Playing the Indian Card

Sunday, December 15, 2013

You Never Gave Me a Goat

Is Papa popping off again?
Pope Francis is causing quite a stir: Time’s Man of the Year and all that. I have not commented much on him yet, largely because I’ve been in mourning over the loss of Pope Benedict’s leadership. I was always Benedict’s biggest fan. But I cannot agree with those who feel Pope Francis is somehow letting down the side.

It rankles me, I admit, when I see a lot of leftists who never before gave a flip for Catholic teaching suddenly enthusiastic about Pope Francis. It rankles me as much when I see rightists and traditionalist Catholics upset and angry with him. Summer soldiers, I suspect, on both sides.

Religion is not politics, and politics is not religion. It is pretty nonsensical to talk about a pope being either “liberal” or “conservative.” Benedict was a theologian, the master of Catholic doctrine. Francis is a pastoral pope. That explains any apparent difference.

“Christian conservatives” in America, who have fought for many years against gay marriage, against abortion, for traditional sexual morality and against growing secularization, no doubt feel now as did the older brother of the prodigal son:

Rembrandt imagines the prodigal son. But what about his brother?
"Behold, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed a commandment of yours, but you never gave me a goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this, your son, came, who has devoured your living with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him."

But as the father of the parable points out, this is about the new evangelization. Christian conservatives are already on the right track; there are more souls in need of salvation on the left. The good shepherd, remember, will leave the flock in order to rescue even one lamb who has strayed. Jesus ate with publicans and tax collectors, because the well do not need a doctor. And swagger over this all you want, if you really want to, leftists.

And you rightists, if the left has lately been in the wrong on matters of faith and morals, you in your turn are in peril of the sin of self-righteousness. There is no moral credit to be gained, for any of us, by holding this or that political opinion at no particular risk to our own interests. Praying loudly in the market earns no merit.

Now let's look at specific charges against Pope Francis. We should begin by clearly acknowledging that nothing prevents a pope from being wrong on anything, so long as he is not speaking ex cathedra. There is nothing doctrinally at stake here. Still, it seems to me that what he has said has been perfectly correct, even necessary.

The Pope has been quoted as saying that we must not overemphasize the issues of abortion and contraception, that these can become an “obsession”:

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

He is right. It is hard to think of a sin more objectively grave than abortion. However, religion is about much more than ethics, and there is much more to ethics than sexual mores.Since the society around us is obsessed with sex, there is a real danger here of getting bogged down and allowing the message to be distorted.

Pope Francis has angered some, for some reason, by refusing to judge homosexuals:
“During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge.”

When the pope says “who am I to judge?” he is perfectly right, and is echoing Jesus. The Church, let alone individual Christians, is not here to judge, but to offer forgiveness and salvation. The accuser is that other guy. Moreover, sin requires motive, and none of us truly knows another’s heart.We can say what is a sin; we cannot say who is a sinner.

Pope Francis has been accused of indifferentism, or moral relativism, for having told an atheist interviewing him that everyone should simply follow his conscience.

“And I repeat it here. Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”

Indifferentism? He is only expressing indifferentism if one believes that different consciences are going to say different things. This would be true, in turn, only if there were no God. So who's the heretic here? Who here is really assuming moral relativism?

Who is God? Christ is “the Way, the Truth, and the Light.” God is supreme Good by definition. So, if any one of us sincerely seeks the truth, and sincerely seeks the good, he is a good Christian and not an atheist at all, whatever even he himself might pretend.

Conversely, if it were possible, would you really want to follow Catholic teaching against your own conscience? Would that really be a moral thing?

Last but not least, Pope Francis has been accused of soft-headed economics for objecting to unrestricted free markets. In the recent apostolic exhortation  Evangelii Gaudium, he writes:

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.

Michael Novak argues that the English translation has been butchered. A more accurate translation from the Spanish or Italian, then, would be:

In this context, some people continue to defend overflow theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will by itself succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.

The Pope can hardly have intended the specific implications of the term “trickle-down” in the American political context, so it is surely best to read the passage without it.

Leaving that aside, then, isn't what Pope Francis is saying obviously true? Does anyone believe that the free market, by itself, could or would adequately provide for those, such as the orphan, the disabled, or the elderly, who have little or no directly economic contribution to make? There can be waste, misallocation, and moral hazard, but does anyone believe we can do without any and all social safety nets?

Is Pope Francis acting mischievously, though, by talking down capitalism when there is no clear and better alternative? Not at all: that is the very point. With the fall of Marxism, there is indeed no clear and organized economic alternative to the free market. The danger is that this mere economic theory, in these circumstances, will be looked upon as having supernatural powers—the power to bring us some sort of paradise on earth. It will, in other words, become an idol, a pseudo-religion. To be specific, the worship of Mammon.

Gains that can be made through politics or economics are mostly incremental. The alternative to capitalism is religion, not Marxism.

And here's our bottom line: Reports are that there is a marked upswing in confessions since Francis took the helm. If this is true, it automatically validates Pope Francis’s tactics.It turns out that our new Pope is not just a brilliantly subtle theologian, but a master of the pastoral crosier.


eccampbell said...

From the perspective of one who is not Catholic yet who tries to keep an overall Christ-centered attitude: this looks like of the most common-sense commentaries on Pope Francis I've read so far. The leader of the world's largest denomination is of concern to everyone on earth, even those who may not be aware of it, so he concerns me. I loved Pope John Paul but didn't appreciate Pope Benedict, maybe because he was so much centered on Catholic matters rather than what I care about, as did his predecessor. From what I have read so far about Pope Francis, again I feel affection for the Pope and pay attention to what he says.

Steve Roney said...

Great to see you here, Eugene!