By Edmond Y. Azadian
Morality and politics are usually mutually exclusive; although they both deal with social issues, the latter has a stronger grip on those issues while morality soars in the abstract and impacts the consciences of people in a more subjective way.
Pope Francis’ visit to the US brought together both approaches to social issues and came to demonstrate the power of the spoken word and the impact of morality on politics and political issues.
As a spiritual leader, it was not his place to politicize his mission, but since the social issues he touched upon also have a political component, he had to tailor his message accordingly. At the conclusion of his remarks at the joint session of the US Congress, he stated: “A good political leader is one who, with the interest of all minds, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism.”
Before landing on the North American continent as the fourth pope visiting the US, Pope Francis’ first stop was on the island nation of Cuba, where he received a welcome deserving of a head of state, by the Cuban people and the government. Both segments were grateful for the role the Pontiff had played in restoring relations between the US and Cuba.
President Obama was equally grateful, and he later thanked the Pope for his help in mending frayed ties, adding, “You shake our conscience from slumber, you call us to rejoice at the good news and give us confidence that we can come together, in humility and service, and pursue a world that is more loving, more just and more free.”
In Cuba, the Pope brought back God into an atheist society and his message came to restore Christian faith among people, all along treading carefully on political issues. He avoided invoking political prisoners and provoking the regime.
The Pope’s visit to the US was more tumultuous and eventful. Throughout his visit, the news media provided ample coverage attracting the attention and the reverence of not only Catholics, but also non-Catholics, as his message transcended the racial, religious and philosophical divide.
He was the first Pope to address a joint session of the Congress, receiving 30 standing ovations, against 29 for Benyamin Netanyahu, who had delivered a more divisive political message.
Although the Pope brought a message of peace, he did not shy away from the day’s burning issues. Certainly congressional leaders such as John Boehner (who subsequently announced his resignation as Speaker of the House) and Mitch McConnell did not expect the tenor of the Pope’s message when they invited him to speak. The Pope called for the protection of the rights of immigrants and refugees and the abolition of the death penalty as well as the sanctity of life “in all its stages,” an oblique reference to abortion. Then he took on the “industry of death,” asking, “why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering to individuals and societies?” He then responded to his own question: “Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply money. Money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.” And he called for action to “confront the problem and stop the arms trade.”
His audience in the Congress associated the reference with the $60-billion arms deal the US made recently with Saudi Arabia, whose weapons are wreaking havoc in Syria and Yemen, and also the new military aid of $45 billion promised to Israel.
All the issues that the Pope touched upon are vigorously being debated during the presidential campaign.
The Pope carried similar messages both to the White House and to the United Nations General Assembly. He reminded his audience of the Golden Role: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Matthew 7:12)
The Pope’s visit deeply impacted the conscience of his audience. People in the US were moved by his humility and the simplicity of his message. But how much that message could be translated into action needs to be viewed in due course.
“Governments and their leaders are not easily swayed by moral appeals, even from the Pope, but they do respond to their public opinion,” said Louise Frechette, a former deputy secretary general of the UN. She added that the Pope’s emphasis on issues such as “climate change and refugees could put pressure on governments to act.”
The Pope’s visit to the US will have a lasting influence on people’s conscience and politicians’ calculations. The “Francis effect” was indeed powerful. The only issue which was left unresolved in people’s minds was the role of women in the church. Although he has advocated a “deeper theology about the place of women in the church and greater role for women in its decision making,” his final word on the issue has been “the church has spoken and the door is closed” to women.
He is blamed for having a “blind spot” regarding women.
Mostly the news media treated the Pope and his visit positively, except a few powerful figures in the media, one of whom is New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who takes the Pope to task for his conservative views regarding women in the church. In her Sunday op-ed piece on September 27, she writes, “His magnetic, magnanimous personality is making the church, so stained by vile sex abuse scandal, more attractive to people, even though the Vatican stubbornly clings to its archaic practice of treating women as a lower caste.”
Some other analysts suggest that although the Pope subscribes to a conservative philosophy, through the issues he has raised, he has given the “religious left a new lease on life.”
Indeed, for the past decade, much of the public discourse about the Catholic Church in the media has been negative; the endless stream of victims of clergy sexual abuse, so long stifled, finally were able to find a voice. In the process, the church, until recently, was not able to reassert its moral high ground. Now, with Francis at the helm, the church seems to be willing to confront past misconduct and again focus on bringing back the faithful to its fold.
As Armenians, we have our own agenda regarding the Pope and his mission. What Pope Francis did for the Armenians, no mere statesman could have done. Thanks to his Divine Liturgy in St. Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican on April 12 of this year, he created global resonance on the Genocide issue. We were all appreciative at the time but during his visit to the US, we failed to express our appreciation in an appropriately grand manner. We had long been aware of his visit and his schedule in the US. Had we mobilized our community for a visible welcome, perhaps the Genocide issue could have found its echo in the message he delivered at the US Congress or the White House, or even the UN forum. We cannot tell with certainty what would have been the outcome if we were able to move the masses on this occasion. Sure, there was a sign in Philadelphia thanking the Pope for his courageous stand. There was also a message from the Eastern Diocese in Catholic New York. Perhaps other messages did not hit their goals, but certainly we failed to demonstrate our collective gratitude. That is indicative of our lethargy as a political force in this country.
Perhaps the only saving grace was President Serge Sargisian’s meeting with Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, the Vatican’s Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, who coincidentally visited Yerevan while the Pope was touring the US. During that meeting, which was also attended by the Patriarch of the Armenian Catholic Church Grigor Petros I Gabroyan, President Sargisian pointed out the Vatican’s role not only uniting the Christian world but also defending human rights, tolerance, understanding and peace. He concluded his remarks by stating that “the fact of recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the Vatican is the vivid proof of that.”
For people across the US, the Pope’s visit meant the revival of faith and celebration of his message of peace, but for the Armenian community, it remains a sorely-missed political opportunity.