POTUS and the Pope
The Vatican’s symbolic messaging v. the White House spin


George Weigel

Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this. Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defense of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be. Reason alone is sufficient to recognize the inviolable value of each single human life, but if we also look at the issue from the standpoint of faith, “every violation of the personal dignity of the human being cries out in vengeance to God and is an offence against the creator of the individual.” [213]

Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question [i.e., the right to life from conception until natural death]. I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or “modernizations.” It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life. [214]

A healthy pluralism, one which genuinely respects differences and values them as such, does not entail privatizing religions in an attempt to reduce them to the quiet obscurity of the individual’s conscience or to relegate them to the enclosed precincts of churches, synagogues or mosques. This would represent, in effect, a new form of discrimination and authoritarianism. [255]

On the evening of the day that Pope Francis gave Evangelii Gaudium to President Obama, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, on receiving the Margaret Sanger Award from Planned Parenthood, described pro-life people as “dumb.” Once the president has read, marked, and inwardly digested the pope’s gift, perhaps he and Mrs. Pelosi can have a fruitful conversation in the Oval Office about paragraphs 213 and 214 of Evangelii Gaudium – and ponder just who is being “dumb” here: the pope, or those who insist on the radical inequality of the unborn members of the human community?

Close observers of Francis’s complex and fascinating pontificate have noted something else that is rarely reported: the pope’s insistence on the reality of Satan, which seems related to his multiple references to Robert Hugh Benson’s 1907 dystopian novel, Lord of the World. The latter is not (cue gentle cough behind hand) great literature. But Benson, a Catholic priest and convert who was the son of the archbishop of Canterbury, did reintroduce to English letters the idea of the Antichrist, and did so in a very clever way. For like the Antichrist figure in Signorelli’s Last Judgment fresco cycle in the Orvieto cathedral, Benson’s Antichrist is an attractive man: intelligent, urbane, seemingly sympathetic to suffering, a mesmerizing public speaker. Yet beneath that attractive façade is a demonic figure obsessed with power and determined to cast the God of the Bible out of human affairs: a man who is an instrument of Satan, the great deceiver and, as Jorge Mario Bergoglio not infrequently refers to him, the “father of lies.”

Benson’s fictional dystopia is often regarded as an insightful preview of the mid-20th-century totalitarianisms. In an article written shortly after the Obama/Francis meeting, veteran Vaticanista Sandro Magister shed some light on what would seem to be Pope Francis’s conviction that Satan remains busily at work in the world after the collapse of Communism, now working through the seductive power of pleasure. According to Magister, Francis’s mentor in this reading of postmodern history and culture is the Uruguayan philosopher Albert Methol Ferré, who lived in Montevideo and died in 2009.

Methol Ferré frequently visited his friend the archbishop of nearby Buenos Aires, Bergoglio. And the two, it would seem, discussed Methol Ferré’s claim that, with the demise of the messianic atheism of Communism, a new form of death-dealing atheism had emerged. Methol Ferré dubbed it “libertine atheism” and explained that it involved the “cultivation of radical hedonism,” not by a revolutionary vanguard (as in Marxism-Leninism), but as a “mass phenomenon.”

The answer to this distortion of lives and culture, Methol Ferré argued in a 2007 interview, is to take what is the “deep kernel” of truth in a lethally distorted and false humanism — its “perception that existence has an intrinsic destination for enjoyment, that life itself is made for satisfaction” — and to recognize in that kernel a “buried need for beauty.” The Church, he continued, was the “only subject present on the stage of the contemporary world that can confront libertine atheism” with true beauty. But how?

By being a community of believers “capable of making the heart burn,” as Pope Francis has put it. By being in its own life a witness to beauty expressed in lives of compassion and charity exercised in the name of Christ. By being a church that offers the world an experience of the divine mercy and opens postmodernity to a possible encounter with the truths the divine mercy embodies — the truths that make for genuine human happiness, not for false simulacra of beauty.

None of this makes for sharp headlines or crunchy sound-bites. Very little of it fits into the conventional media narrative about Pope Francis, which befogged too much reporting about the March 27 meeting. Still, challenging as it is, Methol Ferré’s intriguing analysis of postmodernity and its discontents gets us much closer to the reality of Pope Francis, his sense of our times, and his grand strategy for the Church than Rolling Stone cover stories or White House spin doctors.

— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.