Magazine | September 7, 2015, Issue

Puzzling Out Pope Francis

Offhand remarks, often reported without context, have shaped his image

Pope Francis probably does not pay close attention to American opinion polls. He is not a politician, and he heads a worldwide institution. Moreover, he seems less concerned about the United States, and developed countries generally, than some of his predecessors have been. If he did look at the polls — perhaps one of his aides has thought to direct his attention to the Gallup results from July as he prepares to come here in September — he would be relieved to discover that 59 percent of Americans think favorably of him. That’s better than Pope Benedict did, if not as well as Pope John Paul II.

But his popularity here is dropping. In 2014, 76 percent of Americans viewed him favorably. American conservatives have led the downward trend, with only 45 percent now positive about him. By comparison, 68 percent of liberals like him.

It’s the reverse of the pattern we have come to expect. Pope Benedict, three years into his pontificate, was more popular among Republicans than Democrats. The tenor of media coverage of Pope Francis also breaks the mold. He is the “progressive pope” who challenges the American Right on poverty and the environment as much as previous popes challenged the American Left on abortion and sexual issues. Democrats are planning to use the pope’s visit to advance progressive causes, with Representative Rosa DeLauro, of Connecticut, organizing a letter commending his support for them.

Francis gets criticism from the left too, since he has not in fact changed Catholic doctrine on any of the moral issues that divide it from progressives. (Pope Francis is the most popular man in the world who attacks contraception, a successor in that title to Gandhi.) Among many conservatives, though, the conviction is hardening that Francis’s heart really is on the left: that he is more eager to condemn capitalism as “the dung of the devil” than to promote the Church’s teachings on sexual morality. Indeed, many conservatives wonder how committed he is to those teachings. Didn’t he convene a synod designed to advance his liberal German friend Cardinal Walter Kasper’s agenda of softening the Church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage? That possibility led Ross Douthat, the New York Times columnist (and National Review film critic), to suggest first that conservative Catholics should “resist” Francis and then that a “schism” could be in the offing.

Some conservative Catholics — and here it should be noted that politically and doctrinally conservative Catholics are distinct, though of course overlapping, groups — have sought to downplay their differences with this pope. They say that he has been misquoted, or misinterpreted, or taken out of context. Often enough this is true. Francis did not, in fact, refer to capitalism as the “dung of the devil”; he was speaking instead of the idolatry of material things. One of his most quoted remarks came a few months into his papacy, when he said, “A gay person who is seeking God, who is of good will — well, who am I to judge him?” Most of those who have quoted him are not aware that his next sentence commended the discussion of homosexuality in the Church’s catechism, which makes a distinction between desires and actions that he was trying to echo.

Journalists tend to fit nearly any story involving Francis into a simple-minded narrative of a big-hearted, progressive pope. Thus, when he reaffirmed Catholic teaching on the compatibility of faith and evolution, it got covered as something new. When he hosted an interreligious colloquium on the complementarity of men and women in marriage, it hardly got covered at all. A fake story about the pope’s saying that dogs go to heaven made it to the front page of the New York Times, and of course it did: It had the pope being simultaneously dismissive of stuffy doctrine and, literally, kind to animals and small children.

Sometimes Catholic conservatives who usually roll their eyes at press coverage of their faith fall for the narrative themselves. In January, Pope Francis was quoted saying that Catholics do not have to have children “like rabbits”; inevitably, the verb “breed” was used in nearly all the write-ups. This was taken to be a criticism of large families. It does not appear to have been meant as such. The pope was saying, instead, that the Church does not teach that married couples have an obligation to maximize the number of children they have, and can have good reasons — he cited maternal health specifically — for periodically practicing abstinence so as to avoid conceiving children.

In no respect was he backing away from the condemnation of contraception. The remark was made in the course of explaining his comment that supporters of contraception had engaged in the “ideological colonization” of poor countries. Opposition to contraception is often caricatured as incompatible with what the pope called “responsible parenting.” He was suggesting that it is compatible, and in the process dismissing rather than embracing that caricature. From the standpoint of Catholic teaching, the worst one could say of the pope was that his conversational style of speaking to journalists had led to a phrase that was easy to take out of context.

