Opinion

Why Pope Francis is dominating the news in a secular age

Even Francis' supporters are a tad surprised by the blanket coverage

Even admirers of Pope Francis may have been taken aback by the wall-to-wall coverage that has greeted his visit to the United States. My own media appearances talking about the pope seem to expand into second segments, and move to the front of every show. MSNBC carried his remarks at the White House and to a joint session of Congress unedited.

Only one in six Americans are religiously observant to the point of attending a religious service in any given week. Of those, only a portion are Catholic. And yet, we see the entire Congress rise to give him standing ovations. Hillary Clinton is piggy-backing on his appearance. Barack Obama, who has tangled with America's Catholic bishops on a number of issues, is rolling out the red carpet. Occasional critics of Pope Francis, like myself, find themselves surprisingly moved.

What's going on?

I'd suggest a huge part of the spell the papacy has cast over modern worldly powers can be attributed to the institution's longevity. The Catholic Church and the papacy are by far the longest-lived institutions of Western civilization. Francis' predecessors have played a diplomatic role in the political life of the West since before the emergence of all the modern nation-states. Popes tangled with King Otto and Charlemagne. The Popes called the Crusades. The papacy has survived all manner of intrigue, even when Napoleon I had Pope Pius VII kidnapped and dragged over the Alps to Fontainebleau Castle. It's a longevity that any nation or throne would envy. To welcome the Roman pontiff into Congress is to be entered into this long chain of history.

The pope's power is also mysterious. Joseph Stalin famously quipped, "How many divisions does the pope of Rome have?" He has so much more than that, even when having so little practical authority. Popes sometimes are thwarted in the most basic ways. Their bishops and priests can and often do ignore them. Pope Benedict XVI resigned in part because his papacy was so undermined by subordinates that even his personal butler had turned into a spy against him. And yet, the pope can draw crowds running into the millions when he travels. John Paul II is co-credited with helping to hasten the end of the Soviet Union merely through his largely symbolic support of the Polish solidarity movement.

And the pope's popularity is the envy of any politician — particularly this pontiff's popularity. Pope Francis enjoys upwards of 90 percent approval ratings from Catholics. This Argentine even gets positive marks from more than 60 percent of white evangelical American Protestants, whose forebears were likely to think of his predecessors in terms of the Anti-Christ or the Whore of Babylon.

Part of this popularity and "approval" is completely indifferent to the details of the Catholic Church's doctrine, or even to the pope's own unique political priorities. It is due to the majesty of the office, and the role it plays as a global symbol for religion, for Western religion, and for the unity of nearly a billion Catholics across more than 100 nations. He is "ours" even when we disagree with him.

Another source of this fascination comes from the fact that religion has been at the center of so much public controversy in recent years. Religious people can become hate figures almost instantly, as their consciences become hypothetical impediments to pizza-weddings in Indiana, or to the administration of free birth control to the secretaries of nuns. The pope allowed us to see religion on another plane.

Ultimately, there is a longing underneath it all. Western civilization has almost lost the idea of common religious rites, and of religious reasoning in public. But it still has all the impulses of Christendom kicking around inside its guts. These express themselves in sudden, overwhelming appetites for moral reform, and in personal conversion to new causes. The pope is one of the last authorities who can claim to speak to that longing.

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