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Commentary: Suffering the missteps of my tone-deaf pontiff

by on June 01, 2014 1:30 AM

This may come as a bit of a shock to some of my regular readers, but I’m Catholic. Shut the front door, right?

This makes me particularly sensitive to things that are even vaguely Catholic, like culinary innovations in fish sticks, so you can just imagine how my antennae start vibrating when anything on the pope comes down the information highway.

I mean, the only thing more Catholic than the pope is Nancy Pelosi, that amazing theologian who once argued that abortion isn’t necessarily a sin. (One would think that a chick from Baltimore would understand the Baltimore Catechism a bit better than that, but I suppose several mind-numbing decades in San Francisco will have their effect on you.)

Now, not every pope makes news on a regular basis, so my antennae can remain immobile for long stretches on end.

John XXIII was the top guy when I was born, but he shed this mortal coil before I could speak, so he really didn’t make an impression.

During the papacy of Paul VI, I barely noticed he was there. That whole Humanae Vitae thing had absolutely no effect on me, since it came out when I was in kindergarten, and birth control was significantly less interesting to me at that point than portion control. (I had a sweet tooth from a very early age.)

Paul’s immediate successor, John Paul I, was a nice, saintly man, but you can only make so much of an impression in a month.

Then, of course, came John Paul II, who will forever be the pope in whose shadow all the others labored, the giant who straddled three decades with courage, conviction and compassion.

It was a thankless job to follow him, but Benedict XVI carried John Paul’s message with dignity and a humility that was belied by his outer trappings.

And then there was Francis, the refreshing surprise from the ends of the Earth, who ushered in the era of simplicity and outspokenness.

The media love him, especially those who normally roll their eyes at any overt expression of faith. They seem to think he’s a very cool dude who says exactly the right things about homosexuals, abortion, poor people and tolerance.

This fellow was made for the type of people who like their religion in small and easily digestible doses. A master of the sound bite, so to speak.

Except Pope Francis is not, ahem, infallible when it comes to public relations.

Although he charmed the airborne press corps by saying, “Who am I to judge?” with respect to homosexual priests, and although he’s received a thumbs-up from those who think we should worry more about the poor and the oppressed than about the gay and the oversexed, Francis put his sandal-shod foot in his papal mouth on this recent trip to the Middle East.

To be more accurate, he’s made some startling visual faux pas.

He corrected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he said that Jesus spoke Hebrew, telling him it was “Aramaic.” Francis was right, but still ... that was picky.

This was actually nothing compared to the pope’s attitude in front of the security wall separating Israel from the Palestinian Authority. Although there is a lot of debate about whether the wall is justified, what Francis did — getting out of his pope-mobile and kissing it — played right into the hands of Israel’s enemies.

This is not the gates of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and the pope was incredibly insensitive to treat it as another attribute of Israeli apartheid.

Of course, you will say, the pope has no obligation to favor one side in the fiery hot debate on Middle Eastern peace and sovereignty. His jurisdiction is a spiritual one, and his flock is Catholic.

But, seriously, does anyone believe that, especially anyone who screams at the top of his lungs how great it is that this pope “doesn’t judge”?

Francis has been used by the secularists, atheists, agnostics and disaffected Catholics as a spokesman for their particular view of faith, one in which spirituality is diluted and universality is magnified.

It’s not all the pope’s fault. Journalists and activists have a way of projecting.

But it is distressing to see how tone deaf my pontiff can be when dealing with real people and real issues that don’t fall into tidy little categories where you have the “oppressor” on one side and the “oppressed” on the other.

Ironically enough, the pope that was once called a Nazi because of his forced conscription into the Hitler Youth was much more compassionate to our Jewish brothers and sisters by pointing out the type of enemy they faced.

Benedict was openly critical of fundamental Islam and its rejection of reason, and got into hot water over it.

I guess it’s all a matter of optics.

Don’t get me wrong. Francis is a good and decent man. He brings great gifts to a church in need.

But his timing, and his people skills, could use some tweaking.

Then again, who am I to judge?



Christine Flowers, of the Philadelphia Daily News, is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune.
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