Twenty four hours after the pope’s plane lifted off from Philadelphia for Rome, a panel of high-profile Catholics, three of them from the world of TV news, gathered at Georgetown University to render an assessment of Francis’s six day barnstorming tour of the Northeast.
The often lighthearted review was solidly double-thumbs-up all around, with the only serious critique occurring near the end and prompted by a young woman at the question mic who asked: What about the place of women in the church?
The church, and by extension the pope, got mixed reviews at best on that one. But for most of the evening those on the panel seemed as smitten as the rest by the quiet force of the first Argentinian, first Jesuit pope to be the first to take the name Francis and the first to address a joint meeting of Congress. On his first visit ever to the United States.
The panel discussion, sponsored by the Inititative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, was moderated by John Carr, director of the initiative.
Cokie Roberts and Mark Shields each have had long and distinguished careers reporting on both world-moving events and the U.S. Congress. Neither held much hope that the pope’s words would sway many votes one way or the other. Roberts, a contributor to National Public Radio and political commentator for ABC News, joked that she was glad the chamber had given a non-partisan cheer for the golden rule when the pope mentioned it. Of his talk, however, she said, “It’s hard for me to think that it’s going to have a lasting political effect except in the sense that I think that faithful Catholics and people who are thinking about what the pope had to say are going to continue to do that and try to act on it.”
Shields, a national columnist and regular commentator on PBS Newshour, said that Francis brought “the elusive commodity of authenticity,” to public life, and that his example “makes it that much tougher for us to look the other way at those who are living on the outskirts of hope.
Francis is like the big brother who helps us understand, said Michael Steele, former chair of the Republican National Committee and a commentator on MSNBC. In recalling Francis’s predecessors, he imagines John Paul II as “our mother ... the one who sort of sat us on his knee and said, ‘It’s going to be okay,’” helping us deal with concerns and problems and making us proud again to be Catholics. “Pope Benedict was our dad – it’s time to do your homework. See this? I want you to understand it, tell me what it means.” He was, said Steele, the teaching pope who brought doctrine and tradition in focus. Francis, he said, is the big brother. “He’s the one who comes into your room after you’ve had to deal with mom and dad and says, ‘It’ll be okay.’”
Francis showed, he showed all of us – bishops, priest, lay,” how to walk in faith and he did it “with a robust witness” that went beyond the normal divisions of our religious and political debates,” said Kim Daniels, a lawyer active in pro-life and religious liberty causes. She emphasized that Francis exhibited the fullness of Catholic social teaching, incorporating poverty and the death penalty and immigration and abortion under the same heading. Daniels, who formerly was spokesperson for Cardinal Timothy Dolan during his term as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Francis was encouraging to the bishops, who are “second to none” in their advocacy and work for the poor. She said he also challenged all of us to speak about difficult issues in ways that are persuasive.
Alexia Kelley is president and CEO of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities (FADICA), an organization that Carr described as involving all generations, while taking up the challenge to engage a next generation of Catholic philanthropists.* Kelley said Francis appealed across generations. His message, she said, “isn’t limited to a generation.” He “put values in action” and “made them real for young people,” she said. Kelley noted that for the next generation, who research suggests often value causes over institutions, Pope Francis ‘combined both causes and institutions’ when he had lunch with the homeless at Catholic Charities in Washington DC.
Roberts was eager to pick up the student’s question about women, responding that it was “a good and problematic question” and one “to keep pushing.” Acknowledging that popes, including Francis, keep saying the ordination question is closed, she rejected the characterizations of women as important in the church. Referring to Francis’s explanation during a news conference on the plane returning to Rome that the church is a feminine noun in Italian, she countered, “Thanks, we don’t have that in English.”
“In terms of any kind of power or real authority, we just don’t have it,” she said, adding that women “have to keep militating,” employing the same advocacy that others have demonstrated in seeking women’s rights for so long in the secular realm.
Carr began the evening saying, “I’ve asked myself, ‘What is more improbable, a 76-year-old Jesuit from Argentina being elected pope? Or a pope addressing congress and lifting up Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton? I don’t know, but both are stunning, and we are better for both.”
A happy serendipity has existed between this papacy and the development of the initiative, which got underway and held its first event two years ago this month. It was six months into the Francis papacy and the interest evident then in overflow crowds has not diminished. Kelley, Shields and Daniels were on the 2013 panel, the first of many that explored a variety of topics – poverty, politics, public policy, the economy and a range of Catholic social issues -- mostly in a discussion format. One of the highlights of the past two years was President Obama’s participation in May in a panel discussion held during a three-day program, the Catholic-Evangelical Summit on overcoming poverty, sponsored by the initiative.