Last week Damon Linker wrote an article with the provocative title, “The Republican Party’s War with Pope Francis has Finally Started.” If you haven’t read it, you can probably get all you need from the title. It’s classic Linker: tone-deaf both to the Catholic world and to the conservative world, but written with just enough chin-scratching and brow-furrowing to create an illusion of thoughtfulness.
His evidence for the looming war is decidedly thin. He begins by referencing a months-old piece from Ross Douthat which really isn’t about either Republicans or Americans per se, but rather about internal Church issues regarding divorce and Communion. From there he moves on to cite four more pieces, two of which (Robert George’s and R.R. Reno’s) were actually defending the pope and only one of which (Maureen Mullarkey’s blog post at First Things) really went beyond subject-specific criticism, crossing over into personal criticism of Francis himself. Mullarkey’s piece, by the way, created such an uproar that Reno felt it necessary to publish his own criticism just to calm the waters. But sure, absolutely. This is war, folks. Pick a side.
Catholic-Baiting Again Takes the Fore
From a liberal perspective, even one unhinged Catholic might offer some grounds for hope. And liberals sorely need hope right now. That’s why Linker’s piece is only the latest in a blitz of pieces eagerly anticipating a bitter standoff between the American Right and the Vatican. The AP broadcast that a forthcoming encyclical on the environment will “deepen conservatives’ mistrust” of the pope. The Guardian explained that his edict would “anger climate deniers.” Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig got in on the action as well, running through the right-of-center pundits who are, in her words, “positively seething” about the upcoming encyclical. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I had made the list, with a wildly out-of-context quote from a piece that was actually entitled (though naturally she didn’t mention this!) “Don’t Lose Sleep Over Climate Change Encyclical.” I guess she had to stretch a little, not having found enough incensed Catholics to bolster her narrative.
Check out the share numbers on Linker’s piece. When I last looked, more than 23,000 people wanted to clue their Facebook friends in to the happy news that Republicans are “finally” at war with the pope. It’s possible, I suppose, that some shared the column with the caption, “What total nonsense!” More likely, this is just another sign of liberals’ ravenous desire for a standoff between American conservatives and the Vatican.
Why not? A war between conservatives and the Roman Pontiff would be rollicking good news from the standpoint of progressive liberals. They have everything to gain here and nothing to lose. Take note, conservatives.
Pope Francis is from Argentina. His political and economic sensibilities were formed in a very different context from our own. He pushes a lot of conservative buttons, but we should try to remember he’s not really trying to provoke us; there’s some mismatch of perspective here. With our homegrown liberals (and especially the Catholic ones) it’s another story. They’re baiting us. Be smart and don’t give them satisfaction.
‘War’ Between the Pope and Conservatives Benefits Liberals
Does that mean you’re not permitted to criticize Pope Francis? No. It’s still a free country. No matter how viciously you trash the Holy Father, I guarantee that George, Reno, and I aren’t going to form a posse and come after you. Here’s my suggestion, though. Before tearing into the pope, visualize yourself standing with him in a circle of your least-favorite liberal pundits, with them hooting and chanting, “Fight! Fight! Fight!” Because that’s a pretty good metaphor for where things stand right now.
Think of the benefits (for them). Catholics used to be solidly Democratic voters. That’s no longer the case, and among Mass-going Catholics especially, Republicans have continued to gain ground. Naturally, I think Catholics should vote Republican more reliably than they do, given how successfully Democrats are making themselves into the party of death (not to mention religious persecution). Nevertheless, the trends have been eye-opening. In 2006, 55 percent of Catholics voted Democrat; by 2014 the percentage had fallen to 45 percent. Their loss was mostly the Republicans’ gain. Among white Republicans, the shift was even larger.
Anything Democrats can do to halt that stampede will be good for them. So, let’s see. What if they could incite a “war” between the GOP and the Vatican? That sure could help them persuade on-the-fence Catholics that hey, abortion, marriage, and religious freedom aren’t everything. Vote for the party that doesn’t hate the pope!
Even among those who would never vote Democrat, there’s plenty to gain if liberals can erode the solidarity that orthodox Christians have built in recent years. Catholics and Protestants still have their differences, of course, but of late they’ve mostly been willing to set those aside in pursuit of common social and political goals. It’s pretty obvious by now that aggressive secularists are a threat to good-faith religious people of all stripes, and that believers in God, country, and traditional morality will be better off if they can work together rather than coming to blows over the filioque or transubstantiation.
That solidarity is obviously a threat to the liberal agenda. So how do you get Christians at each others’ throats? Here’s an oldie but goodie: get them fighting about the pope! Papal authority has always been a sore point between Catholics and Protestants, and also (in a slightly different way) between Catholics and the Orthodox. Inter-conservative disputes about the Roman Pontiff could provide a great distraction as we gear up for the next major election.
Bad Consciences Love Company
For troubled Catholics like Linker, there’s another upside to needling Catholic Republicans. It makes disobedient Catholics feel better to think that they’re not alone.
Liberal Catholics know they’re in rebellion against their own Church when they support abortion, same-sex marriage, and modern sexual mores more generally. To some extent, they comfort themselves that they’re “courageous” or “independent thinkers” when they fall out of line with the clear, unambiguous teachings of their faith. They just care so much about individual conscience. They have layers. Whatever.
