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Musing on the pope from pope-strangled Philadelphia

I’m in Philadelphia to provide a feminist/secular voice here with a 7 p.m. speech at the Ethical Society on the eve of the pope’s visit to Philadelphia — which is taking over the city. Kiosks at the city airport welcome attendees to the Catholic World Meeting of Families. Schools are closed for four days for religious reasons here — first for the Jewish high holy days, then three days for the pope’s visit, due to traffic and logistical concerns.

The mayor of Philadelphia, who actually went to visit Pope Francis to beg him to come to Philadelphia, is probably ruing the day. Whole bridges are being closed. Workers are being told not to come into town. Buses and trains departing from Philadelphia are being closed at 10 p.m. tonight. There are huge “no parking” areas and cars are being towed. Hoteliers are saying the visit isn’t bringing in tourism dollars. These pilgrims with their many children are lodging as cheaply as possible.

I watched the pope’s address to Congress at the welcoming home of my hosts, Margaret Downey and her husband Tomm Schottmiller, this morning. As they noted, much of the pope’s speech sounded humanistic. This is why a news magazine placed a photo of the pope on its current magazine cover, asking: “Is the Pope Catholic?”  This pope has been harder to criticize, sounding more like a real human being. And I think that’s the real danger — putting a pretty face on Catholic dogma, which has not budged.

For instance, Pope Francis referred to increasing violence “even in the name of god and religion.” Can’t argue with that. He put in a kind word for abolition of capital punishment (the one Catholic doctrine that is correct).

But I thought his talk with full of papal pap for the most part. Who’s to argue with saying people should get along, care about the cycle of poverty and call the United States the “land of dreams”? (Well, maybe many oppressed African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans might quibble with that.) Republicans, including the pope’s sponsor, might well have demurred over his homily on how almost everyone in the U.S.A. is descended from immigrants.

The pope responded to widespread criticism of his canonization of Junipero Serra, the father of the missionary system, saying that Catholic missionaries’ first contacts with Native Americans were “often turbulent and violent.” This should not mollify Native Americans, whom the pope mentioned, and it doesn’t make up for calling Serra a saint.

While Pope Francis said, “we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past,” he prefaced it by saying “it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present.” The biblical admonition, “Judge not lest ye be judged” is a handy device for the Catholic Church with its history of the Inquisition, Crusades, witchhunts and pogroms!

He dutifully inserted several coded references against abortion rights, saying (a la Monty Python) “every life is sacred.” He made a vaguesville remark about the family being “threatened from within and without . . . the very basis of marriage and the family” which seems to be code against marriage equality.

After his  remarks to U.S. bishops praising their “courage” in dealing with the “pain” of systemic predation by Catholic officials against minors, he had the gall to mention the young being subject to “violence, abuse and despair.” Talk about a jarring note.

But it doesn’t really matter what the pope said during his joint address to Congress. Even had I or you agreed with everything the pope said, it was still unfitting, unprecedented, unconstitutional, that a religious figure was invited, for the first time in history, to make such remarks before a joint session of Congress. FFRF’s ads in the Washington Post, New York Times, USA Today and Philadelphia Inquirer have made that case. The precedent is now set for further such entanglements.

What distresses me the most is the spectacle of a deferential and adoring Congress turning out and giving a standing ovation to a religious leader of such a powerful religion, the huge screens for onlookers outside, the governmental websites devoted to promoting the pope’s visit including devotional events — all of this put on by our secular government at taxpayer expense. The symbolism of our government united with the Catholic Church is the worst message.

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