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Binding church and state

A non-Christian, the political analyst Fareed Zakaria, distilled the essence of the pronouncements made by Pope Francis during his trip to Cuba and the United States last week. Those who take offense at the Pope’s statements, Zakaria said, don’t have a problem with Francis; they have a problem with Jesus Christ.

For almost a week in August, we endured a contentious dispute over the constitutional provision on the separation of church and state. Over this past week, Pope Francis visited with Fidel Castro, the architect of Cuba’s communist regime, spoke before the joint session of the US Congress, still the leader of the capitalist world, and addressed the United Nations General Assembly. There was no alarm raised about any potential breach of that wall supposedly dividing church and state.

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Some of the issues Pope Francis addressed—the importance of the family, justice for the victims of clerical abuse—were properly part of his ecclesiastical mission. But he also spoke on patently political issues: global warming and environmental degradation, immigration flows and policies, narcotrafficking and the arms trade, which extended way beyond the scope of the traditional papal mandate. These were also matters over which his American hosts were themselves deeply divided. How did he get away with it?

First, it helped that he never claimed any special dispensation that should be accorded to Catholics or to the Catholic Church as an institution. Nor did he invoke a privileged position for the views he expressed. At a prison facility in Philadelphia, alluding to the act of Jesus in washing the feet of his disciples, the Pope presented himself, not as pontiff, but as a pastor, “a brother,” equally dirtied by the dust of life, equally in need of cleansing.

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The flock to which Pope Francis ministers does not consist of disembodied spirits. They are flesh and blood, with physical and material needs. When he takes up political issues, he addresses their moral implications, but, even more pointedly, their impact on the lives of ordinary people,especially the most vulnerable.

He did not spend much time defining dogma or clarifying commandments and rules. He focused instead on helping people trapped in bureaucratic processes that emerge from them. Thus, he has moved to simplify the process for church annulment of marriages and to alleviate the anguish of those excluded from the Church after being compelled to leave their spouses or undergo an abortion.

Second, the Pope’s approach, distinguished by an orientation toward personal pastoral care, avoids giving offense. He does not challenge the views of those who disagree with him. He is content to express what he believes, with conviction, without apology, without criticism.

Addressing the US Congress, he was careful not to enter into policy disputes. Instead, he reflected back to his audience the values of liberty, justice, diversity and inclusivity that the American icons he chose to honor—Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton—have imprinted on the country.

Day and Merton are not as well-known as Lincoln, who fought the war that ended slavery in the United States, or King, who battled the racial bigotry that persisted after the civil war. This made the Pope’s tribute to them even more surprising.

Before her conversion to Catholicism, Day had undergone an abortion, against which she subsequently campaigned, and given birth to a daughter out of wedlock. She was a pacifist who worked for women’s rights and workers’ rights, advocacies that involved her in acts of civil disobedience and resulting jail time. She also joined the Benedictine Order as a lay person dedicated to religious life. The Holy See is investigating the case for her canonization.

Born in France, Merton fathered a child while at Cambridge University, converted to Catholicism in 1939 and, in 1941, entered the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky, for a life of austerity and contemplative seclusion as a Trappist monk.

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Both Day and Merton found themselves and their advocacies suspect by the authorities of their adopted Church: Day because of her social activism and her communist past; Merton because of his openness to non-Christian Eastern religions, like Zen Buddhism. The elements that roused the suspicions of their superiors were precisely what endeared them to Pope Francis: Day’s struggle for justice and the cause of the oppressed; Merton’s promotion of dialogue and of “peace between people and religions.”

Finally, in combining his concern for the plight of individual persons and the future of the planet, Pope Francis reminds us that church and state are two sides of one coin, whose value depends upon the two institutions working together for the common good. In the face of the formidable problems facing humanity, setting church and state at odds only diminishes our chances for success.

Edilberto C. de Jesus ([email protected]) is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

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TAGS: Cuba, Dorothy Day, Fareed Zakaria, Pope Francis, Pope in US, Thomas Merton, United States, us congress
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