It is interesting how history converges every so often. This last week we witnessed the confluence of the Pope’s visit to the Americas, including our nation, and the resignation of a key political figure in D. C.—that of Speaker of the House, John Boehner. He is stepping down from his position as Speaker (having been second in line to the Presidency). This is the office which has given him the power to influence the direction this country might have been destined to take (at least in the short term). In addition and certainly with some regret, he is also resigning his position in Congress altogether after 24 years of service.
Boehner was simply not a strong enough leader, too easily influenced by the ebb-and-flow of oppositional forces within his own Party and, therefore, too easily cowed by his caucus. Perhaps his intermittent intransigency came from his own core beliefs. Perhaps, he was driven by his need to retain the Speakership—at all costs. Maybe, he was a man of his “convictions” but only when it suited and benefitted him.
Coming from humble beginnings, Boehner forgot the lessons from his youth as he climbed the political ladder—lessons that had taught him about deprivation, adversity, and misery as well as the rewards from hard.
Coming from humble beginnings, perhaps along the way, he forgot the lessons from his youth as he climbed the political ladder—lessons (that characterized the American Dream) that had taught him about deprivation, adversity, and misery as well as the rewards from hard. But hard work and industriousness, in our present reality, does not always produce the anticipated and promised rewards. Society has become very selective about whom it rewards and how that is done—who must fail and who is allowed to succeed.
Sadly, it is those few at the top of that hierarchy who often possess inordinate power and sway--who are the very ones who profess to be serving the people, to be on the side of the people, when they only want to serve themselves and their very narrow group of beneficiaries.
Pope Francis presents a counterpoint to that way of thinking. He has never lost his way (as others have). He seems to embody all that is good about humankind. Through his words and his actions, he demonstrates just how he is the epitome of what the Bishop of Rome should be. Coming from humble beginnings himself (ironically from a mother who continuously discouraged him from pursuing the cloth), he has emerged as one of the most transformative leaders in the world.
He has not forgotten his roots nor has he permitted himself to be dissuaded by the numerous powerful forces swirling around him who would wish (though furtively) that he not fulfill his commitment to serve and advocate for all whose needs are many and diverse—whose cries (not to be ignored) are heard by him.
There is no comparison between Pope Francis and the too numerous leaders that have somehow been foisted upon us—heads of state, Party, and corporation. In a very real way, we have chosen Pope Francis to lead us out of the wilderness of ignorance and to open our hearts to the compassion and empathy we have lost. Our Pope is teaching us how to open our minds and how, on occasion, to compromise without compromising principles.
His chosen (perhaps preordained) purpose is to make the Church a welcoming place for everyone—not as it has been historically, pushing people away as it created divisions among humankind. His objective is not to judge the people of the world who pursue their own inner voices, life-styles, and religious affiliations—their own paths to an inner freedom. Instead, his “burden” is to be a role model (imperfect though it may be) that the rest of us can use as an example to emulate.
It must be noted that he has not mandated all the changes that many of us desire, but it is unreasonable to expect perfect coordination of ideas. Though he accepts those who were born as LGBTQ children and refuses to judge those who were born to that lifestyle, he does not give his blessing to same-sex marriage. Though he does not and will not condone abortion, he is willing to “forgive” those who have sought that solution. “Who am I to judge”?
He is a champion of the poor and hopeless, the prisoners who can yet be redeemed—even when their causes are not priorities for a number of current decision-makers.
He is both courageous and compassionate and a crusader for many pressing issues—many that are less-than-popular or altogether “unacceptable.” He advocates for environmental security, basically asserting that it would be an abomination (nothing less than a sin) to leave to the next generation the issue surrounding climate change and pollution.
The Vicar of the Church believes firmly in the catechism but does not find it a contradiction to embrace science as well. For him, adhering to the one conviction does not negate the validity of the other. It is clear to me that Pope Francis supports the theory that it is an offense against God to ignore the command to be custodians of the world—a divine place that was so graciously and magnanimously given to us along with the stipulation that we must take the responsibility of caring for it throughout time.
Similarly, he preaches the Word of God when he says, “Remember, we were once strangers in a strange land”—a statement repeatedly made throughout the Holy Scriptures (Old Testament). Anciently, we (the Israelites/Hebrews) were once the strangers, the aliens, the unwanted immigrants who were forced to leave our homeland (Canaan/Palestine) because of the privations we had experienced and encountered there—fleeing our homes in an effort to find a new home where our children could prosper instead of wither and die, like a rose that had once shown so much promise. Such is the comparison to today’s immigrant populations, and the Pope reminds us of this.
In this way, he is commanding us to open our arms (as Lady Liberty imports) to all immigrants who seek not only new life here but who also pursue a way to give back to the community and nation that would accept them.
Thus, we must rethink how we look at all our immigrants—documented or not. In so doing, we must go further than we already have by considering the imperative of welcoming the thousands who are right now (with such courage and valor) fleeing from the cruelties they have faced in their respective motherlands—whether it be Syria or Afghanistan or Guatemala.
