BILL MOYERS: Welcome. You knew from the start that Pope Francis was going to be different. The first pope in history to take the name of the patron saint of the poor, he speaks differently, in a voice we’re not used to hearing, criticizing the “widening gap between those who have more and those who must be content with the crumbs.” In his recent "apostolic exhortation" on "the economy of exclusion and inequality,” he said quote, "The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy,” he said, “lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings."
What he does is different, too. Inviting the homeless to share his food, washing the feet of prisoners, and telephoning words of encouragement to those in need. Remember his trip to Sardinia? That Mediterranean island of opulent homes for rich jetsetters is staggering under the number of everyday people who are unemployed -- including about 50 percent of its young. Seeing their plight, the pope threw aside his prepared speech and talked from the heart of how unemployment “robs you of hope.” The crowd of 20,000 cheered, and when Francis told them: "You must fight for work," they cheered again, and broke into a chant that the pope heard not as a cry for welfare or charity but for "work, work, work."
We wait to see if he can bend the institutional church to his exhortation, but for the moment it seems as if in just a matter of months the spirit of Occupy Wall Street has become a one-man occupation of the Vatican.
Francis is the first Jesuit to become pope, prompting me to ask the Jesuit-educated Thomas Cahill what he thinks about all this. I first met Tom Cahill years ago when he was director of religious publishing for Doubleday. Since then millions of readers have come to know him as the best-selling author of now six books on the Hinges of History, moments and ideas that have shaped our world, including How the Irish Saved Civilization; The Gifts of the Jews; and this one, just published, Heretics and Heroes, which I recommend for this eve of the new year because it's about new beginnings and new ideas, the stirrings of Renaissance and Reformation. Thomas Cahill, welcome back.
THOMAS CAHILL: It's good to see you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: Is this pope a hero or a heretic?
THOMAS CAHILL: Well, in the book that I just wrote, most of the heretics are heroes and most of the heroes are heretics. So, and it's a little hard to tell, and of course—
BILL MOYERS: It's too soon.
THOMAS CAHILL: It depends on your point of view. And there are certainly people who are calling Francis a heretic. You know, every clergyman is a politician. We forget that for some odd reason. There's no-- you can't be a clergyperson and not be a political person. Or you would certainly never rise, you would certainly never get to be pope.
So these guys, whoever they are, are political. It doesn't mean that they're bad any more than it means that our senators are necessarily bad. But they're not necessarily good either. Because everybody comes up in difficult ways. How do you ascend to be a senator or a bishop? Well, it's not simple. And not everybody does it the same way. I would say that the last several popes have been largely surprises.
BILL MOYERS: John Paul, Benedict?
THOMAS CAHILL: Well, let's go back to John XXIII. The people who elected him thought that he would be an interim. He was an old man; he was a fat, old man. And he was very pleasant. And they thought he would just be pleasant. Well, they made a big mistake because John XXIII changed the Catholic Church and would've changed it a lot more in my opinion, had he lasted a little bit longer.
Then you got John Paul II was elected because they thought he was a liberal. And they were wrong, you know? So this happens a lot, that there are, you know, "Oh, look what we got. This isn't what we expected at all."
BILL MOYERS: So what do you think was expected of Francis?
THOMAS CAHILL: Well, I don't think they could possibly have expected that they were getting somebody similar to Benedict XVI, his predecessor.
BILL MOYERS: Who was quite conservative.
THOMAS CAHILL: Who was quite conservative and who I think even the many conservative cardinals who participated in this election knew this wasn't working. They needed something else. They needed better coverage. They needed a more public person. Benedict XVI, to tell the truth, mostly liked to sit at his piano and play Mozart, you know, which is a nice thing to do.
But it's not very helpful to the papacy. So I think they were looking for something that would be surprising. They may have gotten more of a surprise than they expected. Because the last two pontificates have, John Paul II and Benedict, have been extremely conservative. So they have appointed only conservative bishops, who then in their turn became conservative cardinals. And that's who elected the new Francis. But I do think that they probably got more than they expected.