That is, however, something that can be said of this pope quite often. Francis’s immediate predecessors, Saint John Paul and Benedict, were scholar-intellectuals; before them had been several popes who came up through the Vatican diplomatic corps. They were trained, all of them, to weigh their words carefully. The same cannot be said for Francis, whose background is more pastoral.

Regardless of the reason, he makes a lot of comments that cannot stand up to much scrutiny. In June he sweepingly condemned weapons makers who call themselves Christian and then criticized the Allies for not having bombed “the railway lines that brought the trains to the concentration camps.” His prepared statements include ill-considered passages as often as his off-the-cuff remarks do. A lengthy apostolic exhortation asserted that both violence and inequality were on the rise, with the former the consequence of the latter; both actually seem to be declining globally.

In the most famous passage of the exhortation, Francis wrote that “some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.” Take away the “trickle-down” label, and the first sentence accurately describes a widespread but debatable view — the view, that is, that a rising tide will lift all boats. That view does not, however, logically entail either trust in the goodness of businessmen and rich people or a strong commitment to the economic status quo. Those who take that view typically would prefer much freer markets, especially in places where those wielding economic and political power have contrived to shield themselves from competition.

The meaning of other passages is elusive. Francis wrote that “the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.” Does this mean businesses should never modernize or mechanize to improve efficiency by reducing labor costs? Or does it mean that governments should not purposely pursue economic policies that raise unemployment in order to raise profitability? Is his point absurd or trivial?

Francis recently admitted that he does not know much about economics and invited critics to join him in dialogue. Conservatives who think some of his commentary is misguided should take opportunities to do so. They should not respond, though, in a spirit of alarm or anger. It’s not as though Pope Francis has proposed, or ever would propose, that the view that businessmen should never fire anyone is binding on the consciences of Catholics. These are his opinions, not the teachings of the Church. American conservatives should also keep in mind that these are the opinions of a man whose understanding of economics has been shaped by an Argentinian political economy very different from our own.

One might still wish that the pope would refrain from sharing them so volubly, if only because they sow confusion in a world already rife with misunderstandings of Church teaching. In my own parish, during an election featuring two Catholic candidates, one who favored and one who opposed abortion, a voter guide produced by the local bishops set forth their positions on ten issues. The result was a tie: One candidate favored taxpayer funding for abortion, but the other one supported uranium mining. You would have thought that the Church made no distinctions between issues based on their moral gravity or the scope of prudent judgment allowed to public authority.

We can expect a lot of this from Catholic Democrats during the pope’s visit. They will more or less quietly concede that they disagree with him about abortion, but loudly tout his agreement with them about poverty, the environment, and so on. Church teaching does, of course, insist on a public responsibility to care for the poor and the environment, but it does not — and Francis does not — propose a program to achieve these objectives. Whatever a particular pope’s personal views happen to be, the Church does not claim authority to adjudicate between those who favor market-oriented, economic-growth-enhancing approaches to lifting people out of poverty and those who support greater government intervention in the economy and more of an emphasis on government-run social-welfare programs. The disagreement about abortion is different in kind, because it does not concern how best to respect the right to life of unborn children but rather whether that right exists and must be respected.

The more issues on which the pope opines, the more natural the checklist approach to the Church’s political teachings becomes. Pope Francis put in a good word for the public financing of campaigns on the theory that it makes officials independent of the interests that would otherwise fund their politicking. Maybe he is right and maybe he isn’t, but did the world really need him to offer his personal opinion on the matter? After all, no one, certainly not Francis himself, claims that this view of the issue (or any other) represents the authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis’s recent encyclical on the care of the earth, which was widely taken to be a kind of environmentalist manifesto, combines authoritative Church teachings (such as the condemnation of materialism and the need to make care for the weak, vulnerable, and poor paramount in social decision-making) with expressions of personal opinion (about, for example, the alleged overuse of air-conditioning). In certain respects, Laudato si’ is a cri de coeur against modernity — although an incoherent one, as theologian R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things, has observed, since it seems to envision a global technocracy of awesome competence and ambition. Reno concludes that it breaks with the tradition of modern encyclicals in being a homiletic rather than a teaching document. It would be binding on the conscience, if it were not so loose.

