The separation of Church and State is an integral part of the American identity, and as a journalist, I would probably tattoo the First Amendment on my arm if I was not afraid of needles and did not have an extremely low pain threshold. I consider freedom of speech, press, belief, assembly and petition sacrosanct.
However, Pope Francis’ active role in social (and political) advocacy challenges the notion that the church should not dictate the government’s policy. On Saturday April 16, Pope Francis took 12 refugees, including six children, back to Rome aboard his papal plane from Mytilene, Greece.
The Pope in the past has advocated adamantly for Western nations to open up their arms – and borders – to refugees, but today on the island of Lesbos, the pope apparently decided that actions speak louder than words.
According to a statement released by the Vatican, the pope will return to Rome with two families from Damascus and one family from Deir al-Zour. These families’ homes have been destroyed by the civil war in Syria.
During his visit to the Moria refugee camp, Pope Francis once again implored European leaders to come to the aid of these refugees. “We have come to call the attention of the world to this grave humanitarian crisis and to plead for its resolution,” Francis said. “As people of faith, we wish to join our voices to speak out on your behalf. We hope that the world will heed these scenes of tragic and indeed desperate need, and respond in a way worthy of our common humanity.”
This comes about a month after the European Union struck a deal to close Balkan borders to Western Europe in order to prevent refugees from taking the dangerous path to more prosperous European countries such as Germany. Instead, for every Syrian refugee found in Greece that is returned to Turkey, the EU will provide a home to an asylum seeker in Turkey.
While this appears to be a simple plan that will give many refugees asylum in Europe, the European Director for Amnesty International, John Dalhuisen, noted the ethical dilemma of this plan in an interview with the Guardian.
“If it applied in its absolute sense, then the number of refugees that Europe would take would depend on the number of refugees prepared to risk their lives through other means – and that is staring at a moral abyss,” Dalhuisen said.
While this new plan for admitting refugees access to Europe is morally questionable, does the Pope have the right to use his religious clout and authority to influence European and American policy on this issue or any political issue for that matter?
This is where it starts to get tricky.
The pope argues that “Politics, according to the Social Doctrine of the Church, is one of the highest forms of charity, because it serves the common good.”
He does not think he should sit back and watch injustice in the world and just passively say ‘it is not my government so I can’t do anything.’ He believes in taking the role of an activist and fighting for those oppressed in the world.
But I find it hard to believe that any Catholic would listen to the pope, the head of their religion (aside from God and Jesus, of course), and disobey him. The pope is supposed to have the closest relationship to God, according to the Catholic faith. So by disobeying the pope, you disobey God. Therefore, the pope’s benevolent activism most likely directly influences policy.
Many will argue that the pope really only holds power in regards to religious debate and his infallibility does not extend into the political arena. However, after Pope Francis spoke to a joint congress in September of last year, Speaker of the House John Boehner, a devout Catholic, stepped down from his position and cited Pope Francis’ visit as a crystallizing moment in his decision.
My desire for social justice now fights with my desire to uphold the First Amendment and the separation of Church and State. I am torn and I cannot provide an easy solution to this debate.
I admit I want the pope to make these changes in the world regarding refugees and the environment but do I want the pope to influence congress to require Bible readings in school (Pope Francis has not advocated for this in any way so this is purely hypothetical)? No.
I will let it slide this time but only because I agree with the pope. I am sorry. I am human.