BILL MOYERS: Have you read the exhortation that allegedly he wrote himself?
THOMAS CAHILL: Yes, and I think he did write it himself.
BILL MOYERS: What struck you about it?
THOMAS CAHILL: The most beautiful things about it are very, very simple, you know, where he says things like, "We the evangelizers should have on us the smell of the sheep." And then he says, "Our shoes should be muddy."
BILL MOYERS: And what do you make of that?
THOMAS CAHILL: Well, it doesn't sound like papal shoes to me, you know? There's a papal cobbler, God's sake. You know, this guy is-- and he's cutting through many things, as many as he possibly can.
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that?
THOMAS CAHILL: Well, he's not interested in a severely narrow church.
BILL MOYERS: Like John XXIII in the '60s who wanted to raise the windows of the church.
THOMAS CAHILL: Yes. And let in some fresh air.
BILL MOYERS: Pope Francis is being pummeled, as you know, by many conservatives. Rush Limbaugh says, "He's spouting pure Marxism." And there's a headline on FoxNews.com that says, "The pope is the Catholic Church's Obama, God help us.” What are they afraid of?
THOMAS CAHILL: Well, I think they're not really afraid of pure Marxism. They might be more afraid of pure Christianity which it sounds to me is what he's spouting. He's talking about the poor, as Jesus did. He's talking about the absolute necessity for us to take care of the poor, to do something for them. You know, which is a necessary part of the Christian message. If you don't have that, you're not talking about Christianity. You're talking about something else.
BILL MOYERS: But it comes at a time when this country is going in the exact opposite direction of where Pope Francis is talking about.
THOMAS CAHILL: With regard to the United States alone, there is a real crisis which is partially religious and partially political. Where you have people like Paul Ryan who's considered an upstanding Catholic, who is really just in favor of the most dreadful forms of the market. You know, he is in favor of, you know, capitalism without any room for people who are being left behind.
BILL MOYERS: The pope criticizes quote, a "deified market." He also says, "Beware of a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power." I mean, I don't think they're going to ask him to ring the bell at the opening of the market, do you?
THOMAS CAHILL: No. I mean, he's not against capitalism, he doesn't say that or any—but he's talking the way Jesus talked. That's his model, obviously. It sure as hell isn't Paul Ryan's model, or Rush Limbaugh's or any of these guys. They, you know, they would like to muffle real Christianity as much as possible.
BILL MOYERS: And by real Christianity you mean?
THOMAS CAHILL: "Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom heaven." "Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth." The words of Jesus have nothing to do with aggressive economics.
BILL MOYERS: Some conservatives have criticized him for saying that the church needs to stop being quote, "obsessed" with abortion and gay marriage.
THOMAS CAHILL: Well he did say that and it's about time somebody did say it.
THOMAS CAHILL: He talks over and over again about people who are fixated on doctrine or even fixated on a certain kind of liturgy. You know, that you have to do things this way, you can't do them that way. He doesn't care about all of that. And he's making it clear that he doesn't. And it’s driving the-- it's not just driving conservatives crazy, it's driving crazy the people who can only see things one way. You know, they're more than a political conservatives. They're psychological types. And they’re psychological types within the religion. Anybody who grew up in any religion knows these people. They're the people who everything must be this way. It can never be that way. Well, you know what? It can.
BILL MOYERS: There's a footnote on 265 of your book. There's a footnote in that regard on page 265 of your book I want to ask you about. Quote, "One might write a book on the subconscious links between belief, cruelty, and sex in the psyches of religious radicals (and of far more orthodox figures)” as well. Do you think the church is beginning to face the realities of sex?
THOMAS CAHILL: No. But it would be nice if they did. I think that Francis may have some clues about it. But it has an awful long-- an awfully long way to go. In writing these books, six of them so far, I've come to the conclusion that they are really only two movements in the world. One is kindness, and the other is cruelty.
I don't think there's anything else, really. You can explain virtually everything by those two movements. The cruelty in religion is so often a form of, "Under no circumstances may you do this, because if you do, we will exclude you.
