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Pope Francis Is More Than A Politician


In days of yore, popes were men of tremendous power and influence. Pope Urban II initiated the first of the much-discussed Crusades. (The emperor, Alexius I, had asked for his help in repelling Muslim invaders. In those days, when you needed military aid, you called Rome.) Innocent III was famous for using his power of interdict to coerce stubborn princes into compliance with his agenda. Pope Alexander VI shook up global politics by marrying off his children (yes, it’s an awkward point in Catholic history) to European royals.

For better or worse, those days are gone. Nowadays when the Supreme Pontiff wants to throw his weight around on the global scene, he’s reduced to, well, pontificating. His kingdom covers all of 0.2 square miles, and his military (though their valor is not in doubt!) enlists all of 110 men. He’s not exactly setting global policy agendas.

Nobody mention this to detractors like Maureen Mullarkey. It’s way more fun watching her and her fellow doomsayers wait for the sky to fall.

News Flash: Pope Francis Isn’t Running for Re-Election

This at any rate was my main reaction to her recent piece here in The Federalist, which condemned Pope Francis as an ideological extremist leading the church on a “death walk,” and myself as a colluder obsessed with “appeasing media hounds.” Mullarkey writes with color and verve, which I enjoy as much as the next reader. But I couldn’t help but wonder as she made her case against the Vicar of Christ: who does she think the pope is? Does she suppose she’s doing oppo research on a rival political candidate? That, at any rate, appeared to be the genre.

This is exactly the kind of dirt-digging one expects of a political campaign trying to sandbag an opponent.

She’s confident that Pope Francis has a lot of dangerous ideas. Incredibly, though, Mullarkey makes virtually no effort to analyze any of Pope Francis’ writings or even his casual interviews (which are numerous). She quotes him for all of three words, and focuses the rest of her energy on picking apart photographs and tracking the unsavory histories of two activists the pope met with (a scheduled meeting! With a photo op!) in November 2013.

So, can I just say… huh? This is exactly the kind of dirt-digging one expects of a political campaign trying to sandbag an opponent. In that context, it’s a bit distasteful, but does really make some sense. We all know candidates lie to get elected, so we dig into their activities and personal connections looking for clues as to their “real” views and predilections. “Look! Be suspicious! You don’t really want this guy in office!”

What does one accomplish by writing such a hit piece on the pope? Unless you just hate the church and want to tear her down completely, “going negative” on the Vicar of Christ just makes no sense. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Pope Francis has already won his one and only election. He’s a lifer. Any “loyal opposition” Mullarkey claims to represent has already lost. And, not to get on my high horse (which, as John Podhoretz points out, is a clear signal that I’m about to get horsey), but if you think it’s even possible for the Church to degenerate into a “left-wing political entity,” you can’t really qualify for a “loyal” Catholic opposition anyhow.

How Much Do the Pope’s Politics Really Matter?

If Pope Francis is as far gone as Mullarkey seems to think, I don’t see the point in “calling him out,” because there’s no reason to suppose he’ll listen. After all, our own president doesn’t, and he represents only one of the world’s 196 countries. Don’t cry, though. There’s a silver lining; actually, more than one.

As a lifetime appointee, Pope Francis has no reason to engage in cloak-and-dagger subterfuge.

First of all, as a lifetime appointee, Pope Francis has no reason to engage in cloak-and-dagger subterfuge. We haven’t read his encyclical yet, but he’s probably not hiding anything too dastardly. Conspiracy stories involving the Vatican are always fun (just ask Dan Brown), but has Francis ever really come across as a schemer? If anything, he’s not quite reticent enough about expressing his every thought. (I don’t mean to be too harsh here, because I’ve often been guilty of the same. But I’m not Christ’s Vicar on Earth, so I can misspeak now and then without sending the whole world into a frenzy. Pope Francis doesn’t have that luxury, and his off-the-cuff remarks have caused a good amount of angst in the Catholic world.)

Let’s suppose though, for the sake of argument, that Mullarkey is correct. Pope Francis is deeply in league with Marxists and eco-crazies and is a political liberal through-and-through. What’s the worst that could happen here? His temporal power is still extremely limited. No head of state is going to institute extreme, economy-killing environmental protections at the say-so of Pope Francis. Is she worried we’ll get too many new recycling bins in Vatican City? That Malta will enact stricter cap-and-trade laws?

