Pope Benedict XVI has returned to the Vatican after a successful journey to America last week.
Reading the mainstream media’s reports on his visit reminds me of just how clueless so many in the media are about religion in general, and Christianity in particular. Some of the offense came from the New York Times and the Washington Post. No surprises there.
But some also came from more conservatives voices.
First, on the liberal side. William McGurn noted in today’s Wall Street Journal op-ed page that the pope rightly lauded George Washington, upon arriving in America last week, by praising our first president and the founders for the "timeless truths that are embodied in America’s founding." President Bush responded by praising the "common law" tradition of Catholicism and by saying that he was thankful that we share a belief in a divine "law" written on the human heart.
From the look of it few religion reporters picked up on how important these two observations were. Bush, the evangelical Methodist, and Benedict XVI, the Roman pontiff, had far more in common than the press realized. Frankly this caught many off guard, demonstrating how tone deaf they really are to such things.
In advance of the pope’s arrival the liberal press thought that Pope Benedict would criticize President Bush about his Iraq policy. You must understand that Cardinal Ratzinger, before he became Pope Benedict, did oppose our entry into Iraq, preferring other solutions to war. But apparently Benedict also understands that a precipitous withdrawal at this point would do serious harm and many more deaths would follow than if we stayed and tried to complete the task at hand.
Further, President Bush spoke of the two men "sharing the value of each and every life," especially the defenseless unborn. This is an amazing statement from a Western leader. Measure this statement over against Senator Obama’s statement that he favors abortion because he would not want his daughters to be "punished with a baby" that they did not want and you see why the pope would lend moral and personal encouragement to Bush as he did.
But more interesting, at least to me, is how some conservatives reacted to the pope’s words to his own bishops during his American visit. The pope urged Catholic bishops to "continue to welcome immigrants" to our land. (This includes immigrants already here, legally or otherwise.) But Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo (Colorado) called this "faith-based marketing." This is the same congressman who wears shirts that say: "America is Already Full." And CNN’s Lou Dobbs, an anti-immigration populist if there ever was one, said the pope was "insulting our country." Come on Lou, give me a break. Others, who stress security (which I do not think is the real issue in our present immigration debate) over compassion for the poor, reacted similarly. By doing so they prove that they do not understand the profound richness of Catholic thought on this issue.
This kind of rhetoric about immigration, regardless of your own view, ought to embarrass Christians but so many agree with Tancredo and Dobbs that they would cheer their silly comments. This issue often comes down to a few simple angry talking points for many of us. The pope and the president understand it very differently and have thoughtful reasons for how they respond as Christians. Protestants could learn a lot from this pope on this issue. His visit serves to remind us that Christian values are not the exclusive prerogative of evangelicals alone. In the new ecumenism there is much to be learned from both sides and in this case the Roman Catholic tradition offers far more than the populist evangelical American response.
Immigration is complex. Anyway who says otherwise is not deeply involved in real solutions. Whatever solution you come up with please do recognize that the Christian Church has been thinking about this for a long time before you came to your conclusions. This is one place where the Christian tradition is immensely important and most Christians don’t even know what that tradition really says. As in many similar areas Benedict is a far better teacher of Christians than many of our conservative favorites. This is also why he speaks with an authority that is not ephemeral and politically correct, right or left.