There’s been a great deal of confusion of late among the American press – and especially the left-leaning American press – about Pope Francis, about the nature of his papacy, and about his relationship with American conservatives. On Sunday, January 18, for example, Patricia Miller penned a piece on the Pope for Salon.com, hailing the “catastrophic collapse of the Catholic Right,” and claiming that because of this papacy “right-wing Catholicism is on the decline.” Similarly, on January 13, Damon Linker, a “progressive” author and journalist insisted, gleefully, that “it looks like 2015 is the year when Catholic conservatives declare war on Pope Francis.”
It is understandable, we suppose, that many on the political Left would choose to see the papacy of Pope Francis in such overtly political terms and, moreover, to take such pleasure in it. Over the course of the last forty years, the American Left has seen itself as under attack by the Church and has, not coincidentally, seen its share of the Catholic vote drop precipitously. Turnabout, they seem to believe, is fair play, and it’s now time for the denizens of the Right to deal with a Pope who opposes them, opposes their politics, and negatively affects their political fortunes.
We hate to bearers of bad news for the likes of Ms. Miller and Mr. Linker, but this expectation of a Pope who will take up the leftist cause is based on a radical misreading of the papacy in general, of the last four decades in American politics as it relates to Catholicism, and most especially of Pope Francis himself.
For starters, there is not now and never has been any sort of alliance – tacit or explicit – between the GOP and the Catholic Church. If the Left believes that there is, that is the Left’s own fault for making two issues in particular – the sanctity of life and religious liberty – the enduring and obsessive focus of their politics over the last four decades. When you stake out political positions that are clearly and insistently in conflict with Church teaching, it should hardly come as a surprise when these positions draw the Church’s rebuke. It’s only common sense.
Additionally, and more to the point, if those on the Left expect that Pope Francis will take on the responsibility of soothing their guilty consciences by altering longstanding Church doctrine, then they are out of their minds. The current Pope may lean further to the Left than did his two predecessors, but that’s not to say that he has either the will or the ability to change Church doctrine regarding such matters as the sanctity of life or the SACRAMENT of marriage.
But if all of this is true – and it most certainly is – then why does Pope Francis insist on saying things and focusing on issues that suggest otherwise? Why is he always, for example, berating the world’s capitalists or going on about the excesses of the free-market system? Why is publishing an encyclical, of all things, on global warming? Why does he seem to embrace the global Left’s positions on so many matters, particularly when those positions seem contradictory to those of his two predecessors, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI? Why, in short, does he carry himself in a way and focus on such matters that give both liberals and conservatives the idea that he is actively pushing the Church to the Left?
We can’t answer those questions definitively, of course, but it strikes us that Pope Francis is, despite his exalted status, simply human, which is to say that he is a product of his environment. Think about it for just a minute. Pope Francis, i.e. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is an Argentine. He was born in Buenos Aires and has spent nearly the entirety of his life in Argentina. His experiences, therefore, are those of the typical Argentine.
And the typical Argentine, of course, lives in one of the most aggressively and interminably corrupt nations on earth. At one time, Argentina may have fashioned itself a successful semi-capitalist country, but its capitalism was an illusion and its capitalists were frauds. The level of comingling and collusion between the public sector in Argentina and the allegedly “private sector” is almost unsurpassed. And all this benefits the rich, the powerful, and the politically connected. The columnist Charles Krauthammer has called the Pope’s homeland “a chronically unstable, endemically corrupt polity with a rich history of dictatorship, economic mismanagement and the occasional political lunacy,” and he may well have been sugarcoating it.
In the latest Wall Street Journal/Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom, Argentina ranks 166th out 178 countries, keeping company with the likes of Chad, Iran, Zimbabwe, and North Korea. The Index describes the Argentine politico-economic environment as follows:
Over the 20-year history of the Index, Argentina’s economic freedom has plunged to “repressed” status. With its overall score dropping by 23.4 points, the once “mostly free” economy has registered the second most severe score decline since the Index began measuring economic freedom. Eight of the 10 economic freedoms have deteriorated because of policies that include harsh capital controls, price fixing, restrictions on imports, and a series of nationalizations.
The state’s interference in the Argentine economy has grown substantially since 2003, accelerating the erosion of economic freedom. Institutional shortcomings continue to undermine the foundations for lasting economic development. The judicial system has become more vulnerable to political interference, and corruption is prevalent. Regulatory pressure on the private sector has continued to rise, with populist spending measures and price controls further distorting markets.
Given this, is it any wonder that Pope Francis is leery of the private sector and of economic systems that invigorate the powerful and subjugate the rest?
One may reasonably argue that the Pope is mistaken and that his experiences should convince him of the need for free markets and the corruption inherent in all-powerful government. And indeed it is so. But again, the Pope is a religious leader, not an economist and not a political scientist. His views are shaped largely by what he has seen, which, in this case, is a manifestly- and destructively-corrupt private sector.
It is worth noting here that both of the two previous Popes, men whom American conservatives revered greatly, were also products of their environment. Pope John Paul II, for example, is considered an ardent anti-Communist whose views on the dignity of man and the necessity of economic liberty both endeared him to conservatives and helped to topple the ghastly Soviet Empire. And indeed, as a Pole, Pope John Paul II – i.e. Karol Wojtyla – experienced both of the 20th century’s murderous and oppressive statist enterprises, Nazism and Communism. The tyrannical state formed the foundation of Pope John Paull II’s frame of reference and thus formed the core of his beliefs about the nature of man and the nature of freedom.
Likewise, Pope Benedict XVI – i.e. Josef Ratzinger – is a German, which is to say that the experiences that molded his beliefs over the last six or seven decades are those of pervasive and unrelenting secularization. Pope Benedict, recall, worked diligently to reconcile faith with reason and thus to provide a rational, intellectual framework to facilitate the re-Christianization of his homeland and indeed of all of Europe, the land formerly known as “Christendom.” That this project happened to coincide with the beliefs and the objectives of many conservatives in the West was not mere coincidence, but neither was it overtly and consciously political on Pope Benedict’s part. His experiences, within the moral context of the Church’s teachings, simply led him in that direction.
And so it is, we presume, with his successor, Pope Francis.
Let there be no doubt, Pope Francis is as unlike in temperament and political thought from his predecessor as Barack Obama is from his. The difference is that Pope Francis, unlike President Obama, is the caretaker of an institution nearly two millennia old and founded by Christ himself, which is to say that his personal political beliefs are largely unimportant in the grand scheme of things, measured against the eternal truths he defends. The Holy Father may, on occasion, drive American conservatives nuts; and he may, likewise, trigger undue political elation among American liberals. That, however, is on them, not him.