Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Coming to America

That would be the Pope, of course, who is coming to America later today. And, unlike most Heads of State, who have to wait to meet the President at the formal White House welcoming ceremony, Pope Francis (who will still get the full ceremonial pageantry at the White House tomorrow) will be met by the President himself at the airport - a sure sign of how powerfully this visit resonates politically as well as religiously. Of course, the distinction between political and religious is itself somewhat artificial, and almost everything about the Pope's trip first to Cuba and then to the United States will hopefully help to undermine that historically and philosophically artificial distinction.

In any case, the Pope is coming, and there is excitement and anticipation in the air. Also, opposition to the Pope's presence and message has begun to get vocal. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the so-called "Freedom from Religion Foundation" is objecting to New York city's awarding of some 80,000 tickets to see the Pope's procession pass through Central park. Malice of that sort, from that sort of group, is a perennial expectation. Much more interesting - and more relevant to the currently fractured state of American society are the challenges from the right wing of American politics. After all, as JFK is alleged to have said, "we get our religion from Rome, but our politics from home." 

There is, for example, the case of Arizona Republican Congressman Paul Gosar, who calls himself a "proud Catholic," but plans to boycott the Pope's Address to Congress on the grounds that the Pope has "adopted all of the socialist talking points." Then there is something called the Heartland Institute, an outfit whose Marketing Director has equated "environmentalism" with "nature worship" and who worries that, "if we have a pope who doesn't view things in an orthodox manner, we're going to have forms returning to religion that are not orthodox." And one Philadelphia talk-show host has supposedly said, "The pope does seem to be enamored with solutions that are not pro-American in the slightest."

One obvious response to such strange statements is, of course, to note that the Pope represents a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, world-wide institution, only some 6% of whose members are in the United States. So even in purely secular terms, why should anyone expect him to reflect a particularly American perspective - let alone a right-wing American perspective that is so self-consciously at odds with moral, social, and scientific thinking in most of the rest of the world? Then add to that the even more important fact that what the Pope represents is a religious alternative to humanity's dominant ways of thinking and acting. Should anyone be surprised that who the Pope is and what he stands for represent such a total challenge to the US moneyed elite's talking points?

One of the attacks that has received the most attention was one from conservative intellectual George Will, whose column in Saturday's Washington Post had the provocative title, "Pope Francis' fact-free flamboyance." (See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/pope-franciss-fact-free-flamboyance/2015/09/18/7d711750-5d6a-11e5-8e9e-dce8a2a2a679_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_opinions.)

Actually it is Will's rhetoric that is somewhat excessive, or should i say "flamboyant"? Still Will is certainly a serious thinker. And so (despite his ideology-driven rhetoric) he manages to raise certain points which actually ought to be taken seriously at a certain practical level. There is, for example, the undeniable historical reality that it is only modern economic growth that has made it possible for many more people than ever before to escape poverty, which prior to that was widely seen as just the natural lot of almost the entire population. It is also the case, as Will notes, that this history of economic growth that has facilitated this incredible improvement in the living standards of such a significant part of the world's population has been made possible largely by fossil fuels.

Of course, none of that addresses the physical damage done to the world by the use of fossil fuels - nor the moral damage done to humanity by capitalism and consumerism. Hence the importance of religious alternative to humanity's dominant ways of thinking and acting, which is what the Pope will hopefully provide.

That said, the practical problem of discerning politically possible, economically effective, and sociologically sensible policies to address current material problems remains a real one, which no policy-maker or statesman or citizen can simply dismiss. In contrast to George Will's Washington Post column, a more balanced (certainly less polemical) attempt to address such concerns is the more measured essay by William D. Nordhaus, "The Pope and the Market,' in the October 8 issue of The New York Review of Books. (See http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2015/oct/08/pope-and-market/.) Nordhaus applauds the Pope's commitment to the environment and hopes that "his endorsement of climate science and the reality of warming and environmental damage will be effective in turning the tide toward strong actions." But, at the practical (or as is sometimes said in church-speak, prudential) level, he fears that Pope Francis "has missed a unique opportunity to endorse one of the two crucial elements of an effective strategy for slowing climate change." Nordhaus considers it "unfortunate" that the Pope "does not endorse a market-based solution, particularly carbon-pricing, as the only practical policy tool we have to bend down the dangerous curves of climate change and the damages they cause."

It is to be hoped that at the very least one consequence of the Pope's challenging call to conversion of heart will be a greater openness by policy-makers, statesmen, and citizens in making their prudential policy judgments to evaluate the practical policy tools that are already available (which in terms of the US situation would itself already be an almost utopian transformation from the present policy impasse).

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