The Corner

The Pope’s Words Were Nice, but Cool It on the ‘Unity’ Rhetoric

Ahead of the Pope’s speech before Congress this morning, I began to see tweets like this:

After the address, I saw more in that vein:

This admonition — “if this institution can unite in its goals, why can’t our politicians?!” — is a tempting one to be sure. But, ultimately, it rests upon a false equivalence. The reason we have a Congress at all is that Americans disagree with one another — often strongly — and they want somewhere to debate those disagreements so that law is not made without their input. We should not expect those debates to be calm. By its very nature, politics is division, and the alternative to it is not unity, but war. Sure, legislative bodies can sometimes reach an agreement or a compromise. Often, though, they cannot. And that’s fine. As my colleague Jonah Goldberg has noted time and time again, you never see a politician say, “I think we should unite around my opponents’ plan.” Why not? Well, because that would mean succumbing to a single rule to which he was opposed, and nobody is going willingly to do that.

As a matter of fact, it’s often a good thing when a people throws up its hands and says “we’re not going to agree here; let’s talk about something else.” Traditionally, we call this “pluralism.” If we believe in foundational concepts such as the “consent of the governed,” we should consider it to be absolutely acceptable that Texans live differently than Vermonters and that Manhattanites live under different rules than do upstate New Yorkers. We should accept, too, that a lot of the time “unity” is not really a praiseworthy aim in the first place. Rather, diversity is. Is it possible that both France and Australia can get it right for their people, even if their laws are nothing alike? Of course!

Clearly, this isn’t true of Catholicism, which rests upon universal presumptions that, by definition, implicate everybody. One can’t have a Catholic Church in Brazil that believes Jesus was the son of God and a Catholic Church in India that does not. It can’t be good for Californians to obey the catechism, but bad for Wyomingites to. When expounding upon uniform truths that transcend political boundaries and the various jurisdictions of earthly courts, one cannot really “live and let live”–  such an approach would be intellectually and practically impossible.

It is of course within Pope Francis’s rights to urge harmony wherever he goes. But both he and the commentators who are discussing his words should recognize his injunctions will always apply more easily to the spiritual and to the metaphysical than to the political. God and Caesar have always been separated. They should remain so — even when they are sitting in the same room.


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