Although the Center for Economic and Social Justice is an interfaith organization, and nobody’s income is tied to its existence (it’s all-volunteer), and the Just Third Way is not a faith-based program (although fully consistent with the natural law-basis of the social teachings of the Catholic Church), there is a strong and vested interest in the matters Pope Francis addresses that are not purely religious in nature.
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That is why we paid careful attention to Pope Francis’s speech before the U.S. Congress. The fact that a great many people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, have managed to put some rather unusual twists on virtually everything Francis says (and make up quite a bit to go along with it when actual utterances prove insufficiently spicy), makes this scrutiny more of a duty than a pleasure, but that, we believe, is just another example of how desperate people trapped in the slavery of past savings are to find answers that fit within their limited world view. The fact that a solution is right before their eyes in the Just Third Way would be obvious if they could emancipate themselves from the curse of past savings that has done more to keep people enslaved in other ways than virtually anything else.
That is why we were impressed with the list of Americans that Francis mentioned in his address — although, again, we have to be very, very careful how we understand what the pope said and not load it up with our own hobby horses and what we would have liked him to have said. Putting that special twist on the pope’s words is a temptation that fewer and fewer people these days are able to resist.
So, as Francis said, “I would like to mention four of these Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.”
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Right away people who don’t listen carefully or who don’t understand the teaching office of the pope were baffled. Two of the people on the pope’s list aren’t even Catholic! Does that mean that Francis is holding them up as exemplars for Catholics to follow, suggesting that one doesn’t have to be a “good Catholic” in order to be a good Catholic? A fake quote attributed to Francis has, indeed, been circulating for several months to that effect.
On the contrary! Being reasonable (and, in Catholic teaching, even matters of faith must have a foundation in reason), we conclude that each one of these people is being given not as an exemplar for his or her entire life, but for a single reason, which is only related to Catholicism in a general way. Francis was, after all, addressing a body — the United States Congress — composed of people of many faiths and philosophies. It would have been the height of presumption for him to speak to them as if they were a group of Catholics or even Christians.
No, the pope was addressing the Congress as a moral teacher and world leader whose principles are, in essence, consistent with those of all of humanity, not any individual or specific group. To suggest that the characteristics or qualities we find in Lincoln, King, Day, and Merton are somehow essential to being Catholic but not members of the human race would have been both rude and stupid.
Further, are we to take everything said or done by Lincoln, King, Day, or Merton as fully consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church? Again, that would be wrong. Neither Lincoln nor King were Catholic, and probably had no intention of ever becoming Catholic. Day and Merton, for all the reverence in which they are held by many, both Catholic and non-Catholic, said many things that, at least on the surface (which is all the further many people get these days . . . when they get that far . . . ) are contradictory, even inconsistent with what the Catholic Church teaches.
Looking at the pope’s speech with a little objectivity, then, it is obvious that Francis asked his staff for the names of Americans who would be recognizable and who exemplified certain traits he wished to stress. Personally, we think that Fulton Sheen would have been a better choice than Day and Merton, but we don’t happen to be on the pope’s staff as speech writers, or as anything else, for that matter.
So we can accept the examples that Francis gave without assuming that he was presenting the U.S. Congress with an infallible declaration. We can also reject them without impugning the pope’s authority for that matter — as long as we accept that the principles he was trying to illustrate are valid.
After all, does the fact that George Washington never actually chopped down a cherry tree and may have stretched the truth a few times in his life detract from the validity of the belief that lying is a bad thing? Yes, it would have been better had Parson Weems stuck to the truth himself, but he was constructing moral parables, sort of an American version of Æsop’s fables, not a strict historical account.
Many people, however, not understanding what Pope Francis was doing, are going to go into high gear, and do themselves and others a great disservice, as we will see tomorrow.