Modern popes are nothing like kings or emperors. They aren’t in a position to wreak havoc on the world, either through their personal failings (which certainly happened in days of yore) or their wrongheaded political views (which also sometimes happened). They do have the potential to embarrass the church, and that might be a concern here. I’ll willingly concede that I am distinctly unexcited about the upcoming encyclical. It’s certainly possible we’ll get some genuinely helpful insights into environmental stewardship, and I intend to read it with an open mind. Personally though, I would prefer for Pope Francis to focus his energies more exclusively on preaching the gospel and broadcasting the plight of persecuted Christians and Jews around the world. I would also cast a vote for less impassioned moralizing about the earth’s climate, combined with more pragmatic calculation about real risks and costs and benefits.

If his holiness is further interested in my personal views on this or any other subject, I am quite at his disposal. In the meantime, I’ll content myself with reiterating that the worst-case scenario following an encyclical on climate change is, well, just not very bad. Unless of course we all hit the “panic” button and needlessly throw our whole political coalition into disarray. In that case (for reasons I have already explained), the next few months or years could be quite painful for conservative American Catholics, and indeed for all American conservatives.

Who Is the Pope, Anyway?

Silliness notwithstanding, Mullarkey’s mistake is really a common one. When popes regularly weigh in on political topics, it’s tempting to treat them like ordinary politicians. But while the pope is technically a head of state, that’s not really the most helpful category to use in interpreting him. He does have authority and influence, but it’s mostly of a very different kind from your standard democratic president or prime minister. Treating him like a normal politician makes for a lot of unnecessary confusion and angst.

The pope is not primarily a politician. He is a moral and spiritual authority, especially for Catholics.

Let’s start by noticing that there are massive cultural differences between Pope Francis and your standard Western politician, which panicked commentators tend to gloss over or just ignore. For starters, he’s from Argentina, and many of his remarks make more sense when considered through that lens. Also, compared with your standard Western president, Pope Francis has spent a lot more time in slums, and much less in fancy hotel bars and elite university lounges. He pretty obviously doesn’t always appreciate how some of his word choices sound to the educated Western elite. That can be awkward if you’re a journalist, but would it kill us to work a little harder at understanding him before we start lazily writing him off as “a leftist”?

More importantly, though, the pope is not primarily a politician. He is a moral and spiritual authority, especially for Catholics (although the rest of the world also seems to take quite an interest). That doesn’t mean that his every word must be treated as gospel truth; a Catholic understanding of papal authority is far more nuanced than that. It also doesn’t mean that the pope is guaranteed to be a good and holy person. (Historically, some popes pretty clearly were not.) It does mean (if you’re a believing Catholic) that God has appointed him guardian of the church, presumably for some reason, whether or not that reason is clear to us. It also means the Holy Spirit will somehow ensure that he does not utterly fail in that task.

Let’s Get Some Perspective, Shall We?

Personally, I’ve always seen the Church’s ability to survive the ravages of bad pontiffs as a particularly inspiring proof of her divine mandate. Christ assured us, “Upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” (Protestants, of course, dispute the interpretation of that passage, but as a Catholic I read it the Catholic way.) He also warns his followers that “in this world you will have troubles,” so we can’t expect an unbroken diet of sunshine and lollipops. We’re only assured that, even in the darkest hour, things will never go completely off the rails.

Whether Catholic or not, you might find it worthwhile to reflect on our incredible legacy before going nuts over some anti-fracking t-shirts.

Indeed, we have had troubles. Over the centuries (sorry, I should make that millennia), the Church of Rome has seen innumerable trials: scandals, military invasions, catastrophic failures of administration, threats of schism, and challenges from upstart Protestant reformers. Still she stands, 1.2 billion members strong and with almost half a million clergy. Through it all, she has managed to preserve her doctrinal and philosophical consistency to a degree that’s fairly breathtaking, considering the immense span of time. Whether Catholic or not, you might find it worthwhile to reflect on that incredible legacy before going nuts over some anti-fracking t-shirts. There might be a few uncomfortable moments in the months to come, but this too shall pass.

If you’re in a mood for panic, start worrying about the next installment of the Synod on the Family. That could be the source of some painful divisions within the church. Papal eco-activism, by contrast, will have only as much impact as our own wild-eyed raving allows. Let it go.