The Pope's Brilliant Quip

by Ken Briggs

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Turns out that the quality of mercy can be strained. Pope Francis, the transparent apostle of that virtue, displayed it to hundred of thousands of Mexican followers within shouting distance of the U.S. border that repels them. Embracing the suffering of immigrants, he denounced such barriers as un-Christian, and that set off the fireworks. In a flash, cyber sharpshooters identified the target as Donald Trump and turned the pope's rejection of exclusion into a personal attack.

Francis showed his own humanity, the ability to get ticked off at those, collectively, who attack the dignity of his fellow human beings.There are sins that cannot be ignored in the interests of giving everyone a free pass. That would not be Jesus is in the Gospels. Mercy rules but doesn't always apply.

Trump is, of course, far from alone among Republican candidates for wanting to slam the door on immigrants. The pope may or may not have had him in mind, but the rebuke can be fairly said to include a big chunk of America.

Naturally Trump flew off the handle at being the chief suspect, using the standard refrain that popes (and, by implications, all religious leaders) should stay out of politics at least when it doesn't suit them.

It was the pope's reply to this zinger that astonished me. Drawing on Aristotle's credo that we are all political animals, he readily, even joyously took it as a compliment. "Thank God he [Trump] said I was a politician," Politico quotes the pope as saying, "because Aristotle defined the human person as 'animal politicus'. So at least I am a human person.". .

The quip struck me as the most succinct expression of the central place of Catholic Social Teaching I have ever heard. Pope Paul VI, with the concurrence of the Second Vatican Council, first officially proclaimed the mission of social justice as a "constituent element" of the Gospel. The purpose was to emphasize that liberating suffering humanity from its many oppressions and ills was not extra homework after already making the grade but essential in imitating Christ. Nor was charity to be an afterthought or a means of gaining special consideration at the pearly gates. Saving one's soul wasn't just a matter of serving one's personal interests but by responding to the pains of the "other."

At the core of that vision is the belief that we are by birth members of one another, that we are social beings by nature who need each other and bear responsibility for one another's welfare. American individualism has largely defied that belief.

That rearrangement of priorities didn't go over very well with traditionalists, and still doesn't. The so-called "social" encyclicals going back more than a century aimed at specified areas of grave concern: conditions of labor, poverty, economic exploitation, child welfare, warfare, and so on. It was not a vague batch of noble cliches. Many have never accepted those goals as central to Catholicism but regard it as an "extra," a special interest best left to those who have an appetite for it. The reward is sainthood for the very, very few who get designated by the spectators.

Francis' quip placed himself square in the middle of that commitment. We are all part of the grand process of deciding how others live in this world, and that makes us all political. We're all in the fray. He has his own struggle to decide what it means to him as pope who can be more or less actively engaged in putting words into action. But he's indicated that there is no escaping the political function in our lives, whether we acknowledge it or not. In fact, I wouldn't have minded if he'd been a bit more sharp tongued on his U.S. tour, especially in front of Congress where the comfortable could have been further afflicted.

And to think that only a few years ago popes said virtually nothing about anything in the world. There were NO personal interviews with the pope, as I can attest, having been badgered by editors to seek the impossible. The popes remained virtually still isolated in the confines of the Vatican, their power and voice having been attenuated and their wish to remain in a sacred canopy effectively enforced, reduced to pulling strings entirely behind the scenes.

Francis, like his immediate predecessor who perhaps took a page from the Dalai Lama, talks to the media all the time. Some of his most aphoristic gems are dispensed on airplanes (who can forget "who am I to judge" -- a precursor, I'm guessing, to his preference for leaving most things to the Vatican II revived "conscience"). His brilliant nugget on our inescapable political nature is the best yet. And it came out of thin air.

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