Last week, I saw the President of the United States greeting Pope Francis on his arrival in Washington, D.C. A day later, the Pope was addressing Congress. A couple of days after that, I watched him deliver a speech in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Technically, the Pope is a head of state. Courtesy of the Lateran Treaty, which the papacy signed with Benito Mussolini in 1929, the Vatican—all 108.7 acres of it—is an independent, self-governing entity. It does not, however, maintain state-to-state relations with other countries, nor does it have accredited ambassadors. It’s the site of a building complex, a bureaucracy that administers the affairs of a worldwide religion and the residence of the Pope. Supposedly, it maintains open channels to the deity who occupies the universe but has no earthly headquarters.
Our national currency says that we are under God, but isn’t otherwise specific on the subject. Our Constitution says that the practice of religion is a right, but that no laws respecting its establishment may be made. Church and state, as the saying goes, are separate, once and forever.
It’s never been that simple, of course; and under our last two presidents the dividing line between church and state has been deliberately eroded. Still, no particular religion has been officially favored: until now. The papal procession through Washington, New York and Philadelphia, which shut down the nation’s political and financial capitals as well as the birthplace city of the world’s first secular democracy, was unlike any reception in American history. Our political representatives—president and vice president, cabinet officers, senators and Congressmen, governors and mayors—fell over themselves, bending the knee if not kissing the ring. It could only be compared to an imperial entry in some Old Regime country where divine right was alive and well.
My thought was, well, the Counter-Reformation has won.
Five hundred years ago, Christianity was divided by the Protestant Reformation. Protestants of numerous varieties repudiated the Catholic church and all its works: its popes, its canons, its images, its saints and above all its interpretation of the Bible and the entire worldly edifice of clerical administration and theological presumption built on it. Rome became Babylon, and the pope himself the Antichrist. The church, stunned, was set back on its heels. Over the next century, however, it attempted to regroup, and even to reconquer the territories and populations it had lost to the Protestant heresies. In the early 17th century, it appeared for a time that it might succeed. This didn’t happen, but the church did maintain one advantage over its foes: its internal unity, the product of unyielding dogma, authoritarian control and the figure of the pope, its absolute spiritual head and the unquestioned ruler of its far-flung empire.
The 18th century brought another challenge, the movement of religious skepticism and secular reform known as the Enlightenment. A great nation was born out of this climate: ours. The majority of our Founding Fathers were neither Catholic nor Protestant, but adherents of something called Deism, the century’s halfway house for atheism. When French astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace, in replying to a critic who asked why God was absent from his cosmos, said that he simply had no need of such a hypothesis, he was speaking with just a little more frankness than usual for the elite leadership that had made the United States. God was still invoked occasionally for rhetorical purposes, for example by Lincoln, and Christian belief was still entertained in the population at large. But the fashion of American presidents parading their religious convictions or professing to be born again is a quite recent innovation. Most of them in our history would have thought such bad manners to be deplorable, not to say profoundly embarrassing. In any case, one rule appeared sacrosanct: no one professing the Catholic faith could be president. The reason for this was simple: a Catholic president would necessarily be under the spiritual tyranny of Rome, taking his orders from the pope. What this meant in turn was that, at bottom, Catholicism and democracy were incompatible. The leader of a free country chosen openly by an electorate of its adult citizens could not simultaneously owe his allegiance to an autocrat chosen in secret by a conclave of a few dozen, and claiming authority not only over law but conscience.
It was only in 1960 that a Catholic president was finally elected, and the kind of suspicions that lingered about John F. Kennedy have been indirectly revived in the persistent belief of the sizable minority who believe that Barack Obama is a closet Muslim today. We now demand regular professions of piety in our leaders, even those who, like Ronald Reagan, have no more faith than Ben Franklin. Still though, the faith we’re most comfortable with is a vaguely ecumenical Protestantism. We don’t want hard-core papists, but we don’t want holly rollers either.
This returns us to Pope Francis. He seems a fairly down to earth guy for the Vicar of Christ, and he says, well, pretty much what all popes say about peace, charity, and respect for our home planet. After Benedict XVI, it’s easy for him to sound liberal, at least in a Vatican context. And he has had great press. Our local paper of record, the Philadelphia Inquirer, turned some months ago into an English-language version of L’Osservatore Romano, and it was an open secret that Comcast, the corporate owner of NBC, had given orders to push the Pope’s visit. The entire national media, though, seemed to be engaged in a collective act of genuflection. If Francis were the Second Coming in person, he couldn’t have had better buzz.
I have personally found this both tedious and offensive. When Archbishop Chaput, also speaking in front of Independence Hall, declared that the American character had been formed by a belief in a merciful God, I felt myself decidedly in need of a Heimlich maneuver. I do not profess any religion, and, if a God should exist, mercy would seem to be among his least apparent attributes. If the Archbishop is correct, this must mean either that I am not an American, or that I have no character. I am pretty sure of the first, and I would respectfully leave the judgment of the second to others.
The Archbishop is perfectly entitled to say such things in one of his churches, but not, as far as I am concerned, in front of Independence Hall. Standing beside him, the bronze statue of George Washington appeared not to turn a hair, though the real George may have been spinning in his grave, along with his friends Ben, Alexander, Tom and James. I didn’t appreciate the trip back to the Middle Ages, and I’m presuming they didn’t either. Nor was I left any sanguine feeling about the Republic. We are a diverse nation: the world’s most amazing experiment in diversity. Even for six days, I did not appreciate being conscripted as an honorary Catholic. Our public life should espouse no creed but that of democracy itself. It is the one creed that holds us together.
I have pondered this very strange, and quite unprecedented week in our country’s history. There are 70 million Catholics in America (not all of them happy with this particular pontiff), but there are also 250 million people who are not. Some, maybe a goodly number, may feel about the papal visit as I do. There were a few rumblings on the Evangelical right about the Antichrist being in town. A front page of the Inquirer devoted entirely to the Pope had an advertisement for the Book of Mormon placed strategically at the bottom of it. Some Native Americans complained about the particularly tone-deaf canonization of Father Junipero Serra, whose mission to California in the eighteenth century spread the Word while drastically reducing the indigenous population.
On the whole, however, Francis’ visit was triumphal. He soared above politics while plunging right into them, as perhaps only a pope can do. In a world without a single admired political figure and no other spiritual one to give him competition, Francis answered, if briefly, to our great hunger for moral leadership. Even a week off Donald Trump, after all is a treasure to be prized.
As for the Catholic church, it has always played the long game, and its long suit is the papacy itself. The supremacy of the Bishop of Rome has periodically been challenged within the church as well as outside it, but it is the institution that both historically defines and practically speaks for it. A splintered, sectarian Protestantism has nothing to compete with it; nor, for that matter, what appears to be an increasingly polarized democratic polity. Yet it is deeply ironic that the leader of the world’s most authoritarian and undemocratic institution should be greeted, even if momentarily, as a near-savior in the world’s oldest functioning republic. You had to see it to believe it.