Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Pope's swift turns of thought

I knew before this week that the Pope is a man of good will. As I read his speech to Congress, it dawned too that his is a mind of extraordinary subtlety.

He is the opposite of a fundamentalist. He sees the mix of good and evil in all -- in persons, political systems, historical events.  As he speaks, he keeps flipping the Janus head:  Every chastisement is an affirmation. Every affirmation -- of, say, an inherited national virtue -- is a challenge.

The Pope's paragraphs take swift turns.You think he's headed one way, and he goes into reverse -- present to past, praise to reproach, abortion to death penalty.  He sees six sides to everything.

Follow the switchbacks in this passage appealing to our better angels:

In recent centuries, millions of people came to this land to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom. We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants. Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected. For those peoples and their nations, from the heart of American democracy, I wish to reaffirm my highest esteem and appreciation. Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent, but it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present. Nonetheless, when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past. We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our "neighbors" and everything around us. Building a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mind-set of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal subsidiarity, in a constant effort to do our best. I am confident that we can do this.
This passage begins with a not-uncommon exhortation to the children of immigrants to be receptive to the aspirations of immigrants. But then the Pope turns back to acknowledge the violence in which this influx to the new world began, and to honor its original victims. But that acknowledgment of sin does not hold still: the point is not "to judge the past by the criteria of the present" but to "not repeat the sins and errors of the past" -- and teach our children to do better. There's perhaps an implied cycle here, as many of those on this continent who "travel north" are descended wholly or in part from those who were murdered and subjugated by the colonizing Europeans.

About those swift turns. In print, they're reflected in a kind of paragraph-level enjambment: A major turn often comes at the end of a paragraph (verbally, before a pause) and is developed in the next. That happens twice in the passages immediately following the one quoted above:
Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.

This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes. Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.
It's not easy to breath life into an invocation of the golden rule, so worn by familiarity.  But Francis does breathe life into it, having first drawn the implicit connections of blood -- of both the violent and genealogical kind -- among the people of this hemisphere and, implicitly, the world. It starts as a kind of peroration to his brief history of this hemisphere. Then, after the pause, he fleshes it out with a series of parallel phrasings echoing the "unto others...unto you" structure: If we want, let us give, if we want let us provide.

And then, another turn: at the end of a paragraph, a seeming reference to the unborn, encompassed in the Rule. A pause, and abolition of the death penalty (spoken, Marcy Wheeler points out, "standing just feet from the Catholic swing vote on the Supreme Court, Anthony Kennedy," who recently seems to have signaled openness to ending it.

So the Pope expanded his circles of inclusiveness, while exhorting action against corresponding forces of destruction: fundamentalism, political polarization, inequality, exploitation of the earth, xenophobia. He stressed at the outset the struggle against these forces is internal as well as external, a task for every individual and every society:
All of us are quite aware of, and deeply worried by, the disturbing social and political situation of the world today. Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion. We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind. A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms. But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.
Perhaps the irony was not lost on Francis that he was speaking at the invitation of a man who was at once thrilled to the core to hear him on a personal level and institutionally barred from acting on his advice -- with respect to global warming and compassion for immigrants at least. Here's hoping that as John Boehner used the "mission accomplished" of the papal invitation to set himself free personally, he'll surprise us by showing a touch of ideological liberation in the weeks ahead.

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