Politically conservative Catholics are used to having Church officials, including Benedict, disagree with them on economic matters. More disquieting for many Catholics were the high-level discussions of Cardinal Kasper’s proposal that Catholics who have divorced and remarried (but not been given a decree of marital annulment by the Church) be allowed to take Communion.

The Church may conclude — and often does, in the United States — that a failed marriage was never valid, for example because one or both of the parties to it lacked the requisite maturity to enter a marriage. If the marriage has not been judged invalid, though, it is indissoluble in the eyes of the Church — and someone who remarries without getting an earlier marriage annulled is presumptively committing adultery. The Church bases this view of divorce and remarriage on the explicit words of Jesus on the subject. Adultery is of course considered a grave sin, and repentance of grave sin is a prerequisite for receiving Communion. And so the divorced and remarried have historically not, in theory, been allowed to receive it.

Pope Francis mentioned that the Eastern Orthodox (whose priesthood and sacraments are regarded as valid by Catholicism) have a practice of allowing Communion in certain such cases, and he convened a synod of bishops to discuss it and other matters related to family life, including homosexuality. Kasper used the synod to restate his (rather implausible) argument that Communion could be allowed without calling into question the indissolubility of marriage. An early draft summary of the discussion tilted toward the progressives.

Many bishops, especially those from Africa, were against any softening of the Church’s teaching. Kasper said that Africans had a “taboo” about homosexuality and therefore “should not tell us too much what we have to do.” When the comment was reported, he denied having made it; then the reporter produced a tape that showed he had. Kasper apologized if his comment had been “perceived as demeaning or insulting.”

The final report ended up being a victory for the traditionalists. Even a paragraph mentioning disagreement among the bishops over Communion for the remarried failed to get the required two-thirds vote. Francis insisted that the paragraphs be published anyway, along with the vote totals.

Before, during, and after the synod, well-placed Vatican journalists suggested that the pro-change faction has been running a skillfully orchestrated campaign that enjoys the pope’s support and can therefore withstand temporary setbacks. Francis’s demotion of Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of the traditionalists, has also been interpreted in this light — and Burke, who has said that the Church under Francis seems like “a ship without a rudder,” has reinforced that impression.

It is possible, though, to read all these events differently. One: Burke and Francis never got along with each other, even when Francis was Cardinal Bergoglio. The men had starkly different styles and ideas about how the Church should present itself, with Burke highlighting its majesty and Bergoglio its humility.

Two: The synod was in truth something of a fiasco for the progressives. Bishops representing those parts of the world where the Church is growing forcefully rejected some of their key projects. Cardinal Kasper inflicted wounds on himself. The progressives are in a worse position than they were before the synod convened.

Three: Francis was never committed to Kasper’s theology of marriage and Communion. He felt badly for remarried people and wanted to see whether something could be done for them, perhaps on the Eastern Orthodox model. He published the vote tallies not because he wanted to score a point for the Kasperites but because he favors openness and transparency. (Putting Cardinal Pell in charge of reforming the Vatican’s murky finances also reflects this preference, and shows it to be often justified.)

These interpretations are just as consistent with the facts as is the view of Francis as behind-the-scenes progressive plotter — a view that makes him out to be a more Machiavellian figure than he seems to be. Some conservative Catholics treat Francis as though he were seeking systematically to undermine their position within the Church. But “systematic” does not appear to describe his m.o. in anything.

Conservatives, inside and outside the Church, should cajole and correct and criticize the pope when appropriate; and they should speak out especially when he is used to provide cover for abortion. But conservative Catholics should not think of themselves as being in some kind of revolt against Francis. He is, after all, the pope. He is owed respect and, within the proper sphere of his authority, obedience. Conservative Catholics surely understand that. They have — rightly! — criticized their liberal co-religionists for failing on both counts for more than 50 years.

There is even a silver lining to some of his more frustrating pronouncements. Non-Catholics and even some Catholics have a distorted understanding of papal infallibility, which has been invoked only rarely and covers only teachings of faith and morals made on behalf of the entire Church. Some of Francis’s predecessors, particularly Saint John Paul, probably led Catholics and especially conservative Catholics to take too exalted a view of the papacy. The next time conservatives are tempted to sigh (or worse) about some wrong-headed statement by the pope, they should consider that he is administering a useful corrective.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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