Francis Proves Fighting Yesterday's Culture War Is Folly

Pope Francis' popularity is a warning to Republicans still intent on fighting the culture wars.

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Pope Francis meets children at the Vatican, Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. Pope Francis has received a candle-topped birthday cake three days early, a surprise from children at the Vatican. The pontiff turns 77 on Dec. 17. A group of children on Saturday presented him with the treat after he visited a Vatican dispensary which provides pediatric care. Francis blew out the candles. Thanking the youngsters for the cake, he promised: "I'll tell you later if it's good or not." The dispensary on the Vatican grounds has been distributing for more than 90 years milk, clothing, diapers, toys and even baby carriages to families in need.

What a difference a year makes. And what a difference a pope makes. At Christmas services this year, the priest at our local church told the families gathered for the children's pageant that Jesus loves and is represented in everyone, including gays and lesbians. Our local church isn't Jesuit, nor particularly liberal, but before Pope Francis stepped up with a new message of inclusivity, none of us had ever expected to hear anything like that at church, let alone at Christmas Eve mass. The congregation cheered.

The priest also pressed his core Christmas theme that the greatest joy we will experience is the joy we feel when serving others. Serving the poor is another significant shift in focus that Francis has brought to reinvigorate the church. Surely, there is no message more central to Jesus' teaching and the Christian tradition than serving others and loving humanity, and, yet, prior to Francis' ascent, it was a message eclipsed by a Catholic Church bent on fighting culture wars and chastising those who stray from its teachings. All too often, serving the poor had taken a backseat to the Church's war on abortion and gay marriage.

[2013: The Year in Cartoons]

Francis called an end to those culture wars, urging bishops to spend more time healing their flock and less time fighting political battles. He started a revolution by answering a reporter's question about gay priests with the question, "who am I to judge?" and then later, elaborating, urged bishops to drop their "obsession" with gays, abortion and contraception and to create a welcoming church that is a "home for all." Recently, Pope Francis removed a conservative American cardinal from a key Vatican committee after the cardinal said, "One gets the impression ... that [the Pope] thinks we're talking too much about abortion [and gay marriage.] But we can never talk enough about that."

Instead of focusing on political fights, Francis is urging a renewed focus on serving the poor, pushing his cardinals to abandon their "psychology of princes" and get out of the lavish Vatican. He, himself, has rejected the posh apartment, cars and wardrobe of previous popes to live, travel and dress simply and humbly. He celebrated his recent birthday with homeless men, and has drawn attention for kissing and embracing a severely disfigured man and washing the feet of girls in a juvenile jail. Surely, there is no Catholic leader this Christmas who is closer in his own practices to the teachings and life of Jesus. In retrospect, his selection of his papal name seems perfectly apt: Francis of Assisi, the 13th-century patron saint of the poor.

Where the previous Catholic Church hierarchy had denied communion to elected officials who voted to give poor women the right to terminate unwanted pregnancies, the current pope exhorts that communion is open to all and not to be treated as "a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.]

What a difference a year makes. Actually, it's been a mere nine months.

There are some lessons here for Washington. And for the Republican party in particular.

The first lesson is how quickly things can change. Republicans starting 2014 giddy about the coming elections for Congress may not want to count their chickens before they've hatched. Much of their giddiness rides on the poorly handled roll-out of Obamacare and resulting negative public opinion about both health care reform and the president. But the federal website – healthcare.gov – is rapidly improving. Although only about 30,000 people were able to enroll in the launch month of October, the same number was able to enroll in the first two days of December, alone, with nearly 1 million people enrolling in December overall.

Americans are starting to find out for themselves what affordable, high-quality health care looks like without pre-existing conditions, lifetime limits and caps on coverage, now that insurance companies no longer call the shots. And they like it. Over this year, word will spread around America about people too young for Medicare – but too old and sick to find a new job or to buy individual insurance – who finally have insurance, or kids with cancer who finally get care, or women who don't lose their insurance simply because they become pregnant or get breast cancer. And, as that word spreads, minds will change. Republicans who gloat today over projected victories in November based on their presumption of public distaste for Obamacare are vulnerable to a quickly changing future.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

The second lesson to take to heart is that culture wars may not be as popular as those waging them think. No doubt many American bishops leading the war against gay marriage and contraception believed the majority of their flock, as well as their fellow Catholic leadership, was behind them. Today, they are shocked to hear words of chastisement from the Vatican and surprised at how Francis' message of inclusivity and economic justice is garnering sky high public approval ratings – from 88 percent of American Catholics and three-quarters of non-Catholic Americans, in a CNN poll shortly before Christmas – and landing him on the cover of Time and other magazines as person of the year.

Just like their political allies among conservative American bishops, Republican obsessed with social issues are somewhat out of touch with the general public, yet they remain unaware of this critical fact. And this is their Achilles heel. They were surprised on election night this year to find their extremism rejected at the polls in Virginia, Alabama and elsewhere, and they continued to believe they lost because they had not pushed their extremist agenda harder – out of touch with the polling that showed American voters rejected extremism and favored leaders willing to work across the aisle to forge compromise and get results.

Republican leaders obsessed with so-called family values while simultaneously breaking up undocumented families, slashing food stamps and cutting off unemployment insurance will be as disappointed in November as conservative American bishops were this fall when they discovered they were out on a limb in their culture wars without sufficient backing among either their flock or their colleagues in Rome.

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