Pro­fane pres­i­dent, pen­i­tent pon­tiff

The Record (Troy, NY) - - OPINION - E. J. Dionne’s email ad­dress is ej­dionne@wash­post.com. Twit­ter: @EJ­Dionne.

A news in­ter­lude dom­i­nated by spec­u­la­tion about “golden show­ers” and a grace­less pres­i­dent who de­scribed his lat­est de­trac­tor as an “un­truth­ful slime ball” in­vites us to search for higher moral ground.

So it might be Prov­i­den­tial that Pope Fran­cis chose to make news last week in two ways. First, he did some­thing that comes very hard to most pub­lic fig­ures, and par­tic­u­larly to the cur­rent oc­cu­pant of the White House: He apol­o­gized fer­vently for “grave er­rors.”

He also is­sued a re­mark­able doc­u­ment on ho­li­ness that seemed made for the mo­ment -and, by the way, noted that we can “waste pre­cious time” by be­ing caught up in “su­per­fi­cial in­for­ma­tion” and “in­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion.”

Fran­cis con­tin­ued to preach his gospel of eco­nomic jus­tice by warn­ing that it is a “harm­ful ide­o­log­i­cal er­ror” to cast “the so­cial en­gage­ment of oth­ers” as “worldly, sec­u­lar, ma­te­ri­al­ist, com­mu­nist or pop­ulist.” On the con­trary, he saw ho­li­ness as de­mand­ing an en­gage­ment with “the des­ti­tute, the aban­doned and the un­der­priv­i­leged.”

And he lifted up words from Leviti­cus that we are un­likely to hear cited by Pres­i­dent Trump: “When a stranger re­sides with you in your land, you shall not op­press him.”

It’s not of­ten that pub­lic fig­ures hold them­selves to the stan­dards they ap­ply to oth­ers. There was thus an in­struc­tive sym­me­try be­tween what Fran­cis said in his Apos­tolic Ex­hor­ta­tion Gaudete et Ex­sul­tate (“Re­joice and Be Glad”) and his own mo­ment of nec­es­sary penance.

In the doc­u­ment, the Pope de­clared that “the lack of a heart­felt and prayer­ful ac­knowl­edg­ment of our lim­i­ta­tions pre­vents grace from work­ing more ef­fec­tively within us.” Hu­mans -- ev­ery sin­gle one of us -- fail, fal­ter and fall. We do far bet­ter when we ad­mit it.

And this is what the Pope did last Wed­nes­day when he apol­o­gized for his ter­ri­bly mis­guided de­fense of a Chilean bishop ac­cused of cov­er­ing up abuse by an in­fa­mous pe­dophile priest.

Many of us who ad­mire Fran­cis feared his ap­par­ent stand­ing up for the in­de­fen­si­ble was a sign that the 81-year-old pon­tiff was in­ca­pable of rec­og­niz­ing the Church’s pro­found breach of trust when it placed in­sti­tu­tional self­p­reser­va­tion above a con­cern for the suf­fer­ing of those abused by priests.

Some­times, your friends need to tell you how wrong you are. In this case, the task fell to Car­di­nal Sean O’Mal­ley, a close Fran­cis ally. O’Mal­ley was ap­pointed Arch­bishop of Bos­ton to be­gin heal­ing the deep gashes left by the scan­dal there, and he read Fran­cis what­ever the Ro­man equiva-

lent of the riot act is.

Fran­cis re­sponded with a let­ter to Chile’s bish­ops. “As far as my role, I ac­knowl­edge, and ask you to con­vey faith­fully, that I have made grave er­rors in as­sess­ment and per­cep­tion of the sit­u­a­tion, es­pe­cially as a re­sult of lack of in­for­ma­tion that was truth­ful and bal­anced,” he wrote. “From this time I ask for­give­ness to all those that I of­fended and I hope to do so per­son­ally, in the fol­low­ing weeks, in meet­ings that I will hold with rep­re­sen­ta­tives” of those ef­fected.

Aside from his ref­er­ence to a lack of “truth­ful and bal­anced” in­for­ma­tion -- hon­estly, he should have known -- Fran­cis’ let­ter sug­gested the de­ter­mi­na­tion of some­one ca­pa­ble of learn­ing from his mis­takes. It’s more than we’re get­ting from some other lead­ers we can think of.

This en­hanced the cred­i­bil­ity of Fran­cis’ ex­hor­ta­tion to the rest of us to im­i­tate the hum­ble day-to­day saints whom he re­ferred to as “the mid­dle class of ho­li­ness.”

He re­it­er­ated that the Church would con­tinue to de­fend “the in­no­cent un­born,” but stressed the im­por­tance of see­ing the “lives of the poor, those al­ready born,” as

“equally sa­cred.”

Fran­cis added point­edly that while “a politi­cian look­ing for votes” might see “the sit­u­a­tion of mi­grants” as “a sec­ondary is­sue com­pared to the ‘grave’ bioeth­i­cal ques­tions,” a true Chris­tian would not.

It was hard to miss the mes­sage to Amer­i­can Bish­ops that let­ting anti-abortion politi­cians off the hook on im­mi­gra­tion and refugees would be a de­nial of their obli­ga­tion “to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sis­ters of ours who risk their lives to of­fer a fu­ture to their chil­dren.”

Fran­cis in­sisted that “the most de­ci­sive turn­ing points in world his­tory are sub­stan­tially co-de­ter­mined by souls whom no his­tory book ever men­tions.” That’s ex­cel­lent news, be­cause in our era, many whom the his­tory books will men­tion are lead­ing us to nowhere good. Per­haps Fran­cis can in­spire in them some self-ex­am­i­na­tion -- and, more im­por­tantly, pro­voke a badly needed re­bel­lion by the de­cent peo­ple who rep­re­sent “the mid­dle class of ho­li­ness.”

EJ Dionne Colum­nist

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