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OpinionCommentaryPope Francis Visit

Francis a holy man, not a god

Pope Francis delivers his message during his visit

Pope Francis delivers his message during his visit to the San Francisco Church in Quito, Ecuador, Tuesday, July 7, 2015. Credit: AP / Gregorio Borgia

"Religious leaders are like fingers pointing to the moon; they are not the moon." -- Hindu aphorism

Welcome, Francis, to the United States, a democracy with a sizable Protestant community, but a country nonetheless in your thrall.

Let's deconstruct this thraldom, to ensure that the real virtues of Francis' papacy are not subverted to the superficiality of his celebrity. Because let's be clear, what I will call Francis' "integrity offensive" is authentic and radical and needs our full attention.

When the Argentine Jorge Mario Bergoglio became pope, the Roman Catholic Church was under assault. The pedophilia crisis, Vatican bank corruption, and charges of sexually promiscuous cardinals were wracking the church and eroding the trust of its membership and its moral voice.

From the moment he ascended to the throne of St. Peter, Pope Francis has impressed with his spirituality.

His work in the past few years has been two-pronged. First, he has sought to rebuild the world's trust in a broken religious office by emphasizing mercy. He has washed the feet of prisoners, prostitutes and Muslims during Holy Thursday services (a celibate male intimately touching the feet of "dirty" women has huge redemptive power); visited prisoners; urged parish priests to be kind to gay and divorced people; and rejected the plush Vatican apartments and Pope Benedict XVI's custom-made shoes.

Second, he has punished priests and bishops who've been charged with pedophilia, fired Vatican bank officers accused of money laundering, and ended annual bonus payments to cardinals on the Vatican bank board. He also abolished bonuses paid to Vatican employees upon the election of a pope and donated the money to charity.

Using his accrued integrity and his charm, Francis has undertaken a political initiative that includes an encyclical on climate change, a cry against consumption, and a successful offensive to restore diplomatic relations between the United States and Catholic Cuba.

But it is dangerous to give even such a noble religious leader political power because it may then be used in ways that do not represent the values of our democracy. For example, Francis maintains the traditional views of the church against homosexuality, abortion and the legally indefensible nonordination of women.

Pope Francis is due to address Congress on Thursday. Why? It's unfortunate that Congress has accepted the canard that he is a "head of state" of the postage stamp-sized vestigial country. Bestowing political status on him through an address to Congress is troublesome. According to Pew Research Center, 46.5 percent of Americans are Protestant, so where's the congressional invitation for a speech from the head of the Presbyterian denomination, or the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church?

Investing too much political power in any denomination's leadership is wrong.

Heroes are rare and precious, so adding a pinch of reality to the adulation of Francis is difficult. But in addition to respecting and honoring him, perhaps we should realize that Francis is not "God walking on Earth," as a Catholic once described him to me. He is a holy man, a man of seeming integrity and spiritual depth, and we should not respond with adulation, but admiration. And if we are believers, with emulation.

Lauve Steenhuisen, a liberal Lutheran, is a professor of theology at Georgetown University.