Arthur C. Brooks: The Pope’s Subversive Message

utalogoby Arthur C. Brooks

pope-in-americaPOPE Francis’ recently concluded tours of Cuba and the United States have been hailed as triumphs. Hundreds of millions, from staunch Roman Catholics to skeptical outsiders, followed his every move and listened to his message.

Given Francis’ loving charisma and gentle demeanor, it is easy for many to view this pope as they might see any kindly, secular philosophical figure. This is how the media often portrays him — as an unthreatening man who is cheerfully sanding down the sharp edges of his church. But herein lies Francis’ true subversive genius: What looks to some like a smiley-face sticker is actually an invitation to total conversion.

The central theme of Francis’ visit was a call for unity. He has frequently urged us “to dialogue together, to shorten the distance between us, to strengthen our bonds of brotherhood.” With respect to the church, Francis has exhorted priests to be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep” and to avoid setting themselves apart from the laity.

But the unity the pope has in mind goes far deeper. The unity that he is challenging us to embrace has no limits, natural or supernatural.

In Cuba, Francis touched on this theme while gently exposing a central error of Communism — the conflation of unity with shallow sameness. “Unity is often confused with uniformity; with actions, feelings and words which are all identical,” he said. “This is not unity, it is conformity.”

Everyone — not just the Cubans — should take this lesson to heart.

In the United States, he warned us not to let material prosperity divide us by economic class. While some might look for a hidden leftist message here, especially given the pope’s more controversial policy statements in recent months, no American should find this caution objectionable. After all, unlike in much of the rest of the world, in America there is no shame in starting out poor; there is no pride in being born rich.

Look back a generation (or two or three) in our families, and we are almost all just riffraff with one direction to go: up. Americans tell with pride the stories of their parents and grandparents who — thanks to democracy and free enterprise — were able to work their way up out of poverty. The secret to American unity thus is not just giving alms to the poor. It is to remember that we are the poor.

As the pope surely understands, these facts are what make the Catholic Church in the United States unique. In Europe, the church was historically an institution of the powerful. In America, by contrast, the Catholic Church was established as the church of the outsiders. Throughout our history it has been the poorest of the immigrant groups — the Irish, Italians and Latin Americans — who represented the face of American Catholicism. Excluded from power in their countries, the poor opted to build their lives and churches here.

As our nation expanded and prospered, the Catholic Church became a source of social unity. Indeed, Dorothy Day, who co-founded the Catholic Worker movement and was cited by Pope Francis before Congress, was attracted by the fact that the church in America was full “of all nationalities, of all classes, but most of all they were the poor.”

For Francis, unity also extends into the transcendental. He asserts that faith and human reason are inseparable, declaring that “unless you believe, you will not understand.” In the 11th century, St. Anselm of Canterbury defined theology as “faith seeking understanding.” Francis significantly ups the ante, asserting that faith is nothing less than reason seeking cosmic meaning. He tells us that belief does not suffocate or diminish human reason, but rather reinforces it and imbues it with life.

Even more radically, the pope’s theology obliterates materialism by uniting natural and supernatural. As Francis directly challenged the congregation in one of his homilies in Cuba, “Do you believe it is possible that the son of a carpenter can be the Son of God?” He emphatically does not mean this metaphorically. As a Catholic, he says that he believes that Jesus is factually present in the form of the Eucharist, and that how we treat the poor and vulnerable here on earth will have eternal consequences.

Francis’ secular admirers often stumble at his apparent preoccupation with evil. In an impromptu speech to schoolchildren in Harlem, he disconcertingly asked: “But who is it that sows sadness, that sows mistrust, envy, evil desires? What is his name? The devil.”

Some dismiss this as a clerical tic or South American eccentricity. It is nothing of the sort. The word “devil” comes from the Greek verb diabolos, meaning “slander” or “attack.” And “demon” comes directly from the Greek root meaning “to divide.” For Francis, happiness comes from unity, both with God and with one another. Unhappiness comes from division from either — which comes from the Dark One.

Many people around the world have found themselves attracted to the pope’s warm message of unity. And well they should be — unity is in short supply in our unhappy world today. But Francis is asking for more than a mass chorus of “Kumbaya.” He is in the hunt for the whole human soul.

Arthur C. Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute, the author of the book “The Conservative Heart” and a contributing opinion writer.


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