Small car, big heart?
People still talk sentimental drivel about what a nice man the Pope is.
It may be that he is a nice man in a personal sense – he may be the kindest, warmest, sweetest guy you’d ever want to meet. We’ve heard that he’s a simple-lifer, preferring a humble little guest house to the gilt and marble of the Vatican palace, and a bashful little Fiat to a hulking limousine. A Catholic source rhapsodizes about the tiny wee car and what it means:
But one of the most enduring images of the papal visit in Washington and on the subsequent stops in New York and in Philadelphia involved the little black Fiat that Pope Francis stepped into at the Maryland airfield, the same model that was his mode of transportation in the Big Apple and the City of Brotherly Love.
That car’s size elicited smiles from the crowd gathered at the airport, and later from the cheering groups of Catholic school students who greeted the pope like a rock star at his comings and goings at the Apostolic Nunciature, the residence of the pope’s representative to the United States, where he stayed during his Washington visit.
And that car seemed to reflect the humility and joy of the man in white who sat in its back seat on his first papal journey to the United States …
In the year since Pope Francis visited and then departed from Washington, the black Fiat has become a symbol of the Pope who emphasizes bringing Christ’s love to the poor and forgotten.
Sure, there’s nothing like the autocratic head of an all-male church riding in a small car to symbolize love of the poor and forgotten. Of course, just as with “Mother” Teresa, the small black car doesn’t actually do the poor and forgotten any good. It’s of no material help at all, nor does it educate them or teach them a skill. But it can provide them with a symbol all day and all night.
That’s the thing about the Pope’s reported goodness: it’s beside the point. It’s of no use to anyone, and it doesn’t make him any less harmful as the head of a terrible reactionary church.
On Sunday, for instance, he voiced his support for Mexicans campaigning against the government’s push to legalise same-sex marriage. The Independent reports:
Speaking at his blessing on Sunday, Pope Francis said he supported their protest “in favour of family and life, which in these times require special pastoral and cultural attention around the world”.
The Pontiff’s comments came as tens of thousands of demonstrators in Mexico took to the streets, led by far-right nationalist party Frente Nacional por la Familia (National Front for the Family), to protest against President Enrique Peña Nieto’s proposal to legalise same-sex marriage.
He’s a nice, nice, nice man, but he supports a reactionary nationalist party that wants to block same-sex marriage, because blah blah blah family God spiritual God teachings family God blah. What does it matter how nice he is if he uses his power and influence that way?
Earlier this month the Pope said yes to the idea of having a day of prayer for survivors of sexual abuse – like rape, for instance. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops got right on it – as why wouldn’t they? Prayer is what they do.
“With a pastor’s heart, Pope Francis renewed the call of the universal Church to pray for, help heal and proactively protect children from the terrible sin of sexual abuse,” said Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a Sept. 16 statement.
“This universal expression of healing and sorrow, joined by our brothers and sisters around the world, will be a powerful reminder that no survivor should walk the path toward healing alone,” he said.
But praying is easy. It doesn’t cost them anything, and it’s easy. It’s also inert. It may be comforting to people, or it may be annoying – but abstract comforting is the very most it can do. It’s not much in recompense for decade after decade after decade of unchecked sexual abuse of children by priests, and the church’s total refusal to do anything about it.
Religious institutions can abuse and exploit us any old way they want to, and in return we get … niceness, and prayers, and saints praying some more. Their harms are tangible and material, and their benefits are a good deal too ethereal. We’re not getting a good deal here. We need to change the terms.