Politics & Policy

The Pope as Trophy-Chaplain to the Democratic Party

(Franco Origlia/Getty)
. . . and other vanities of the moment.

Nine recent headlines, all of a piece save one:

“Pope Francis Steps Up Campaign on Climate Change, to Conservatives’ Alarm” (New York Times, April 27).

“Pope’s Pronouncements Making Trouble for GOP Catholics” (Politico, May 24).

“Pope’s Views on Climate Change Add Pressure to Catholic Candidates” (New York Times, June 16).

“A Test of Faith: Pope Francis Puts 2016 GOP Hopefuls on the Defensive” (Washington Post, June 18).

“Pope Francis’ Climate Change Message Fails to Move GOP” (New York Times, June 19).

“How Pope Francis Just Destroyed the GOP’s Religious Con Artists” (Salon, June 19).

“The Republicans Have a Pope Problem” (The Economist, June 19).

“For G.O.P., Pope Francis’ Visit to Congress Comes With Tensions” (New York Times, July 19).

“Pope Francis Is Not a Feminist: Why Catholicism’s Liberal Icon Falls Far Short on Women’s Issues” (Salon, July 26).

That ninth and final headline excepted, it’s not hard to detect — what shall we call it? — a hermeneutic pattern here: Pope Francis’s September visit to Washington, New York, and Philadelphia is going to pose big-time problems for Republicans, Catholic conservatives, enthusiasts of the two preceding pontificates, etc., etc.

But what about the “problems” Pope Francis poses for Democrats, liberals, feminists, LGBT activists, and so forth? Kathleen Geier’s July 26 Salon piece, warning her brethren of the Left not to “be fooled by the hype” about “the Argentine pontiff,” who is “not a feminist,” at least had the merit of recognizing that Pope Francis can’t be fitted onto any Procrustean bed of “liberalism,” at least as that term is typically used in the United States. No man who admits to having read Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World multiple times is going to be altogether agreeable company for partisans of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Elizabeth Warren. Kathleen Geier gets that.

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Geier’s acuity is not matched by Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, however. There, a week or so ago, Representatives Rosa DeLauro (D., Conn.), Bill Pascrell (D., N.J.), Anna Eshoo (D., Calif.), Tim Ryan (D., Ohio), and John Garamendi (D., Calif.) began circulating a “Dear Colleague” memorandum to their fellow House members, asking them to join in signing a letter to the pope. The letter, to put it gently, treats Francis as a kind of trophy-chaplain, inviting the pontiff to shower benedictions on the Democrats’ campaign for a higher minimum wage and a “green climate fund” for developing countries, among other things, while he’s speaking from the House rostrum.

Which — if I may use a Yiddish term for a discussion about Catholics — takes more than a little chutzpah.

Rosa DeLauro has a 0 percent pro-life record and is given to invoking her “Catholic identity” when promoting her pro-abortion views.

Anna Eshoo has a 0 percent pro-life voting record, as do Bill Pascrell and John Garamendi (who adds a bit of ecumenical flavor to the mix, as he is not publicly identified as a Catholic). As for Tim Ryan, he had a mixed voting record on life issues but publicly renounced his pro-life views in 2014 and is now a reliable vote for the culture of death.

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Moreover, none of these co-signers of the “Dear Colleague” memo inviting signatures on the letter to the pope has lifted a finger to help the Catholic Church in the United States in its battle against the HHS contraceptive/abortifacient mandate in the implementation of Obamacare. Thanks to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, that now puts each of the solons in what one might have imagined, once upon a time, to be the unenviable position of supporting a bullying Obama administration in its efforts to drive the Little Sisters of the Poor out of business. All of the signatories to the “Dear Colleague” have also busily promoted the Democrats’ “War on Women” narrative, which is essentially anti-Catholic. And one may reasonably assume that none of them is going to be of any help in probing Planned Parenthood’s trafficking in the body parts of very small people.

Yet DeLauro & Co. write Pope Francis in a tone of liberal moral self-satisfaction that assumes he’s “one of us.” Compared with chutzpah like that, I’ll take Kathleen Geier’s robust, openly anti-Church feminism any day.

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In a political culture as deeply divided as ours, it’s virtually inevitable that partisans of all stripes are going to try to identify their causes with a pope who remains very popular, even after his recent slip in the polls. Moreover, the mainstream-media narrative of Francis as the pope who will finally deliver the Catholic Church from its antediluvian obsession with traditional morality remains largely in place — and while there is pushback against that storyline in some MSM and blogosphere quarters, the media “take” on this pontificate, at least as indicated in the headlines above, plays right into the script that Rosa DeLauro and her colleagues, burdened with an unpopular president and an uninspiring field of presidential candidates, are trying to write, with an eye to November 2016.

