Back in 1999, The Weekly Standard ran one of my favorite cover lines ever: The New Europe: Menace or Farce? I often think of that question when I watch Pope Francis.
It’s only been two and a half years since Francis assumed the chair of St. Peter, yet he’s already compiled an entire dossier’s worth of . . . interesting . . . incidents.
For instance, the Holy Father seems to have a habit of appearing to endorse all sorts of left-wing political causes. There was the time he posed with environmental activists holding an anti-fracking T-shirt. And the time he posed for pictures holding a crucifix made from a hammer and a sickle. And the time he held up a poster calling for the British to hand the Falkland Islands back to Argentina. In each instance, the official Vatican response has been to suggest that Francis didn’t mean to endorse anything because he’ll pretty much smile and pick up anything you hand him, like some sort of consecrated Ron Burgundy.
But it isn’t always the spontaneous moments that cause confusion for Francis. There was a minor kerfuffle in August when an Italian gay activist, Francesca Pardi, wrote to the pope. Pardi, who is married to a woman, writes children’s books about homosexuality—you might think of her as the Italian Heather Has Two Mommies. Pardi—who is not Catholic—was upset after some Italian schools began (quite sensibly) excising her books from elementary school curricula. So she wrote to Francis to complain. And much to her surprise, she received a letter in return, from the Vatican’s secretary of State, writing on behalf of Francis. He said:
His holiness is grateful for the thoughtful gesture and for the feelings which it evoked, hoping for an always more fruitful activity in the service of young generations and the spread of genuine human and Christian values.
Enclosed was a papal blessing for Pardi and her wife. The Vatican, again, rushed to clarify that this was all just a big misunderstanding.
* * *
Pope Francis seems prone to misunderstanding on many subjects, but perhaps none so much as the field of economics. As Andrew Ferguson noted in reviewing Evangelii Gaudium, this pope tends to insist on notions that are factually untrue. For instance, “Never has the use of violence brought peace in its wake.” Or that the benefits of free-market growth have “never been confirmed by the facts.” Note—the Holy Father is not saying that the free market has excesses, or that consumerism can debase the human person, or that the ruthlessness of markets can, left unchecked, lead to real evils. No. He is insisting that there is no factual evidence to support claims that free-market growth can be socially beneficial. It’s as if he does not know what the letters “GDP” stand for.
And truth be told, maybe he doesn’t. In 2013, Francis told an Italian magazine that “The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.” That might strike you as odd, but so be it.
A year later the pope took to Twitter—oh yes, he is an active Twitterer—to proclaim that “Inequality is the root of social evil.” Youth unemployment, geriatric solitude, inequality—evil, evil, evil.
And when confronted with the Syrian migration crisis now roiling Europe, the pope weighed in on that, too, this time commingling economics with ecology: