Will Pope Francis be polite or prophetic?

As Pope Francis prepares to visit to the U.S. this week, it is a safe bet he is getting cautionary advice to stick to platitudes and avoid confronting controversial issues head on.

After all, that's the way Pope Benedict conducted himself during his visit to the U.S. seven years ago, and it worked out just swell; that is, swell for those who preferred anodyne rhetoric to authentic discussion of aggressive war, torture or economic injustice.


When we Catholics confess our sins, we call to mind not only "what we have done" but also "what we have failed to do." When Benedict came to the U.S. in April 2008, he aped the behavior of the earlier German bishops, who could not find their voice to speak out against the abuses of the Third Reich.

Pope Benedict arrived just days after U.S. media revealed that President George W. Bush's most senior aides had met dozens of times in the White House during 2002 and 2003 to sort out the most efficient mix of torture techniques for captured "high-value detainees." If the pope had an opinion on torture or the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, he kept it all to himself. Rather, that pontiff pontificated on "God-given human rights" and "human rights abuses," carefully leaving the perpetrators unnamed. The Washington Post commented that the pope was "short on specifics and long on broad themes."


Will Francis choose the role of prophet like Martin Luther King Jr. who, resisting insistent advice from his "realist" supporters to avoid the issue of Vietnam, summoned the courage to label the U.S. "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today"?

Or will the pope confine himself to basking in the popularity of his statements on the environment and on welcoming refugees? Will he go beyond symptoms to address root causes, noting that the U.S. military is among the world's worst polluters and the millions of recent refugees from the Middle East represent the detritus of U.S. "wars of choice"?

If Francis chooses prophesy over politeness, he will forfeit the bobbing-up-and-down reception regularly given by Congress to the likes of Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu.

It would be the first time in a generation for American Catholics to hear prophetic words from bishops on war and the economy. Three decades ago, U.S. Catholic bishops issued a document in which they put flesh on the high sounding "preferential option for the poor." The bishops took a lot of heat from well-heeled Catholics by applying to the U.S. economy an authentic interpretation of Christian scripture: "...the more fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others. ... Dealing with poverty is not a luxury ... it is a moral imperative of the highest priority."

Will Pope Francis critique the kind of budget advocated by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and other prominent Catholics whose views make a mockery of the "preferential option for the poor?" Will he critique the gross injustice of the justices of the Supreme Court, most of them also Catholics, who have given wealthy corporations the ability to defeat the democratic electoral process?

In 1948, in the shadow of World War II, the French author/philosopher Albert Camus was invited to speak at a Dominican monastery. The monks wanted to know what an "unbeliever" thought of the behavior of Christians during the '30s and '40s. Camus replied:

"For a long time during those frightful years I waited for a great voice to speak up in Rome. I, an unbeliever? Precisely. ... What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear ... that they should get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today.

"What I know ... is that if Christians made up their mind to it, millions of voices — millions, I say — throughout the world would be added to the appeal of a handful of isolated individuals, who, without any sort of affiliation, today intercede almost everywhere and ceaselessly for children and other people." (from "Resistance, Rebellion, and Death: Essays")


I, for one, hope Pope Francis remembers that Jesus was the kind of prophet who ruffled feathers, big time, on issues of justice; and that, had he danced away from that imperative, he might have lived a long life, dying a polite Rabbi in his bed.

Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst, works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He studied theology and Russian at Fordham, holds a certificate in Theological Studies from Georgetown, and now teaches at the Servant Leadership School in Washington. His email is