Opinion: Pope Francis maneuvered on Church and State boundaries with mastery and precision

The recently concluded visit of Pope Francis to the United States made a major impact, an impact all the bigger for taking place in the current context of political polarization there.

I count myself among those who most firmly defend the separation of Church and State and believe that it’s vital to separate these two spaces. I reject any attempt to impose religious beliefs in the context of politics, impositions which are no more than a way of abusing and manipulating the faith of a sector of society. The importance of maintaining this prohibition is even greater when the religious group in question constitutes a majority or a large minority of a state’s citizens.

A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces.

— Pope Francis

Pope Francis maneuvered on these boundaries with mastery and precision. When he spoke as a head of state (let’s not forget that what he is – of the Vatican – as well as head of the Roman Catholic Church) he made use of the enormous moral and spiritual capital evident in his visible humility. This was further shown by the way he dealt with the various questions he addressed and by his gestures in support of social progress such as when he ate with a group of homeless people in Washington instead of doing so with the leaders of Congress. He had already met the latter when he addressed a Joint Session of its houses and spoke to their members and the country at large with enormous political skill.

The United States is predominantly a nation of Protestants; only 23 percent of its citizens are Catholic so the Pope made his visit as the leader of a religious minority. 32 percent of American Catholics are of Hispanic origin with the two other most important groups being Irish and Italian Americans. Among those the Pope received in person were Vice President Joe Biden whose family is Irish and House Speaker John Boehner, whose origins are Irish and German.

Francis was able to transcend the field of religion and make a profound social and political impact by using his position as a political leader to address American society on issues that should concern us all. He did so with tact and wisdom, without insisting on dogmas of faith but rather calling for processes of dialogue and working together to overcome polarization, re-establish international relations interrupted by historic impasses — differences which must be left behind to pave the way for peace and coexistence — and for generating responses that would allow us to overcome poverty, inequality, exclusion and the environmental damage that must be urgently reversed.

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Particular mention must be made of his strong message in favor of the inclusion of immigrants in a country (indeed a whole continent) whose construction is inextricably linked with the reception of huge waves of immigrants.

The leader of the Catholic Church broke through the boundaries of his own religion and became Francisco the People’s Pope, or Everyone’s Pope as some in the American press called him.

In short, the current Pope has become a figure of importance and a moral reference point  beyond the limits of his own faith and he did so with a message focused on tolerance and compassion for those most in need.

The day after being received by him, House Speaker Boehner announced his decision to resign and not to run again for his seat in the House of Representatives. It has been speculated that this decision was prompted by his meeting with the Pope and the accumulated frustration he felt from his attempts to get the Republican Party majority to agree on how to deal with significant fiscal questions impacting on both the social arena and international affairs. Nonetheless, beyond speculation the truth is that Speaker Boehner might be the new victim of the unproductive political polarization that the Pope referred in his speech as one of the problems we need to overcome around the world.

The impact of Francis as an international leader has been felt in the United States for some time now. President Obama and the Pope have been forging a very close relationship which has been fundamental in bringing forward two processes that have been developing in Latin America: the peace talks aimed at putting an end to the conflict in Colombia and the opening to Cuba. Mention here could also be made of the aborted process of dialogue opened in 2014 to deal with the serious crisis being suffered by Venezuela but the government of Nicolás Maduro inexplicably failed to take advantage of this opportunity.

The Pope’s last significant public event in his trip to the United Sates took place in New York and the image of an interfaith ceremony to pray for the victims of 9/11 at Ground Zero resonated throughout the nation. The shepherd of the world’s Roman Catholics was surrounded by leaders of all denominations, united in a universal message and in prayers started by a Muslim cleric, accompanied by rabbis, Protestant ministers and representatives of Buddhism and Hinduism. The closing remarks were made in the Latin American accent of his Holiness.

Francisco has left a powerful message in the United States and one with political consequences at a time when tolerance and inclusion are fundamental. Particularly resonant in his speech before Congress was his characterization of what makes a real political leader, “A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces”.

Words that both hit home and have a long reach because they provide a basis for reflection in the times and societies in which we live.