People have gone gaga for the Pope. In Washington this week, the hottest ticket in town is an invitation to Wednesday's reception for the pontiff at the White House. In New York, Wall Street zillionaires are jostling for seats at a papal prayer service. People are snapping up Pope Francis bobbleheads and posing for selfies with life-size cutouts of the pontiff. In Philadelphia, a million and a half people are expected to turn out for a papal celebration of Mass. Pilgrims are camped out at the Philadelphia Zoo.
Normally-secular people are gushing that this Pope is just too awesome. "The excitement I feel about my chance at seeing him during his Central Park procession next Friday ... is how a teeny-bopper must have felt awaiting the Beatles' landing in New York in 1964," one fan wrote in The New York Times.
The main reason for the Popecrush is that Pope Francis is a fiery social justice warrior – a spokesman for the downtrodden and oppressed, and a fierce enemy of the ruthless global capitalist system that oppresses them. He has a strong environmental message too. Because of what he calls "savage capitalism," the Earth "is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth." We must repent.
The Pope's radical critique has been ardently embraced by progressives everywhere, from Naomi Klein to Whoopi Goldberg. Among his biggest admirers is U.S. President Barack Obama, who's hoping that the Pope can perform a miracle and get the doomed UN climate talks back on track.
There's just one problem. The Pope isn't that progressive. Despite his recent efforts to forgive the sinners, his stance on abortion, birth control and gay rights is pretty much in line with standard church doctrine, which is pretty much in line with the social-conservative views that are loathed by progressives everywhere. The Vatican was not amused by Mr. Obama's plan to make his White House reception more inclusive by inviting some transgender activists, an openly gay Episcopal bishop, and a nun from an activist group that refuses to promote the Church's teaching on abortion and euthanasia. A Vatican spokesman complained that they were especially upset because there was no sign that the White House had invited any anti-abortion bishops.
Nor is the Pope all that big on changing the status of women in the church. Two years ago he reiterated the church's ban on women priests, saying the decision was "definitive." He's not big on childlessness either, which he blames in part for the overwhelming influx of migrants into Europe. "When there is an empty space, people look to fill it," he said in a recent interview. "If a country doesn't have children, migrants come to occupy that place."
The mainstream media are generally disdainful of religion, except when it comes to the Pope. They are treating him with approximately the same reverence that greeted England's King and Queen in their royal tour of Canada in 1939. What explains this?
It's certainly not some mass spiritual awakening. There is no sign of a resurgence of Catholicism, or any other kind of mainstream Christianity, in America. Instead, I think the enthusiasm for the Pope reflects a submerged longing for moral leadership and goodness. We want to believe that the Pope, despite his fabulously wealthy Earthly kingdom, is somehow above it all. Also, this Pope is an undeniably appealing one. He is humble and loves people and is personally modest. He prefers a Hyundai to a Popemobile. Still, he's got his blind spots. He refuses to consider that Catholic teaching on contraception might be contributing to the Earth's environmental woes, or that the population explosions of the Middle East and Africa might be a factor in the migrant crisis. He seems indifferent to the role that capitalism has played in lifting people up from grinding poverty. He seems to think subsistence farming is the way to save the planet.
But there's one thing everyone can really like about him. He gets us off the moral hook. Who among us doesn't long for a fairer, cleaner and more equal world? By embracing the Pope, we can express our virtue without having to lift a finger. Just because he drives a Hyundai and lives in a boarding house doesn't mean we have to. So yay for the Pope! Go ahead and share the love on #popecrush. He's a helluva guy.