Remember again, “We were once strangers in a strange land.” Had we not been accepted into that new and strange nation (Egypt), it is likely that the Hebrew nation would not have survived, and consequently, there would have been no Jesus or Christianity, no Muhammad or Islam.
All this, in a somewhat convoluted way, takes us back to Speaker Boehner. I always admired, despite the ridicule, how he could retain his manliness while freely displaying his emotions. Nevertheless, I often felt sorry for him because of the contentious position in which he so often found himself as leader of the 435 members in a House truly divided, fractured, and fragmented.
He was frequently overwhelmed by the challenges that he constantly encountered. His is a Chamber whose many insensitive and dispassionate representatives are too often self-serving, holding only parochial interests, and totally lacking that profile in courage needed to represent not only their Districts but national and international concerns as well.
Willing to work with the President to produce reasonable compromises (not a bad word), Boehner often found himself victim to undeserving, vicious, and unfair attacks—so strong that many deals, made in good faith, were undone. Such agreements have included work on the incessant budget negotiations, immigration, health care (how many times its undoing was put up for a vote--only for show but costing taxpayers lots of dough), nuclear deals, the environment, trade, to name but a few. How much more we, as a nation, would have accomplished had it not been for such oppositional politics!
Boehner never had the broad and deep support that this Pope has received. To the contrary, insular Right-wing caucuses were always willing and ready to abandon him if he could not or would not accede to their demands, conditions that commonly stood in the way of reasonable legislative progress.
There was and continues to be a myriad of House Members heavily lobbied by large interest groups (Big Corporations, Big Pharma, Big Oil, the NRA, the Farmgrowers, the ubiquitous Right-Wing Tea Party). Even junior Texas Senator Ted Cruz (who fancies himself as President) not so long ago managed to cross chambers and convince enough House members to close down the Government at the expense of those individual constituents and small businesses he was elected to represent and protect (and he is willing to do it again).
It has always chapped my hide that former Majority Leader Eric Cantor was generally seen at Boehner’s side while not-so-secretly stabbing him in the back at the same time. To me, Cantor was an embarrassment—partly because he is a person who comes from a long history of people whose enemies were responsible for wanton abuse, prejudice, persecution, and venal judgements and partly because of the hollow values he chose to embrace. Where was his conscience in his decisions? What happened to “Never forget!”
Why he became a Republican in this era in which the Republican Party adheres to reactionary, repressive, and regressive principles is still a question in my mind. Nevertheless, he became one of the biggest thorns in Boehner’s side (an apt figure of speech, especially at a time when this Pope speaks unwaveringly of socio-economic exigencies that must be resolved soon if we are ever to see a future as we would like to imagine it). Cantor had consistently stood in the way of allowing that happen—until he was voted out of office.
Now we are faced with new questions. If Kevin McCarthy “ascends” to the Speakership, who will then fill the vacuum as the new Majority Leader? If it is an ultra-conservative (like Cantor), McCarthy will face the very same (if not worse) obstacles that Boehner has had to do all these years—all the more reason why we must all engage in what will likely be a brutal set of political races whose results will be determinate in shaping our lives for some years to come.
Without doubt, our futures will depend on the composition of the new Congress and of the bodies at the State and local levels. The new President will have the opportunity to make lifetime appointments of at least two to three Supreme Court Justices (one of the most important actions any President will ever take because SCOTUS forges the legal path our nation follows for decades).
The Party that receives majorities in one or both Houses will determine which laws emerge from Congress. Will all or most of the advances under this Administration be undone or reversed (as we have seen before under other presidencies—think of Glass-Steagall, DOMA, the less-than-compassionate welfare reform, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell—to name but a few)?
What will become of the dwindling Middle Class and the growing Class below it that can be characterized by its poverty and alienation, its injustices and inequities while the 1% at the very top becomes ever smaller and more exclusive—becoming so in direct proportion to its amount of wealth and power? Are we to become, in a very real sense, a plutocratic oligarchy while our self-absorption distracts us from what is transpiring—until it is too late?
This brings us full circle! If we are to be our brothers’ keeper, as the Scriptures dictate, then we must heed the warning of this much-admired and beloved Pope (may he be safe and continue his impactful and fruitful journey). We must listen, then, to how Pope Francis has counselled us—to his prescient words, warnings and cautions.
But also, we must ask that the new House Leader be able to inspire a camaraderie between and within parties, a reaching out and a working together—a behavior that has long been lost. If that person pursues such goals (regardless of party affiliation), we must show our support and have his (or her) back. We must encourage and even demand a flexible, open-minded process that is collegial and conciliatory--a path that can lead to the changes and reforms that are clearly indispensable to a promising future.
When I was growing up and over many of the years when I taught, it was always my belief that both major parties had the same goals but chose different means to get there. This concept is no longer valid today.
What this Pope is teaching us is that reaching out and across is the only way to achieve any kind of success. We can only be triumphant if we are willing to put our anger and hurt feelings and defensive postures aside and return to the collaborative ways of the “good ol’ days.” We must work together or fail together.
“A House divided unto itself cannot stand”—true then and perhaps even truer now! Amen to following that dictum.