Pope Francis and President Obama at the White House, Sept. 23. PHOTO: WIN MCNAMEE / POOL/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
The word “politicized” is not generally a compliment. It suggests that a nonpolitical event or subject—a natural disaster or poverty—is being used by a public figure for his own political purposes.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie may be hurting with the Republican electorate because many think he politicized Hurricane Sandy in late October 2012 by inviting President Obama to see its devastation. Mr. Christie rejects any such idea, but it sits there, a political casualty.
Pope Francis regards himself as not a political player. He dislikes the maneuverings of politics. Americans’ enthusiasm for Francis no doubt has much to do with the sentiment that, like Ben Carson, he is a “nonpolitician.”
Mr. Carson, however, has recently discovered that it isn’t possible to be simultaneously in politics and above politics. Modern politics is a relentless conflict waged by parties, politicians, their networks, activists and media.
They set the rules, and it’s their self-given right to reduce what you think to a buzzword, no matter what your personal beliefs may be. It’s brutal and often unfair, but you play the political game, and that’s the way it is.
In the past week, Pope Francis has met and been photographed with Fidel and Raúl Castro in Cuba and with Barack Obama at the White House. Thursday he addresses a joint session of Congress at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner. On Friday, he will address the United Nations General Assembly. Then on Saturday in Philadelphia, he will finally address a wholly religious event, the World Meeting of Families, which is organized by the Holy See in Rome.
The Catholic weekly newspaper Our Sunday Visitor aptly noted: “Based on the media’s coverage of the papal trip, it has been difficult to remember that Francis’ visit to the United States is centered around his commitment to come to the World Meeting and speak about the family and not immigration, the environment or globalization.”
Difficult to remember indeed. Pope Francis is becoming an aggressive public player in secular politics, from the environment to economic policy. That carries risks, not for Francis alone, but for the papacy and the institution the pope leads.
It is said widely that Francis will never allow himself to be co-opted into anyone else’s political agenda. The pope is famously his own man. But the pope has no control over whether he is co-opted into the political goals and strategies of others.
A TV commercial airing this week from NextGen Climate Action, funded by billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer, unfurls frightening images of wildfires and floods and ends with Francis waving and smiling at us over the words, “With compassion and love—Pope Francis.” It’s propaganda, but legitimate propaganda by current standards.
The day before Pope Francis met with Mr. Obama, one of the president’s aides, Ben Rhodes, said: “How can we make use of the enormous platform that the pope’s visit provides to lift up the work we’re doing and demonstrate how it’s consistent with the direction that’s coming from the pope?” At the White House, Pope Francis praised Mr. Obama’s climate-change initiatives, and the president thanked the pope for supporting his policies on that and his opening to Cuba.
It is not possible to do this and be “above” politics. Everyone in politics is one of the boys, including the pope.
In Cuba, when the pope’s spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, was asked if Pope Francis knew that 50 dissidents had been arrested, he said: “I don’t have any information about this.” Embarrassing bunk is standard for the Josh Earnests of the world. It should not become so for the pope’s spokesman.
Politics today—which transforms any major public figure into a celebrity—is more fraught, divided and risky than ever. On one hand, Francis is amenable to being photographed smiling and squeezing hands with Fidel Castro, a decades-long oppressor of his nation’s Catholics. But then the Vatican objects that the pope might be photographed with a famous pro-abortion nun invited by the White House. Barack Obama plays hardball. His Justice Department had already sued the anti-abortion Little Sisters of the Poor.
In the past two years, the plight of Christians in the Middle East has gone from persecution to slaughter. Decades of Vatican diplomacy there for the world’s most at-risk Christians has produced very little. Soon there may be nothing left to protect. On Friday, the pope reportedly will address the U.N. about climate change. A jeremiad against Christian extermination would be welcome this week, too.
Francis’ popularity remains high, but the dangers in his current course are high. What many of his new political friends mainly seek is to have the pope “moralize” their politics. Francis’ spiritual message could not be more secondary. They won’t be with him in Philadelphia. How allowing the papacy’s core moral authority to be politicized is in the interests of the Catholic Church as an institution is difficult to see.