October 23, 2015 by Spencer Hayes
Dear Editors of The Triangle,
Robert Zaller’s opinion article Oct. 2 on Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia is an incoherent mess. He relies time and again on hyperbole, histrionics and misdirection. Mr. Zaller views the pope’s reception as somehow conferring upon Catholicism the status of official state religion. To my knowledge, none of our political leaders have sworn allegiance to the Holy See or introduced any legislation to this end. He further claims the national media “engaged in a collective act of genuflection.” Perhaps the coverage was excessive, but when has the media ever exercised restraint? Was the media supposed to pretend the leader of an estimated 1.2 billion Catholics was not coming?
Zaller conflates deference and hospitality with endorsement. Members of our government were seen with Pope Francis, and Zaller would have us believe that now everyone from the President to the washroom attendant at the Supreme Court is a card-carrying Catholic. Pope Francis visited with Raul and Fidel Castro while in Cuba. Are we to assume the Castro brothers now endorse Catholicism after more than half a century denouncing it? Of course not, but Zaller relies heavily on this kind of magical thinking to make his point. It is the stuff of conspiracy theories.
So, what kind of reception should the pope have received instead? Zaller doesn’t say. Instead, he devotes a large portion of his article whining about the attention paid to the pope. He says it was “tedious and offensive,” likening the experience to a “trip back to the Middle Ages.” Nothing more than exaggeration and pettiness. Hurt feelings do not a compelling argument make.
Zaller also took umbrage at Archbishop Chaput’s comments about the American character tied to belief in God. Zaller interprets the Archbishop as imputing him—a non-believer—as being un-American and possessing no character. How he arrived at this particular inference he does not say. Magical thinking again?
Next, Zaller objected to the use of Independence Hall as a site for the Catholic Church’s rhetoric. This is ironic considering earlier in the piece, Zaller wrote, “Our Constitution says that the practice of religion is a right, but that no laws respecting its establishment may be made.” Zaller refers of course to the first amendment, an amendment that in addition to freedom of religion also protects freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Archbishop Chaput and Pope Francis exercised exactly those rights when they spoke at Independence Hall, home of the Liberty Bell—which coincidentally bears an inscription from Leviticus.
On one hand, Zaller praises the United States as “the world’s most amazing experiment in diversity,” and on the other argues that “public life should espouse no creed but that of democracy itself. It is the one creed that binds us together.” Such a monolithic conception of public life goes against the very principles the first amendment represents.
We are a pluralistic society, and it’s true that in order to function we must have a minimal consensus on shared values such as mutual respect and tolerance. But to say there can be only one creed in public life is the antithesis of a pluralistic society. The Catholics who met in Philadelphia did not assert their faith at the expense of anyone else. They did not coerce anyone. They merely exercised their constitutional rights.
Faith unites nearly 70 million American Catholics in ways perhaps stronger than secular virtues ever will. One need only turn on the nightly news to see the state of disarray of the American electorate. The World Meeting of Families served as a counterpoint to all that. It was a peaceful expression of faith, diversity and goodwill. And what better venue than Philadelphia, a city whose name literally translates as “brotherly love.”
The thousands of people who came to Philadelphia to see Pope Francis, whether Catholic or non-Catholic, engaged in something bigger than themselves. Our city was given the opportunity to shine on the national and international stage, and we succeeded. Had we left it to Zaller, it might never have happened.