The Two Sides of Pope Francis His speech to Congress was spiritual and not pointedly political, which came as a relief.


The pope I love embraces the hideously deformed man. He sees the modern world for what it is, “a field hospital after battle.” We’re in triage: “The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds.” This pope calls the woman who wrote him that her lover had left but she was having the baby. He tracked her down on her cellphone. “It’s Francis!” She said he told her he’d baptize the baby. This pope fills my eyes with tears. He loves the poor. He pays his own hotel bill. He had a return ticket home from the conclave because it wouldn’t be him. When he was elected he came out on the balcony and stood awkwardly, like Alec Guinness playing the part of a humble cardinal who, to his shock, had been chosen to lead the greatest institution in history. He stood there blank-faced, not equal to the moment, then saved the moment not by giving his prayer but by asking for prayers.

The pope I love tells comfortable cardinals that they are suffering from “spiritual Alzheimer’s.” Of those working within the church whose orientation is homosexual, he says: “Who am I to judge them if they’re seeking the Lord in good faith?” He instructs priests and bishops to give absolution through confession to the contrite and remorseful who have had abortions. Like most American Catholics I didn’t think he was saying anything new here. But he wanted to make it clear. Good, these things should be made clear.

Pope Francis addressing Congress
Pope Francis addressing Congress

The Francis I love is against materialism because he knows it is hollow and soul-crushing. He knows wealth and power are a moral hazard. He does not want man reduced to a commodity. He is for the little guy. He opposes the throwaway culture in which the old and the vulnerable are expendable. He wants you to be a saint, not a Scrooge.

He wades into the great spiritual questions.

That pope has captured the imagination of the world.

Is what he does merely symbolic? Nothing at his level is merely symbolic. He is acting in a Christlike way: His actions are lessons, reminders, intimations. Inspirations.

The less lovable pope is—well, and I say this still with love, Uncle Frank in the attic. This is the one who endorses secular political agendas, who castigates capitalism in language that is both imprecise and heavily loaded. He doesn’t, actually, seem to know a lot about capitalism or markets, or even what economic freedom has given—and is giving—his own church.

For one small example, the other day Stephen Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group gave $40 million to the Catholic schools of New York, meaning he is giving his personal wealth to pay for the education of children, many of whom are recent immigrants and some of whom sleep in cars. Last I looked Mr. Schwarzman was not a monk or a mystic but a businessman in private equity. This is not abusing, ignoring or dehumanizing the poor. This is lifting them up, helping them in a concrete way that will change their lives.

Political Francis seems not spiritual but strangely earthbound, like the pontiff of the Church of What’s Happening Now, a super-groovy pope acting on some antique ideological biases and assumptions.

On Thursday in the Capitol, as Francis made the first-ever speech by a pope to the U.S. Congress, the nature of the historic moment was sharpened by this question: Which Francis would show up—the one who makes me think of Heaven, or the earthbound one?

The speech was spiritual and not pointedly political, which came as a relief. He spoke of America with a certain reserved warmth, but a warmth nonetheless. As rhetoric it was high-class boilerplate, but its messages were useful. I wondered if the recent criticism of his secular political stands had led him to soften or refigure his speech. I wondered: Having just met America for the first time, and experienced all its variety and affection, how is he feeling about America now? I bet it has nothing to do with the cartoon, comic-book, dumbed-down Marxist stereotypes some of his friends and followers peddle.

Highlights of the speech:

The job of lawmakers “is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation.” The “chief aim of all politics” is “the pursuit of the common good.” The four American lives that have most touched him, that most embody the nation’s “dreams,” are Abraham Lincoln, who stood for “liberty”; Martin Luther King, who stood for “liberty . . . and nonexclusion”; Dorothy Day, the activist, who stood for “social justice”; and Thomas Merton, the monk and writer, who stood for “dialogue and openness to God.” These were four interesting choices, especially the last two, who don’t occupy a large place in the public imagination. But Day should be considered for sainthood, and one guesses that under Francis she may be. Merton wrote a spiritual masterpiece, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” that is important to many who experience Catholic conversions.

Democracy is “deeply rooted in the mind of the American people.” Politics is “an expression of our compelling need to live as one.” Americans should not be “fearful of foreigners,” because “most of us were once foreigners.” We must respond to immigrants in a way that is “humane, just and fraternal.” We must remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

He delightfully took a moment to nod to the creation of wealth: “Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world.” (That may have been his way of saying, “Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Schwarzman!”) “It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service. . . . The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts.”

You can believe there are two Francises and still feel an integrated affection and admiration for this man who stands for so much that is good, and tries to encourage the good. Who is in many ways great. Who has filled the world with more than his portion of sweetness, and who has drawn the affection and regard of non-Catholics around the world. He has even made left-wing American Catholics, a grumpy lot, happy. For at least 30 years they were frustrated and depressed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I guess it’s their turn.

They were sometimes graceless and grudging toward past popes. I don’t see what conservatives gain by playing that part now. When a much-loved pope comes to visit there’s a kind of moral imperative to good cheer.

I close with the words of a New York businessman, a capitalist and Catholic. I asked him Wednesday how he was feeling about Francis. “If he lives he’ll change the world,” he said.

For the better? “I think so, hopefully in an aspirational way. Don’t tax me to death helping the less fortunate. Urge me to do good. And I will. And many will. For him.”