Everybody has an opinion about the pope these days and, what’s worse, feels compelled to express it. Rush Limbaugh has an opinion about the pope. He says he finds the pope “upsetting.” And he’s not even Catholic!
It’s true that Rush Limbaugh finds nearly everything upsetting. Getting upset is what he gets paid to do. What has set him off this time is the papal exhortation released late last month, Evangelii Gaudium, the Joy of the Gospel. It is the kind of document, increasingly common, that is commented upon and argued over and tweeted about rather than read. It goes on for more than 50,000 words, and much of it is of narrow, I almost said parochial, interest; according to a tally by the Catholic News Service, for example, more than 10 percent of it is devoted to the pope’s sermon-writing tips for pastors. Much of the rest has to do with the authority of bishops’ meetings and other matters of church organization.
Still, Evangelii Gaudium is easy to read, most of the time, thanks to Pope Francis’s pleasant and familiar prose style. This makes it all the more frustrating that so many opinion-izers didn’t dog-paddle through all of its 288 sections. Judging by the commentary, you’d think the upshot of the document, or even the document itself, consisted of six paragraphs devoted to the pope’s musings—it’s hard to call them ideas—about economics.
Too bad: There’s lots more to Evangelii Gaudium, including passages on the social obligations of private faith that are as graceful, generous, and penetrating as any you’re likely to read. A proper faith, he tells us, leads to “a fraternal love capable of seeing the sacred grandeur of our neighbor, of finding God in every human being, of tolerating the nuisances of life in common by clinging to the love of God, of opening the heart to divine love and seeking the happiness of others just as their heavenly Father does.” This might have calmed Limbaugh down if he’d gotten that far.
It is perhaps the fate of Francis to be misunderstood, whether through ignorance, laziness, or acts of will. The public image of a thoroughly reformist pope is by now fixed, and people who like the idea—not a large percentage of them are Catholics, I’ll assume—are taking the ball and running with it. A priest reports being asked by a woman in a discussion group when he was going to be married, now that the pope had declared that priests should find a mate. (She had garbled the public comments of a Vatican official who had pointed out that priestly celibacy is a theoretically reversible convention and not a dogma of the church.) A Time magazine copy editor, giddy at the thought of a pope just like him or herself, tagged a picture of the pope like so: “The first Jesuit Pontiff won hearts and headlines with his common touch and his rejection of church dogma . . . ” The caption was corrected, but you can see why they think they like him so much.
Traditionalists are quick to point out that Francis hasn’t come close to “rejection” of any dogma, and, in matters dear to the hearts of Catholic traditionalists, he continues to make strongly worded statements on abortion and the protection of unborn babies—not a dominating concern for Catholic liberals in Europe and America. And in the new document, in a passage in praise of women’s contributions to church life, he includes a parenthetical aside: “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open for discussion.” Time’s copy editors can take comfort from the pope’s modish use of the unisex “Spouse,” however.
Till now the pope’s reputation as a man of the left has rested on that “common touch,” along with his lack of interest in issues of homosexuality, particularly gay marriage, which in one way or another excite Western Catholics of all dispositions. The categories of right and left in the Catholic church don’t translate well into the world of practical politics, especially in the United States, where the politics are at once intellectually inert and rhetorically feverish. Many Catholic conservatives, for example, have little affection for the free market (until it comes to finding bargains) because it disrupts settled patterns of family and social life. In response to Evangelii Gaudium, they applauded as heartily as any Catholic liberal the pope’s treatment of market economics (he never uses the even more ambiguous word “capitalism”). It was rough indeed, as in this instantly famous passage:
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.
The pope, by contrast, places his more elegant and sophisticated trust in the goodness of those wielding government power, “states,” as he writes optimistically, “charged with vigilance for the common good.”
It is disconcerting for a Catholic to read sentences from the pen of a pope that are demonstrably untrue. Leaving aside the doctrine of papal infallibility, which doesn’t apply to documents like Evangelii Gaudium, deference to authority is supposed to be bred into Catholics. And deference to an authority who is empirically wrong presents a special dilemma.
“Never,” the pope announced in a homily earlier this year, “has the use of violence brought peace in its wake.” Never? Survivors of Bergen-Belsen will have a different view. Likewise, if the pope wants facts about the effects of economic growth on poverty and justice, he could consult with the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. By their estimates, global poverty is half what it was 20 years ago, thanks to—surely, at least in part—the economic growth generated by free exchange in the marketplace.
Disoriented perhaps by this bald obtuseness, Catholic opinionizers with a fondness for both the pope and economic liberty were obliged to make one of three responses. The first was to get upset. The second was to insist that the pope didn’t really mean what he said—that Evangelii Gaudium is really an attack on consumerism, commercialism, and materialism, and a plea for the place of the poor at the center of Christian life. And it is indeed such an attack and such a plea. But if it is only that, then the drubbing of market economics was simply gratuitous. This seems highly unlikely. The attack may consist of only six paragraphs, but they do pack a punch.
A third response was to grant that the pope meant what he said, but what he meant was severely limited to his experience in Latin America, where poverty and economic corruption are tied together. This would require the pope to believe that commerce in Argentina or Venezuela operates on the principle of a free market. Stranger still, he would have to believe that governments in those countries act with “vigilance for the common good.” Also unlikely.
Part of the confusion rests in the pope’s tendency, when he lapses out of pastoral mode, to write at a very high level of generality, without taking time to explain his terms. When he writes about “human beings . . . considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded,” is he talking about abortion or stem cell research, though neither is mentioned explicitly, or about the poor trapped in the jaws of the free market? Maybe both, maybe neither. It’s hard to tell. When he insists that the only way to restore a peaceful society is through “non-ideological ethics,” does he mean . . . well, what does he mean? Even we opinion-izers who have read every word of Evangelii Gaudium would find it hard to come up with a definition. “It is not the task of the Pope,” writes the pope, “to offer a detailed and complete analysis of contemporary reality.” And he’s as good as his word.
The pope’s favored mode of argument is caricature. Nothing wrong with that! The caricatures extend beyond his discussion of economics, where his unspecified targets believe in the “absolute autonomy of the marketplace” (they do?) and that “everything” (everything?) “comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest.” As it happens, the pope’s caricatures exist only on his right. Over the past generation, for example, traditionalists in the United States and elsewhere have tried to restore what they consider beauty and dignity to a vernacular liturgy saturated in therapeutic talk and the gluiest pop music.
In Evangelii Gaudium, as elsewhere, the pope shows he has no sympathy for the traditionalists or their cause—“the self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past.” He sides instead with the therapists and pop musicians: “the Church can also come to see that certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, are no longer properly understood and appreciated. Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel.”
Again the level of abstraction and imprecision is very high, but he seems to make disapproving allusions as well to bishops and priests who have made an issue of offering communion to pro-abortion politicians.
“The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect,” he writes. “Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators.” Nancy Pelosi no longer has to worry.
“I am aware,” Pope Francis writes near the beginning of his work, “that nowadays documents do not arouse the same interest as in the past and they are quickly forgotten.” He has ensured that Evangelii Gaudium will not share that unhappy fate. In the meantime, many Catholics will have to wrestle with the fact that the causes that get their hearts started in the morning—defending traditional marriage, restoring a sense of beauty and dignity to the liturgy, asserting the morality of enterprise and entrepreneurship—are interesting to the pope only to the extent that he wants us to knock it off. At best, he’s telling us, our causes are distractions; at worse, they are active impediments to a full Christian life.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.