Papal Priorities

Theodore Kupfer, JHU:

Pope Francis made waves this week. The Pope whose public statements have endeared him to a swath of Americans not given to lavish praise of Catholicism while producing skepticism in others more accustomed to admiring Vatican outlooks, gave his address in the middle of a multi-city tour of the United States. His Atlantic Coast tour saw him visit, among other places, Philadelphia, New York, and Washington D.C. In Philadelphia, his intentions and message were overtly religious and aimed at the faithful. It was his political address to Congress which attracted media attention, however. The American political media has been paying especially close attention to Francis, and Americans who would normally pay him no mind are perking up as well. It is the Pope’s idiosyncratic priorities — which, in some ways, reflect the priorities of the American left — that make him a noteworthy figure in contemporary American politics.

For the head of the Catholic Church to be noteworthy is hardly new. He is the vicar of Christ, our world’s St. Peter, CEO of the oldest political, religious, and cultural institution in the West. Stalin once asked derisively: ‘How many divisions does the Pope have?’ but subsequent events taught later iron curtain dictators that Popes had other forms of power just as destructive to tyrants. But Francis presumably represents a different sort of Pope than his recent predecessors. The German, Benedict, generally seen as religiously conservative, started his tenure with a widely misunderstood reference from a Byzantine figure which American media misinterpreted as unfriendly to Islam. His time in the office was devoted to intramural Catholic doctrinal affairs, and he retired early. His predecessor, John Paul II, the Polish Pope, is widely credited with undermining the legitimacy of communism in Eastern Europe. The first non-Italian pope in centuries was a hero in his homeland, where gleeful millions showed up for his visits, making their government suddenly seem irrelevant and petty in comparison. Francis, an Argentinian, is similarly a geographic novelty, exciting many across Latin America. His tenure as Pope has been marked with heretofore unusual gestures. Famously, he washed the feet of juvenile prisoners, including two Muslim inmates. From his first Easter Homily, he pleaded for environmental awareness. Time and again, he criticizes the state of global capitalism, lamenting greed and demanding compassion.

Commentators have noted the similarities between the Pope’ vision and the school of ‘liberation theology’. Liberation theology — which emerged in Latin America in the second half of the twentieth century and concentrated on fighting the social and economic injustices so rife across Central and South America — returns religious dialogue to the world of the oppressed and impoverished. It made common cause with Marxist revolutionary movements, which saw radical priests as a bridge to the Catholic peasantry, while the priests saw the revolutionaries as poised to overthrow right-wing dictatorships and unjust land ownership schemes. Motivated from “a time when nearly all Latin America was dominated by right-wing oligarchies and repressive military dictatorships,” liberation theology carries tremendous populist appeal, rooted in its rejection of the corrupt institutions of the South American Catholic Church, alleged to have colluded with decades of political oppression. Its practitioners call attention to the welfare of the poor and pay less attention to traditional concerns. Its evident influence on the Argentinian Pope helps distinguish his intellectual priorities from his predecessors.

Francis’ speech, not the forceful polemic some expected him to deliver, emphasized above all a spirit of unity. Yet the issues he elected to discuss remind us why commentators have been asking if his reign will “break the church.” He made vague allusions to the newly canonized right of marriage and focused on the abolition of the death penalty instead of abortion. Friendly liberal onlookers here might assume that he would bless gay marriage if only he could (an assumption that is, to put it mildly, a bit much given the rules of Catholicism) and positively relish what he has to say about capitalism and climate change. To hear Francis tell it, disparities between rich and poor are the direct result of the greed-based system which until recently was one of the mightiest engines of American prosperity, and an agreed-upon factor in what made the United States a political and economic success. But Francis, echoing trends in academia and media as well as the Democratic party, sees a nation in which a few wealthy Americans got their advantages by taking from the poor. He also neglects to mention the broad and robust middle class as well as the comparatively high standard of living across the West. Exactly how the circumstantially motivated liberation theology squares with the environment of the 21st-century United States is, to be charitable, interesting, but Francis has clearly found common ground with a burgeoning intellectual movement given face and energy by figures like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.

The irony, of course, is that it’s always a slippery deal when political advocates jump on a papal or other religious bandwagon for electoral advantage. Francis’ words about global warming, or the inherent flaws of capitalism, might excite those who envision themselves in charge of the system which will save the world from carbon dioxide and human greed, but his thoughts on abortion would surely not inspire the same enthusiasm among the same folks. The Catholic Church has a long record of warning that there is more to social well-being than the accumulation of wealth. But it also has a long and clear record that communism is incompatible with its basic teachings. Francis’ words about defending the poor and vulnerable are cheered by those who envision politicians cooperating over trillions of dollars in domestic spending. But his conviction that society’s most vulnerable are children waiting to be born means that his new American friends have to cherry-pick the parts of his agenda when they wax happy about their favorite Pope.

It remains to be seen whether or not Pope Francis’ priorities will contribute to increasing political polarization amidst this election year. What worries some about the Pope – those who believe that the populist rhetoric, based on bad macroeconomic assumptions and inherent corruption, which came to dominate his era’s Latin America, contributed to the destruction of economies and standards of living – delights others. This debate over the moral arithmetic that markets spit out is both founded and productive. But what worries others – those who want him to double down on certain antiquated social norms which have cast many out of the social mainstream – exposes cracks in the American fabric which are more difficult to bridge. It reeks of partisanship and closed-mindedness. Just because the Pope cares more about ending the death penalty than reinforcing heteronormative standards of marriage does not mean he has abandoned his mission. Pope Francis’ preferred causes indeed carry great social importance, and those quick to charge him with a disintegrating moral countenance should be taken less seriously. Yet his notion of the ideal economic distribution, his lack of cynicism when it comes to government matters, and his apparent sanctimony are all appropriate concerns.


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