DeLauro & Co. write Pope Francis in a tone of liberal moral self-satisfaction that assumes he’s ‘one of us.’

And then there is the White House. It’s been test-running its strategic messaging on the papal visit for months: “We agree on 80 percent,” the president and his people say to various U.S. Catholic leaders; “why are you bludgeoning us on the 20 percent?” One would not be risking much by wagering that something similar will frame the White House’s commentary on the pope’s visit to President Obama.

So the headlines above are likely to be recycled, with appropriate issue-variations, between now and September 22, when Pope Francis lands at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington. Still, in the category of hope-against-hope, it may be worthwhile to remind anyone willing to listen of some elementary facts about popes, the pope’s teaching authority, and the relationship of Catholic social doctrine to public policy.

One. As John Paul II wrote, the Church’s social doctrine does not offer “technical solutions,” but a vision of the integrity of the human person, and a delineation of the requirements of justice in society, that is intended as an orienting moral framework for public-policy debate.

Two. A pope’s grasp of the empirical facts that should inform public-policy debate, like his prudential judgments as to how those facts are to be applied to public policy through the moral principles of Catholic social doctrine, is a legitimate subject of debate within the Church, and between the Church and the world. Popes from Leo XIII to Francis have resisted attempts to recruit the papal magisterium into a partisan camp; John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis have all underscored that their responsibility and authority lie in the sphere of moral teaching, not the business of public policy, which is properly the work of laymen living out their Christian vocation in the world. Thus it ill behooves the New York Times to be more Catholic (and more clerical) than the pope in demanding that Catholics fall into line behind those papal prudential judgments with which the Times happens to agree. Ditto for Rosa DeLauro and other recent converts to a super-ultramontane view of papal teaching authority, such as New York mayor Bill de Blasio and California governor Jerry Brown.

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Three. In Catholic social doctrine, there are settled matters, and then there are issues whose resolution in terms of law and public policy can be legitimately debated and contested. Among the settled matters are the inalienable dignity and value of every human life from conception until natural death; the priority of the first freedom, religious freedom, in any meaningful scheme of civil and political rights; the priority of civil society over the state; the right of workers to form associations to promote their interest; and the duty of all — business, labor, voluntary associations — to conduct themselves in ways that contribute to the common good and not simply to their own benefit or aggrandizement. Among the debatable issues are the matters that the DeLauro “Dear Colleague” letter cites as somehow creating a unique bond between Pope Francis and the left-most Democrats in Congress.

Thus it’s simply ridiculous for Salon writer Bob Cesca to rant about alleged Republican and conservative hypocrisy in the crudest of terms: “If it’s okay for Bush, Santorum, and Rubio to simply waive the Church’s teaching on the climate crisis, why is it impossible for them to do the same when it comes to their religion-based positions on abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage? . . . Why is it okay for persons of faith to ignore the crap they don’t like while outright legislating the crap they do like?”

#related#Well, Bob, here’s why: Because, while there is a settled Catholic moral understanding that we have a responsibility to be stewards of creation, there is no settled Catholic teaching on “the climate crisis,” either as to its nature or as to the possible remedies for whatever it might be. And while we’re at it, Bob, Catholic understandings of abortion, contraception, and “same-sex marriage,” while informed by religious faith and revelation, have been consistently argued in the public square on moral-philosophical grounds that anyone willing to engage an argument, rather than bloviate, can engage.

Four. Pope Francis’s critique of the technologization of life and culture, the prevalence of utilitarian standards of public moral judgment in the West, and the vulgarity of so much of contemporary Western popular culture cuts against both Left and Right. To reduce his message to a critique of American “conservatism” (which doesn’t exist in the Argentina in which he lived for the 76 years of his pre-papal life) is to reduce his message to a partisan tool, and to reduce the pope to a political trophy. Moreover, that kind of raw partisanship ignores what the pope has consistently said is his priority message: the imperative for the Church to rediscover its evangelical, missionary voice.            

Pope Francis deserves better than that. A decent respect for the Bishop of Rome, a minimum of regard for the pope’s responsibilities as pastor of all the people of the Church, and a modicum of honesty about the ways in which Pope Francis challenges everyone would suggest that reporters, editors, the commentariat, and the politicians (of both parties) ought to do better than a lot of them have done so far, in the run-up to September’s papal visit.

— 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.


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. His 27th book, The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission, has just been published by Ignatius Press.


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