The December 2016 issue of Quadrant includes my reflection (“Pope Francis’s Version of Catholic Wisdom“) on the Pontiff’s contribution to Catholic social and political reflection. I write as both a Catholic and a student of political philosophy, one who respects the person and office of the Pope, but who is troubled by Pope Francis’s increasing tendency to conflate Catholic wisdom with a left-leaning secular humanitarianism. I took my bearing from the most considered reflections of the Pope (his encyclical on ecological matters, his repeated evocations of Divine mercy, his apostolic letters on the joy of the gospel and on human and divine love, as well as his thought-provoking speeches to the European parliament and to the American Congress). I found much in Francis that is in continuity with his great predecessors (much more than many of his critics acknowledge). But I also find much that smacks of the bien-pensant and politically correct. Still, the balance in these official documents and speeches tilts towards sobriety, thoughtfulness and fidelity to the great tradition of Catholic wisdom.
The same cannot be said if one pays attention to the interviews and off-the-cuff remarks by the Pope that have come to dominate the public impression of his pontificate. He got off to a bad start when he told journalists on his return from the World Youth Day in Brazil in 2013 “who am I to judge?” the activities and motives of homosexual Catholics who attempt to remain in communion with Christ and his Church. He should have anticipated that his remarks would be used at the service of moral relativism and by those who attempt to undermine traditional marriage in the name of open-ended “love” and “marriage equality.” Recently, returning from another World Youth Day in Kracow, Poland, the Pope made the fantastic and disturbing claim that “Catholic violence” is just as much a problem as “Islamic violence”—and this right after the brutal assassination of Father Jacques Hammel by Islamist terrorists in a church in northern France. The only example of “Catholic violence” that Pope Francis could come up with was that of a baptized young man who had killed his girlfriend for clearly non-religious reasons or motives.
The Pope further insisted that every religion has its “fundamentalists,” Islam no more than others. This is morally obtuse and at odds with all the evidence. And the Pope claimed, with no supporting arguments and many leftist clichés, that Islamic terrorists commit heinous acts of violence in response to poverty and social injustice. Capitalism, and the “god of money,” were the ultimate source of terrorism in the modern world. These sorts of haphazard claims, clearly more ideological than Christian, make it harder to respect a Pope whose more considered reflections deserve our attention and respect.
This colossal failure of practical reasoning is typical of Francis’s off-the cuff-remarks. He displays a remarkable lack of rhetorical discipline, which can only undermine the integrity of his pontificate and of the papacy more generally. Recently, in an interview with the leftist Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari, he claimed that it is the Communists today who “think like Christians.” He ignored the Church’s principled and long-standing opposition to every form of totalitarianism. Communists are said by Francis to have a special Christ-like concern for the poor. The Pope is silent about the tens of millions of ordinary workers and peasants who perished at the hands of ideological regimes of the Communist type in the 20th century. Cardinal Zen of Hong Kong recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the Pope has no understanding of Communist theory and practice, that he associates Communists exclusively with those activists and intellectuals imprisoned or killed by the military government during the “dirty war” in Argentina during the 1970’s. In a word, his vision is remarkably parochial and blind to the greatest evil of the twentieth century, a totalitarianisms inspired by viciously anti-Christian ideology.
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Francis has obviously not reflected in a serious way on Pope John Paul II’s deeply personal experience with ideological tyranny in its Nazi and Communist forms. And just the other day, he spoke about how he was “grieving” for the dead tyrant of Cuba, a man who turned that fabled island into an island prison and persecuted the Catholic Church for many decades (even outlawing Christmas for thirty years). We Christians are obliged to pray for our enemies, but we are also required to know whom they are and to vigorously oppose those who threaten liberty and human dignity and the fundamentals of political civilization. No pope should confuse a tyrant—especially one who was at the same time ideological and megalomaniacal—with a statesmen deserving of our respect. The Pope’s comments on Communism and Castro do not honor the truth or contribute to intellectual and moral clarity or seriousness.
The Pope also freely “psychologizes” those who remain faithful to the Latin Mass. They are said to be “rigid,” suffering from some form of Pharasaism. No mercy or understanding is directed at their quarter. These ill-considered remarks are an implicit assault on his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who aimed during his short pontificate to restore greater dignity—and beauty—to the Catholic liturgy. Is he, too, to be subjected to these reductive and insulting categories?
When Cardinal Burke and three other Cardinals issue a “dubia” requesting clarification on the ambiguities created by a famous footnote in Amoris Laetitia (does the Church still stand with Christ in affirming the indissolubility of marriage and in repudiating “situational ethics”), the Pope remains silent even as he criticizes the “legalism” of those who dare request doctrinal and moral clarity. Some left-wing ultramontanists have gone even further, arguing that the four should be deprived of the cardinalite, even accusing them of “heresy” and “apostasy” for remaining faithful to age-old Catholic teaching. None of this is good for the unity of the Church and could point to schism down the line.
I do not believe we are obliged to honor or imitate the defects in practical reasoning that characterize the Pope’s all-too-numerous off-the cuff-remarks. As Ross Douthat has written recently in the New York Times, his “winks” and “nods” about Communion for the divorced and the remarried have no authoritative status as Catholic teaching. My hope is that the Pope learns some rhetorical discipline and ceases to distress faithful Catholics with ill-considered judgments that properly belong to the prudence of faithful laymen (citizens and statesman) informed by what the Church used to call “right reason.”
In my article in Quadrant‘s December issue, I have chosen to analyze those statements and writings of Pope Francis that deserve serious attention from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. This is Francis at his most serious. Here he speaks not as a political commentator, activist, or amateur psychologist, but as the guardian of a Christian wisdom which at its best “knows the truth about man.” This Francis is the subject of my article. I purposefully steered clear of what I am tempted to call the “other Francis.”