Just the other I found out from Fr. Pat – who’s 78.3% smarter than me and 85.2% more virtuous – that Pope Francis has given not one but two TED talks: One in 2017 called “Why the Only Future Worth Building Includes Everyone” and the other just a few days ago, about the moral imperative to act on climate change. You can access the talks at the TED website. They’re worth listening to. Not know. But who knew? Our Holy Father doing TED talks. How cool is that?
So have you ever thought about what it would be like to be the Pope? You’ll hear people say things like, “Ooh, I’d like to be pope for a day. Heck – just give me 20 minutes. That’s all I need – 20 minutes.” So what do you think? Cool outfits. The Swiss Guard with their cool outfits and their halberds. Ravioli for breakfast. The best part, of course, would be that you could take this crazy broken Church and turn it in to the model institution you’d like it to be. Because, you know, you’d be the pope! They’d have to listen to you!
Or not. I don’t know how closely you follow the Catholic news cycle, but I’m not sure that being pope would be a whole lot of fun. For one thing, the pope may have the authority, but authority is not the same as power. There’s an old saying about the Society of Jesus that’s as true as it ever was: “The Society of Jesus is an absolute monarchy tempered only by the disobedience of its subjects.” There is a similar dynamic in the Church. Think about Humanae vitae, issued by Pope St. Paul VI in 1968. Everybody thinks they know about Humanae vitae: “Yep. That’s the one about birth control.” And everybody thinks they know about Paul VI: “Yep. He’s the birth control guy.” He’s also the guy who said, “If you want peace, work for justice.” Hmmm. Anyway, despite the language of Humanae vitae, it’s pretty well-known that Catholics use artificial means of contraception as frequently as people in general do. Whatever you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing, it does illustrate the notion that to be effective, doctrine must be both proposed and accepted.
It’s the same with issues of justice. Here at home, our own Archbishop has asked the priests of the archdiocese to preach about the sin of racism. Are they doing it? Hard to say. By some reports, not so much.
Not unlike President Obama, Pope Francis can hardly say “hello” without getting yelled at. As every schoolchild knows, Pope Francis has just recently released a new encyclical, entitled in Italian Fratelli tutti, meaning Brothers and Sisters All. Official Catholic documents don’t get much more authoritative than an encyclical. And indeed Fratelli tutti is a powerful, magisterial document – well worth your time. It’s the third in a series of documents marking the three great themes of Francis’s pontificate: Evangelii gaudium, about humanity’s relationship with God; Laudato si’, about humanity’s relationship with the rest of creation, and now Fratelli tutti, regarding our relationships with one another. The thing that’s common to all three? The importance of relationship. Catholics whose knowledge of Francis comes from the wretched Facebook or from what others say about him would do well to read firsthand what this underappreciated man has said. As for Fratelli tutti, one of Francis’ self-declared enemies – the retired Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò – has dismissed the encyclical and its author as “blasphemous.” Imagine.
Our dear Church is deeply divided and especially so in the United States. It’s noteworthy that every complaint we’ve fielded about our Black Lives Matter banner has come from conservative Catholics. Every one of them was careful to assure us that they were not in fact racists. That’s not surprising: One of the defining features of systemic and institutionalized racism is that people who reject racism in principle can end up doing the kinds of things that a racist would do. It’s also true that no one has accepted our invitation to dialogue or indeed the invitation to worship with us. That’s not surprising either. Those on the right don’t talk to those on the left and vice versa. We talk about and routinely condemn one another. We don’t talk to one another.
Which is why our Gospel exchange between Jesus and the Herodians and the Pharisees is so timely. It’s an attack. All that language about respecting and teaching the truth and having no regard for status or for the opinions of others? Window-dressing. Empty flattery. This was a verbal attack and a ploy. You see, the census tax was a hot-button issue in Judea and sometimes the stuff of rebellion. Paying the tax – which amounted to a day’s wage and which could only be paid with Roman coinage – gave you the right to live peacefully as a subject of the empire. The silver Roman coin – the denarius – at issue here would have had Caesar’s likeness on it along with the words, “Tiberius Caesar, Augustus, son of the divine Augustus, High Priest.” Although the Pharisees had learned to coexist with the Romans and so would have paid the tax grudgingly, they would have regarded the coin as idolatrous. By contrast, the Herodians owed their power – as did Herod – to Rome and so would have supported the tax. Even so, when there were Pharisees around you didn’t want to be caught with a Roman coin in your pocket. Awkward. The Pharisees and the Herodians are trying to put Jesus in a double bind. If he says “no” to the question about paying the tax he’ll be in hot water with Rome. If he says “yes” the Pharisees and other nationalists can accuse him of collaborating with the enemy. Jesus, being Jesus, sidesteps the whole mess, and gets to the heart of the issue. He says, “Be as careful about your obligations to God as you are about your obligations to Caesar.” He means, “To whom do you belong? How will you be in the world?”
Fratelli tutti is, in the words of Pope Francis, “an invitation to dialogue among all people of good will” [§6]. The document is filled with quotable quotes. His assessment of the state of things is spot on. He’s not just talking about the United States, but he’s got us pegged. And he’s not tiptoeing around. Listen to what he says about ideology and political discourse: “Things that until a few years ago could not be said by anyone without risking the loss of universal respect can now be said with impunity, and in the crudest of terms, even by some political figures “[§46].
Francis frames everything in terms of relationship and connection: with God, with the earth our common home, with one another. We are connected and we are one human family. We don’t manufacture those connections: They’re part of the very fabric of things.
It’s increasingly clear that we must change. We must learn to recognize and honor the inherent dignity of every human being and indeed of every creature. We no longer have a choice. We are well along the path to destruction – and not just with respect to climate change. When we refuse to listen to someone we’re telling them “you have nothing to say; your thoughts and opinions don’t matter; you don’t matter.” From there it’s just a few short steps before you’re denying someone’s right to exist. Which, again – and I know I keep saying it and maybe some folks out there are wondering why I can’t just let it go and move on but I’m not going to do that because we cannot move on until we figure it out – this is why the Black Lives Matter movement is compelling and essential and why our banner makes a statement that must be made over and over again. Treating human beings made in the image and likeness of God as if they did not matter is to live a lie. It’s also the short road to hell.
To whom do we belong? How will we be in the world? Dialogue. Listening. Relationship. Care for creation. The Common Good. These things are the stuff of truth. Satan traffics in lies, but Jesus is about the truth and is the Truth.
So let’s say that some happy morning I decide that I’m going to quit being part of the problem and work on being part of the solution. I decide that for once in my miserable existence I’m going to act like the Catholic Christian I profess to be. And so I try to engage someone in dialogue. And … they refuse. After all my hard work, after all the blood and sweat and tears I’ve put myself through to engage them in dialogue, they refuse. What then? What then? Try again. And again. I’m not in charge of anyone’s behavior but my own. I can either choose the path of redemption or the path of destruction. I can either choose to honor the connections that bind me to God, to creation, and to other people – or I can keep on being part of the problem. Choosing to be part of the solution is in fact the only way forward. And for that, praise God.