandate will not; free birth control is in place, but basic coverage for workers is still on hold.
Unemployment numbers show modest progress, but 20 million people are jobless, work only part time or have given up. Real wages are stagnant and poverty is at historic levels. The elite advocacy of gay and abortion rights is constant and the silence on jobs, wages and poverty is deafening.
President Obama and House speaker John Boehner seem buffeted by forces beyond their control, including a coup in Egypt or a possible coup in the House. They have abandoned the search for a bargain on the budget and live with the sequester they deplored. They recycle their talking points and blame others for Washington’s failures.
There is a surprisingly different story in the church. Pope Benedict decided he could not continue to lead and took the selfless step of resigning. An unexpected new pope took the name Francis to lift up the church’s commitment to the poor, peace and creation. Francis’ new encyclical shows continuity with Benedict and connections among faith, truth, love and action. Pope Francis advances the canonization of both Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII. He responds to Vatican bank scandals with new structures and leadership. He emphasizes Catholic identity and calls the church to get out and stand with “the poorest, the weakest, and the least important.” On his first visit beyond the Vatican, Francis goes to jail to wash the feet of young people. His first trip outside Rome is to Lampe-dusa, the “Island of Tears,” to welcome immigrants and decry “globalization of indifference.” He preaches every day in his house chapel, challenging “melancholy Christians,” “part-time” Catholics, ecclesial ideologues, careerism in the church and greed in the economy.
Francis’ amazing appeal may not last as he makes tough choices. The reform of the Roman Curia is still ahead. Symbols are substance in our church, but personnel is policy. The church needs to do more to heal the wounds of sexual abuse and respond to aspirations of women.
The implementation of the Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate could threaten our ministries and divide our community. But Pope Francis’ simple ways and powerful words remind us why we are Catholic. Washington could use a little of his faith, hope and charity. His commitment to the “least of these” wouldn’t hurt either.