They still know they’re missing something important, and it makes them crazy to think that conservatives have fairly strong grounds to claim that they’re the better Catholics. So liberals try to even the odds by claiming a kind of parity-of-disobedience. They may support abortion and same-sex marriage, but conservatives are pro-war. Pro-capital punishment. Pro-torture. Pro-gun. Try whatever angle you can.
The most popular and enduring of these attacks is the claim that conservatives flaunt “Catholic social teaching” by ignoring issues of social and economic justice. It’s the usual liberal-Marxist argument that conservatives are callous and avaricious, only with a Catholic twist.
Ignorance and egregious misrepresentation are the main drivers of this line of thought. Catholic social teaching does not even remotely resemble Marxism. No matter where you stand on the American political spectrum, you will likely find some element of it challenging, but Leo XIII was no liberal Progressive. If you’re genuinely interested, I recommend just reading more on Catholic social teaching. If not, just take my word for it that Catholics don’t have to be socialists or supporters of big government, even in the age of Pope Francis. This is just a canard liberal Catholics like to use to justify their own inconsistencies.
None of this is to say, of course, that conservatives always make good Catholics. Anyone who dabbles in politics will at times be tempted to compromise his integrity. Nevertheless, it’s still possible to be a good Catholic without opposing any defining, central tenet of the Republican platform. The same cannot be said of the Democratic Party.
Nothing Pope Francis has said or written changes that basic reality. He’s given orthodox Catholics (in America and elsewhere) some headaches and some heartaches and much fodder for vigorous discussion. If you think that Catholics like Reno or George (or myself) are slavish defenders of the pope’s every word, you haven’t followed our writings very closely. Most engaged Catholics weigh, interpret, and sometimes critique the pontiff’s various words and pronouncements. But we don’t declare war (although I appreciate how exciting that would be for morally lax liberals).
What Do I Do When Pope Francis Provokes Me?
That really depends on who you are, why you care, and what he said to provoke you.
If you’re a Catholic with conservative political views, you should work on developing a nuanced appreciation of papal authority. That’s not code for “learn enough casuistry to dismiss any teaching that bugs you.” Catholics should respect the pope, but they also need to understand what sort of authority he is, and also to appreciate the difference between different sorts of statements. A homily is not equivalent to an encyclical. Comments made to journalists are even less authoritative. (Sorry, journalists.) Catholics are not asked to approach the pontiff with slavish, unquestioning obedience. But they are asked to develop a sensus catholicus, and to explore questions about the faith from within the tradition rather than taking their cues from the secular world.
If you’re not Catholic, just ask yourself: how much does this actually matter? And why do I personally care?
The pope does have some effect on politics and culture, so it’s reasonable for non-Catholics to take an interest. Over the last two pontificates, conservative Catholics grew pretty accustomed to seeing their Holy Father mocked to the skies, so we’re not going to flinch at every critical word. Even so, it can also be counter-productive to let ourselves get drawn into the mainstream media’s papal hype. lf you’re already well off the Pope Francis bandwagon, I’d think you would prefer not to draw attention to possibly-unhappy implications every off-the-cuff comment made to the press. I find it funny how so often it’s people who definitely don’t view the pope as an oracle of wisdom who want to blow every word into a major event.
As an example, I dismissed the pope’s recent remarks on “the limits of speech” as a yawner. He’s an Argentine who didn’t seize the opportunity to clearly and unambiguously support first-amendment-type political freedoms such as we have in America. (Yes! It’s quite shocking.) It was an on-the-spot answer to a question, not a carefully prepared or official statement. It wasn’t even clear from what sort of “limits” the pope was referring to when he suggested that speech should not be unfettered. Did he mean legal barriers, or ethical ones? Or did he just mean that polite people discipline their tongues as a matter of etiquette and decorum? It wasn’t really clear, but regardless, this is small stuff. I recommend not sweating it.
Major documents (like encyclicals) sometimes merit a more serious, and possibly critical, response. Especially when non-theological issues (like climatology) are at stake, it can be entirely appropriate for non-Catholics to engage and offer such commentary. But assuming you want to respect the sensibilities of faithful Catholics, I advise sticking to the issues and avoiding unnecessary personal criticism. Papal encyclicals are often phrased very carefully, partly in an effort to avoid presenting views on issues the pontiff does not intend to settle. That being the case, you should respond to what documents actually say and not to what you’re pretty sure they really meant. (A necessary first step here, of course, is waiting until they have been issued.) Try as far as possible to draw distinctions between moral questions (on which the pope commands considerable authority, at least among Catholics) and questions of science, economics, or geopolitics, on which he is clearly far less expert. Following those guidelines, it should never be necessary for the American Right to go to war with the pope.
If you’re tempted to get snide, keep in mind that mocking other people’s religious authorities is a bit like mocking their families. Certain kinds of liberties are tolerable from other family members, but just seem mean-spirited coming from outside the fold. Also like families, inter-religious religious discussions can get pretty complicated and emotional. As a non-believer (particularly if you want to keep up friendships and alliances) it’s generally good policy to stay polite.
Of course, if you just hate the pope and don’t care who knows it, I guess you can say what you want. But don’t blame me if you wake up the next day and find yourself gleefully quoted in Slate, Salon, and The Huffington Post. I warned you. With every stroke of bitter invective, you’re making their day.