Like most other things in this world, the phenomenon of Pope Francis-mania can be explained by the DC Comics universe. Pope Francis is Superman. His most popular predecessor, John Paul II, is Batman.
At first glance this might not seem to make sense, as Superman has traditionally been the hero of conservative values, and Pope Francis is the pope who is loved by liberals. Batman’s dark nocturnal nature would appear to impress anti-establishment rebels and hipsters.
In fact, just as conservatives and liberals have changed in the last 50 years, so have Superman and Batman. When Supes was once an immigrant who adopted the creed and colors of America and fought fascism, JFK liberals could be pro-America, pro-business, and pro-life. But since the 1960s liberalism has soured into leftism, and Superman has morphed into a modern day liberal. He’s a journalist at a major metropolitan newspaper, and those aren’t welcoming to conservatives. He dates a shrill feminist. In “Superman II,” Supes refuses to accept death and, acting in the place of God, makes the earth turn backwards and thus reverses time — he was going to get his way no matter what it cost the rest of the world. Like big government, Superman is expected to be ubiquitous, compassionate and save us from ourselves. He’s no longer devoted to truth, justice, or, God forbid, the American way — that last phrase was even struck from the fairly recent film “Superman Returns.” At heart, Clark Kent believes that people are essentially good. He’s from the heartland, yes, but it is the new, “tolerant” flyover country — gay marriage-friendly Iowa, etc.
This jibes with Pope Francis’s new style. Some of Pope Francis’s statements have read like editorials in a big city daily newspaper like The Daily Planet. He’s not a Marxist, but he’s known a few good Marxists in his time. The world’s biggest problems are not evil and sin, but youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old. In the first modern Superman movie (1978), Lex Luthor, a man who tried to take over the world by creating an ecological catastrophe, is treated more as a bemusing trickster than a dangerous malefactor. Again and again in the comics and films Luthor is sent to prison for rehabilitation, where he will, of course, escape. Pope Francis has admitted that he is reluctant to judge people on their behavior. “The Joy of the Gospel,” the recent exhortation by the pope, warns of the “authoritarian elitism” that is the outlook of “Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter.”
For Batman, of course, life is indeed Lent without Easter. There are occasional signs of hope in Gotham City, but for the most part the city is a cesspool of corruption and iniquity. Bruce Wayne knows that some people are so deeply sinful that nothing human can rehabilitate them; he was once called by liberal cartoonist Art Spiegelman “a rather fascistic Reagan-era hero.” As Bruce Wayne grew up negotiating his way in a place run by criminals, John Paul II was raised in a Poland that was occupied by Nazis and then by communists.
Both men were capable of moments of humor and even joy, but both also understood that sometimes evil had to be confronted. Before hauling Lex Luthor off to jail, Batman would have roughed him up a bit, just as John Paul II publicly rebuked a communist priest in Latin America. Instead of talking about the “good Marxist” he had known, John Paul the Great warned the Marxist in power in Poland that he would be watching them and that they had a responsibility “before history and before your conscience.”
Whereas Pope Francis’s exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” calls for easy forgiveness and a eye on joy, soaring among the clouds like Superman, John Paul II’s masterpiece, “The Splendor of Truth” (Veritatis Splendor), confronts what can happen to the human soul, and society in general, when the truth is made relative. It reads in part:
“Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature ‘incapable of being ordered’ to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. … According to some, it appears that one no longer need acknowledge the enduring absoluteness of any moral value. All around us we encounter contempt for human life after conception and before birth; the ongoing violation of basic rights of the person; the unjust destruction of goods minimally necessary for a human life. Indeed, something more serious has happened: man is no longer convinced that only in the truth can he find salvation. The saving power of the truth is contested, and freedom alone, uprooted from any objectivity, is left to decide by itself what is good and what is evil.”
Of course, Batman and Superman, while having different styles, are ultimately on the same side. They even fight together in the Justice League, which is like their Vatican. Sometimes Batman shows the kindness and light humor of Superman; he is also against guns and killing. If pushed, Superman will admit that some people are beyond rehabilitation — he even kills an enemy in the recent film “Man of Steel.” Eventually the secular left that has fallen in love with Francis will figure out that the pope is not Bill Maher with a mitre, that he really is a member of the Catholic Church (watch the reaction when Pope Francis upholds Church teaching on homosexuality). Soon we’ll be back to the way thing have always been. The Joker and Lex Luther will remember why they hate the Justice League, and go out of their way to bring it down.