That's not how Jesus spoke. Jesus is the one who, you know, lifted the weeping prostitute off the floor and said, "Your sins are forgiven you." He had no problem with sexual deviancy of any kind. It's we who have that problem. And it's a problem for institutionalized religion as it is for institutionalized anything. The institutions will tend to exclude.
BILL MOYERS: And this pope at least sends messages of inclusion.
THOMAS CAHILL: He's saying we shouldn't be so… we shouldn't be concerned about these things.
BILL MOYERS: But so far, he has said very little about including women.
THOMAS CAHILL: I think he cannot make the changes, the sexual changes that need to be made without many more people in agreement with him. He is not going to legislate female priests or new forms of divorce or any of those things that have, that other popes have been against. It would be too hard for him. He wouldn't have the backing that he needs. He's not-- he is a politician. He's not stupid.
BILL MOYERS: He can go further on economics, can he? Because--
THOMAS CAHILL: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: --there is a long tradition among the bishops of economic justice. Of being—
THOMAS CAHILL: Right, and there’s the long tradition among the popes. I mean, the papacy was one of the first institutions to stand up in favor of unionism. In the 19th century, when no one was in favor of unionism, the popes were in favor of unionism. They still are.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think, you know, this is an old argument, do you think monotheism encourages intolerance of other beliefs.
THOMAS CAHILL: I don't really think that monotheism particularly does that any more than other religions. I think one of the problems with religion in general is people getting on their high horse about one thing or another. And when they get on their high horse, they make terrible mistakes. Such as starting wars. You don't have to be religious to do that. You just have to have a high horse. You know, you just have to have something that you're going to promote to the death, because it's so important that you can't possibly imagine the world without it.
BILL MOYERS: How far do you think Francis can go in lifting the window of inclusiveness?
THOMAS CAHILL: I think it depends on things that are yet to happen. It partly depends upon his vigor.
BILL MOYERS: He seems to have plenty of that. He doesn't seem to like this idea of being addressed as, "Your Holiness."
THOMAS CAHILL: Well, it is absurd. I mean, no one is--no human being can actually be addressed as "Your Holiness." And he, no, he's not interested in any of that. It's really extraordinary.
BILL MOYERS: Where do you place yourself on that spectrum, between, say, John XXIII back in the '60s, the second Vatican, and Pope Francis? You've had a lot of different kinds of popes in between.
THOMAS CAHILL: Well, I like both of them.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah right, you’re on the extremes.
THOMAS CAHILL: And I think that all partisanship and sectionalism within Christianity is stupid. I don't think there really is anything to fight about. Christians should just stop it. There's nothing, you know, and actually, in this exhortation, Francis constantly speaks of Christians.
He never talks about Catholics. He says Christians, you know, should-- Christians have to go out and take care of the poor. Well, he's talking to everyone. He's not just talking to Catholics. He's passing that by. Which is to me, extremely refreshing.
BILL MOYERS: So are you a believing Christian, but not a practicing Catholic?
THOMAS CAHILL: I'm a believing Christian who finds himself equally at home and equally impatient and equally ill-at-ease in virtually any church.
BILL MOYERS: Why is that?
THOMAS CAHILL: I just don't think that it matters that much. I think that we've, you know, in the 16th and 17th centuries, we killed one another over doctrine. It was after this period that you finally had in the period of the enlightenment, people saying, "Do we really have to keep doing this? Do we really have to keep-- is it really necessary to kill one another? Couldn't we just agree to disagree?" And then you have the beginning of a new era. And it's time that we got past the largely silly divisions, theological divisions, which really don't count. Because people don't care about those things anymore.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think they care about? Or what do you care about?
THOMAS CAHILL: "Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." That's Christianity. The rest of it, isn't worth a hill of beans.
BILL MOYERS: Thomas Cahill, thanks for being with me. Let’s continue this conversation online and talk about your new book Heretics and Heroes.
THOMAS CAHILL: Yeah, I’d love to.