Pope Francis made waves last week with the promulgation of Querida Amazonia (Beloved Amazon), his apostolic exhortation in response the Amazon Synod held in Rome last fall. To most observers, the letter is notable only for what it doesn’t say: Francis avoids any mention of married priests or of ordaining women to be deacons, two of the most controversial suggestions to come out of the synod. But the document is valuable for what it does say as much as for what it doesn’t, as it provides a fascinating and much needed insight into the social thought of a pontiff whose ideas on such matters have all too often remained enigmatic, unvoiced, and frustratingly nebulous.
Like most any authentically Catholic political philosophy, Francis’s defies sorting into the simplified, binary categories of contemporary discourse. He is not a conservative in the colloquial meaning of the word, as any GOP Catholic who has read his writing on economics and recoiled in fear and trembling will be sure to tell you — the bolder among them raving about the Communist Bergoglio, the more timid whispering of their nostalgia for Wojtyła. But he is even less a liberal, as demonstrated both in concrete actions such as his efforts to bring the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X back into the Catholic fold and in important statements like Querida Amazonia.
The body of the pope’s exhortation begins with a criticism of the deracination — not just ecological, but sociological — wrought by reckless corporations in the Amazon. The ravaging of the environment has led directly to the destruction of communities, forcing a rapid, inorganic urbanization accompanied by massive poverty, crime, exploitation, and, not least of all, the loss of culture and tradition.
The pope’s lament, much like the widely misunderstood Laudato Si’, may be handily dismissed by those who see no valuable socioeconomics for the Right beyond Hayek and Friedman and Smith. But it is sure to resonate with those who still admire Richard Weaver and the Southern Agrarians, who remember the roots of our philosophy in a particular understanding of man’s proper relationship to the world around him. And one cannot help but think of the ecological critique of the liberal society offered by such contemporary thinkers as Patrick Deneen, Wendell Berry, and even Rod Dreher. In the pope’s criticisms of multinational corporations and his warnings of the dangers of globalism, American readers are likely to be reminded far more of Senator Hawley than of Senator Sanders. In his repeated appeals to organic tradition and the primacy of local government, the pontiff harks back to the fundamental principles that have undergirded grassroots conservatism for centuries — that are, in fact, making a serious comeback now among Catholics on multiple continents. In key places, Francis’s vocabulary is strikingly synonymous with those of various nascent movements of the new Right — and forgotten movements of the old one.
This disposition toward the traditional, the local, and the organic permeates the entire document. The section on culture opens with a criticism of anti-traditionalism and modern society, criticism stronger than anything to be found in the writings of Benedict, as Francis observes that refugees from the Amazon “lack the points of reference and the cultural roots that provided them with an identity and a sense of dignity, and they swell the ranks of the outcast. This disrupts the cultural transmission of a wisdom that had been passed down for centuries from generation to generation. Cities, which should be places of encounter, of mutual enrichment and of exchange between different cultures, become a tragic scenario of discarded lives.”
When Francis speaks of ecology, too, it is nowhere near the kind of earth-worship that many (including myself) feared from the bishops of the synod; it is a profoundly Christian and incarnational understanding of the physical world and of humanity’s place in it. He is calling for a return to life in harmony with the natural world, with a deep appreciation for God’s creation. He is, in fact, echoing a kind of radically countercultural conservatism — agrarian, communal, and ancient, rooted in history and in place — that one could never have hoped to hear from any other pope in recent memory.
In his recent National Review cover story focused on the pope’s foreign-policy failures —administrative and pragmatic concerns that belong to a sphere separate from the ecology, philosophy, and theology of Querida Amazonia — Daniel J. Mahoney observes that “in the first year or two of Pope Francis’s pontificate, conservative-minded Catholics made heroic efforts to place the perplexing ways of the new pope in continuity with the thought and deeds of his immediate predecessors.” It is true, of course, that Francis possesses nowhere near the political strength that John Paul II did on the world stage; that, in fact, he has often done damage to the tenuous position of Christians in China and elsewhere. But this is far more easily and far more reasonably attributed to Francis’s inferior political ability than to some malicious intent, some imagined, covert plot to institute a “New Christianity.” It is true, too, that Francis does not speak on the faith with the same terse clarity and unwavering constancy as Benedict. But to explain this fact we need look for no other reason than that Benedict possesses one of the greatest minds of the last century while Francis, quite simply, does not.
In moments like this, however, we get glimpses of Francis the man, of the mind and the instinct that, for whatever reason, rarely shine through as brightly as did those of his more-illustrious forebears. In these moments we see that the Vicar of Christ is a man of Tradition, maybe even a man of the Right. It is true, certainly, that the current pope cannot be easily equated with his immediate predecessors — the great statesman who defeated the Communists but suppressed the SSPX, and the estimable scholar who helped to lead the progressive faction at the Second Vatican Council. Quite the contrary: Papa Franciscus is far less liberal.