The pope and his detractors

How do we react to challenges?

Even before arriving in the United States, Pope Francis was hearing a few heckles from lawmakers and political columnists who disagree with his teachings on the environment, particularly climate change.

(Cartoon by Joe Heller | For The Compass)

Last week, Rep. Paul Gosar, a Catholic and three-term Republican lawmaker from Arizona, announced he would boycott Pope Francis’ address to Congress because he was told the pope would discuss climate change and he disagrees with his views. “When the pope chooses to act and talk like a leftist politician, then he can expect to be treated like one,” Gosar wrote in a column for townhall.com.

Instead, said Gosar, the pope should focus on religious freedom and the sanctity of all life. “To promote questionable science as Catholic dogma is ridiculous,” added the Arizona lawmaker.

Joining in the chorus against Pope Francis is political columnist George Will. He said the pope “embodies sanctity but comes trailing clouds of sanctimony.”

In a Sept. 18 column for the Washington Post, Will commented negatively on the pope’s “woolly sentiments” in his encyclical, “Laudato Si.”

“Francis’s fact-free flamboyance reduces him to a shepherd whose selectively reverent flock, genuflecting only at green altars, is tiny relative to the publicity it receives from media otherwise disdainful of his church,” wrote Will.

It is curious that this pope, who has brought energy and renewed focus on care for the poor, is in the cross hairs of influential Americans because his words and deeds do not match their political views.

Gosar should know that Pope Francis has been a champion of all causes that promote the dignity of human life. His outspoken criticism of government inaction to human tragedies such as the Syrian refugee crisis is matched by his deeds. These include instructing the Vatican to build showers for the homeless around Rome and demanding that church institutions in Europe take in refugee families.

While Pope Francis is certainly not the first pontiff to address care for the environment (after all, “Care for God’s Creation” is one of the seven themes of Catholic social teaching), he has taken a strong stand on the issue and has challenged nations and individuals to an “ecological conversion.”

“It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment,” said Pope Francis. “Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an ‘ecological conversion,’ whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them.”

Conversion of heart is a challenging request, particularly when vested interests — whether it be political favors or financial gain — are at stake.

While climate change is the sticking point for some, to Pope Francis it’s just part a global connectedness that impacts the poor.

Fortunately, the pope has allies. An example are the 100 or so Catholic college presidents who have signed a document supporting Pope Francis. They are committing their institutions to do what they can to foster dialogue on climate issues.

This week’s papal visit promises to be filled with joy and excitement. It will also be accompanied by challenges. How we react to these challenges says a lot about how we live the Gospel.