Pope Francis v. the GOP

by Michael Sean Winters

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The difference could not be more stark. Pope Francis, in Ciudad Juarez yesterday, called for justice for migrants and an economic structure that serves people before profits and measures its health by the degree to which it includes everybody. Meanwhile, the Republican party’s presidential candidates are falling all over themselves to see who can be the toughest on immigration and the idea that profit is not the final arbiter of economic relations is viewed not just skeptically but as a kind of heresy.

The pope gave three talks in Ciudad Juarez, one to prisoners, one to workers, and a sermon at a Mass alongside the border with the United States. All three were a kind of rhetorical photographic negative of the attitudes we see championed by today’s Republican Party. At the prison the pope said:

Divine Mercy reminds us that prisons are an indication of the kind of society we are.  In many cases they are a sign of the silence and omissions which have led to a throwaway culture, a symptom of a culture that has stopped supporting life, of a society that has abandoned its children.

The GOP likes to call itself the pro-life party. I make no defense of the Democrats whose blindness and inhumanity towards unborn children is a shameful thing. But, where in today’s GOP do we see this broader concern for “supporting life” of which Pope Francis speaks? They are too busy trying to privatize prisons to worry overmuch about keeping people out of them and, in the heat of the campaign, the issue of criminal justice reform has lost its bipartisan appeal because the Republicans are so busy being tough.

In his address to workers, the pope did not say anything that had not been said by the past ten or so popes, but imagine the boos that would descend upon any GOP candidate if he were to say this at the next debate:

Unfortunately, the times we live in have imposed the paradigm of economic utility as the starting point for personal relationships. The prevailing mentality advocates for the greatest possible profits, immediately and at any cost. This not only causes the ethical dimension of business to be lost, but it also forgets that the best investment we can make is in people, in individual persons and in families. The best investment is creating opportunities. The prevailing mentality puts the flow of people at the service of the flow of capital, resulting in many cases in the exploitation of employees as if they were objects to be used and discarded (cf. Laudato Si’, 123). God will hold us accountable for the slaves of our day, and we must do everything to make sure that these situations do not happen again. The flow of capital cannot decide the flow and life of people.

Indeed, precious few Democrats are willing to speak so frankly about the immoral underpinnings of contemporary capitalism. Let them go to Ciudad Juarez and see the dark side of globalization, let them witness the dislocation and breakdown in the social fabric that happens when profit is the sole criterion of economic decision-making. And, indeed, the situation is not much better across the river, as so many border towns are beset by poverty, unable to sufficiently provide for the newly arrived migrants, filled with families that must stay in the shadows lest a mother or father get deported.

The Holy Father’s last talk of the day was the homily at Mass. Shortly before the start of the Mass, the pope blessed a cross that overlooks the border, prayed at crosses commemorating those who have died trying to cross that border, and waved and gave a blessing to the assembled clergy and laity on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande. The images of the people waving at the pope, the Holy Father’s arm raised in blessing, the river dividing them, the barbed wire, these were powerful images, images of grace overcoming not nature, for barbed wire does not occur in nature, but of grace overcoming fear, specifically xenophobia. Like the images of Cardinal O’Malley and Bishop Kicanas, passing communion through the slats of the border fence, at the Mass at the border in Nogales two years ago, the pope’s blessing crossed the border and no ICE agents could stop it.

In his homily, the pope did not mince words, reminding the crowd and all of us that the human must come before the political and identifying the exact problem with so much of our political dialogue around the issue of migration. He called on all of us, like Jonah in the first reading, “to wake up a people intoxicated with themselves.” That phrase is powerful and precise. If you do not already wince when someone shouts about American exceptionalism, the pope invites you to wince now. He went on:

We cannot deny the humanitarian crisis which in recent years has meant migration for thousands of people, whether by train or highway or on foot, crossing hundreds of kilometres through mountains, deserts and inhospitable zones.  The human tragedy that is forced migration is a global phenomenon today.  This crisis which can be measured in numbers and statistics, we want instead to measure with names, stories, families.  They are the brothers and sisters of those expelled by poverty and violence, by drug trafficking and criminal organizations.  Being faced with so many legal vacuums, they get caught up in a web that ensnares and always destroys the poorest.  Not only do they suffer poverty but they must also endure these forms of violence.  Injustice is radicalized in the young; they are “cannon fodder”, persecuted and threatened when they try to flee the spiral of violence and the hell of drugs, and what about the many women whose lives have been unjustly torn apart?

The words “we want instead to measure with names, stories, families” is the very essence of Catholic Social Teaching, the human person before all ideologies, the human person always created in the image and likeness of God, the human person come alive as the manifestation of God’s glory, as the pope opened his homily, quoting St. Irenaeus. This is the antidote to the fear-mongering we hear from the GOP candidates, at different decibels, but all trafficking in ugliness. Indeed, it is a strange moral universe that traffics in fear when human trafficking is such a prominent problem in migration!

The leaders of the Church in the U.S. need to really think about the upcoming election. Many of them have led us to believe that the only thing you need to know about a candidate for office is his or her stance on abortion. It was always a crimped moral vision. Of course, we Catholic should stand up for the right-to-life of the unborn but we must stand up for the right-to-life of the immigrant as well. In addition to the narrowness of GOP’s moral compass today, there is a coarseness that has infected their party, a loss of even minimal standards of decorum, that do not point the country toward the common good which is the principal goal of all politics. The pope has pointed the way: He is concerned about many things, not just a few things, but in a sense he is always concerned about one thing, the dignity of the human person, whenever and wherever it is threatened. Pope Francis sees the linkages between those threats, and how our economic systems feed all manner of exploitation, both human and environmental. “Let us together ask our God for the gift of conversion, the gift of tears, let us ask him to give us open hearts like the Ninevites, open to his call heard in the suffering faces of countless men and women,” Pope Francis said in his homily. “No more death!  No more exploitation!  There is still time to change, there is still a way out and a chance, time to implore the mercy of God.” Can we get an amen!






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