The Pope as Statesman … to the US and the Human Family


In the 230-some-year history of the United States, papal visits have been rare and very recent. The first pope to visit America was Pope Paul VI in 1965. Largely unknown, however, was a near-papal visit three decades earlier, when, in November 1936, a prominent Vatican official named Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli arrived on U.S. shores after setting sail all the way from Naples.

Cardinal Pacelli at the time was the highest-ranking Catholic official ever to visit the United States. He held the prestigious position of secretary of state and camerlengo (chamberlain) for the Holy See. The United States in 1936 had no formal diplomatic representation with the Vatican. Cardinal Pacelli’s trip ensured top-level diplomatic interaction.

The cardinal met with U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt. It was a pleasant visit, but Cardinal Pacelli, nonetheless, was compelled to tell Roosevelt, “Mr. President, you simply do not understand the terrible importance of the communist movement!”

From there, Cardinal Pacelli was driven to the home of a future president, a Catholic one, John F. Kennedy, to meet the Kennedy family at their estate in Bronxville, N.Y.

Three years later, Cardinal Pacelli became Pope Pius XII.

From that time to the present, it is fitting to perceive a pope as a statesman as well as a spiritual father, as papal visits entail a diplomatic component as well as a spiritual one. The pope serves as an ambassador on behalf of the Church universal and wider world. As he does, he addresses not only diplomatic matters, but matters of humanity and the human family, too.

A case in point was Pope John Paul II’s arrival in St. Louis on Jan. 26, 1999. Welcomed by Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Paul II eloquently spoke of the Dred Scott case, tried in St. Louis a century earlier. With the president and first lady listening carefully, the Pope deplored that the Supreme Court of this great country had, in 1857, declared “an entire class of human beings — people of African descent — outside the boundaries of the national community and the Constitution’s protection.” The Clintons surely feared what was coming next: “Today,” the future saint continued, “the conflict is between a culture that affirms, cherishes and celebrates the gift of life and a culture that seeks to declare entire groups of human beings — the unborn, the terminally ill, the handicapped and others considered ‘unuseful’ — to be outside the boundaries of legal protection.”

It was not an analogy the Clintons — especially the first lady — welcomed, but one they needed to hear, nonetheless.

Many Catholics today are craving a moment like that between Pope Francis and President Barack Obama, when Francis becomes only the fourth pope to visit the United States. They’re hoping for at least a gentle reprimand from the chair of St. Peter on abortion funding, the Health and Human Services’ mandate or the sanctity of natural-traditional-biblical marriage.

The White House, for its part, is hoping to steer any conversation in the opposite direction. As reported in a widely read Associated Press piece, the political strategy of the Obama White House is to focus on and emphasize “shared goals” with Francis.

“Obama has made no secret of his affection for the outspoken Pope, calling him a ‘transformative leader’ whose influence has transcended the Roman Catholic community,” said the article, identifying the Pope with Obama’s credo of “fundamental transformation.”

“The Pope has embraced many of the issues Obama has sought to advance.”

The article quoted America’s Catholic vice president: “Pope Francis has breathed new life into what I believe is the central mission of our faith: Catholic social doctrine,” claims Joe Biden, adding that Francis “has become a moral rudder for the world on some of the most important issues of our time, from inequality to climate change.”

The article asserted: “Despite deep differences on some social issues such as abortion, Obama and the Pope are expected to focus on areas of agreement. The White House said economic opportunity, immigration and refugees, and protection of religious minorities were high on the agenda. … For Obama, the visit offers a chance to imbue his remaining goals with a sense of moral authority as he approaches the end of his presidency.”

My sense is that we will indeed hear some of those issues from this pontiff, especially as he becomes the first to address a joint session of Congress. The likes of U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., proud 2014 recipient of Planned Parenthood’s highest honor, the Margaret Sanger Award, will be aglow, sounding all of her social-justice whistles for Francis. Those of her brand of “pro-choice Catholicism” pray that the Pope will stick strictly to “climate change,” Cuba and wealth redistribution.

But Catholics worried about whether Francis will mention, let alone stand against, the leading cultural-moral disaster of our time — the redefinition and destruction of family — should rest assured. He is coming to the United States for a long-touted international meeting on the family. And despite media caricatures to the contrary, this Pope has been rock-solid on marriage, family and the unborn.

This Pope has done almost two dozen general audiences on the family; warned of “forms of ideological colonization which are out to destroy the family” and “redefine the very institution of marriage”; insisted that “children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother”; denounced gender theory as “demonic”  and analogous to “the educational policies of Hitler”; and, after last fall’s synod, asserted: “What they are proposing is not marriage! ... It is necessary to say things very clearly, and we must say this!” That’s a mere snapshot of the man who, as cardinal, declared same-sex “marriage” a diabolical effort of “the Father of Lies.”

In short, then, it’s almost unimaginable, if not impossible, that the Holy Father will not make some significant statement on marriage and family while he’s here in America. Our culture is hell-bent on a takedown of marriage and family. It is a full-scale, ideological colonization. Francis knows it.

Papal statesmen address the major issues of their day, matters of humanity and the human family. Eugenio Pacelli did so in 1936. John Paul II did so in 1999. Pope Francis will do so in September 2015.

Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College.

His latest book is Takedown: From

Communists to Progressives, How the Left

Has Sabotaged Family and Marriage.

CNA photo