“What Does the Pope Say?” (Part 1)

There has been an ongoing political struggle within the Catholic Church for the past generation that has once again come to a head this last weekend with the publication of Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis’s first major letter to the faithful as Pope. In short, this “apostolic exhortation” has further clarified the new pope’s strong personal distaste for the ways in which certain politically right-wing Catholics have been fighting against the interests of the poor in the name of “resisting socialism.”


This was not entirely unexpected, and also rather predictably it has already been quoted extensively and somewhat out of context. The document has also been scoured for signs of Francis’ position on “marriage equality” and “pro-life” issues, with rather dubious reports coming out as a result. As it happens this is whole matter falls precisely in the middle of what I’ve been working on in terms of my doctoral studies for the past month. Thus I’ve had good reason to spend much of this week studying the document in question. (The official Vatican website is a wonderful resource for such things.) And the more media reports I see about this text, the more I feel I should get my own perspectives on the matter out there right away.

So I apologize in advance to those who come here looking for lighter intellectual entertainment; this is bound to be a bit on the theological theoretical side. Nevertheless, I find this to be an extremely important current development in the world we live in, which might well have profound effects on political structures and the future of our planet. So for those who happen to be interested in such matters… let me begin by laying out the basic historical and ideological background for Pope Francis’ first epistle last weekend.

A lot of this goes back to the legacy of John Paul II –– one of the longest serving pope’s in history, the last pope of the Cold War era, and the first pope of the Internet generation. John Paul’s papacy, however, divides into two very separate and distinct periods. These could be referred to as the Cold War era and the Internet era of his papacy, but I’m inclined to think of them more as the social justice and the sexual moralism periods of his papacy respectively.

For the first half of John Paul’s papacy the key word in his writings was “solidarity”. In the middle of this era he proposed as the motto for his pontificate “Opus solidaritatis pax: peace as the fruit of solidarity.” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis,1987, 39). It was not entirely coincidental that this also happened to be the name of the labor union movement in his native Poland which was effectively working to bring down the “Iron Curtain” across Eastern Europe. But John Paul’s principle take on political economy in general was that any political/economic system which dominated people’s lives to the point of preventing the families of basic laborers in particular from living with freedom and dignity was essentially evil. In this regard neither Marxist nor libertarian capitalist systems could be trusted. The main point was not to promote one political system in order to tear down the other, but to promote an understanding of the transcendental value of every human being and the moral requirement for all people –– Catholics in particular –– to recognize the essential value of all other human beings. The key to a dignified human life is recognizing the image of God within each other, and not allowing “real politics” or “economic growth concerns” to discount that essential foundation for moral values.

The evil to be fought against in this process, more than any other, was alienation –– not in a Marxist sense of workers not having access to the fruit of their labors due to lack of control of the means of production, though the essence of that problem was also acknowledged in passing –– but more in the sense of people living in fear of totalitarian rulers, the threat of a nuclear holocaust, the continuously growing risk of a loss of a livable income due to economic competition, and/or the addictive frenzy of consumerism blinding them to the immoral ways in which their consumer goods were being produced; and all of these factors causing people to lose essential contact with their fellow human beings, with whom solidarity could provide peace, justice and essential meaning in life.

This basic theme ran through all nine of the encyclical letters that John Paul wrote between 1979 and 1991 –– from “Man cannot […] become the slave of things, the slave of economic systems, the slave of production, the slave of his own products. A civilization purely materialistic in outline condemns man to such slavery, even if at times, no doubt, this occurs contrary to the intentions and the very premises of its pioneers” (Redemptor Hominis, 1979, 16) to “The advancement of the poor constitutes a great opportunity for the moral, cultural and even economic growth of all humanity” (in Centesimus Annus,1991, 28).

John Paul did start to become more than a little naively optimistic with regard to the fruits of the free market system: “Exploitation, at least in the forms analyzed and described by Karl Marx, has been overcome in Western society” (CA, 41). But he was not willing to give capitalism absolutely free reign either: “freedom in the economic sector [must be] circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality […] the core of which is ethical and religious” (CA, 42).

The emphasis of John Paul’s papacy fundamentally changed in his following encyclical, however. In Veritatis Splendor he essentially shifted from a compassionate, social justice oriented perspective to a moralistic rationalist perspective. The core argument was that there are essentially two types of commandments given in the Bible and in church tradition: positive commands to actively love our neighbor as ourselves and to live sacrificial lives of devotion to God, and negative commands to refrain from abusing our neighbor and to not partake in practices which God finds repulsive. As a matter of establishing peace between ourselves and God, and our fellow man, the positive commands would be the more critical ones, but the concrete requirements that these commands would place upon believers and upon communities would be variable –– culturally relative. The negative commands, on the other hand, would be matters that cannot be considered as in any way culturally variable: perjury, murder, adultery and theft cannot be justified by way of relative cultural norms. By the same token then, chemical, mechanical or surgical forms of birth control must be considered morally wrong under all circumstances. So rather than setting absolute standards regarding matters which will in the end be culturally relative anyway, John Paul set out to establish absolute standards in the areas than leant themselves to setting absolute standards: telling people what they weren’t allowed to do, in particular sexually.

From this point on in his papacy John Paul ceased to mention the “preference for the poor,” “the rights of the laborer” and “social justice” in his writings. He ceased to be the charismatic pope of compassion and reconciliation, and he came to be seen rather as the doddering old moralist, preoccupied with “pelvic politics.” Maintaining a firm line on the church’s resistance to “illegitimate” forms of sex became more important than feeding the hungry, protecting the rights of workers and providing hope in life for economically disadvantaged young people. Meanwhile the scandal of isolated priests within the Catholic Church repeatedly taking sexual advantage of children proceeded in stages to blow up in his face, leaving the increasingly feeble pontiff looking all the more out of touch and out of control.

The shift in John Paul’s emphasis can also be seen in the dramatic shift in political emphasis by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. In 1986 these bishops published what was considered to be a very politically liberal statement of their basic moral principles entitled “Economic Justice for All”. Its fundamental practical emphases were on: 1) employment, 2) poverty, 3) food and agriculture, and 4) the U.S. role in the global economy. The role of Catholics in politics, as they saw it, was to counteract “Reaganomics” by prioritizing, respectively, “new jobs with adequate pay and decent working conditions” as the basis of economic development; fighting poverty and homelessness as “a moral imperative of the highest priority” based on “the norms of human dignity and the preferential option for the poor”; protecting family farms and “maintaining a wide distribution in the ownership of productive property” as a basis for social and environmental sustainability; and moving from a “national security” concern to a “human needs” concern in matters of foreign policy.

Times change. Popes get old. Competing systems of government with more centrally regulated economies fail. So in 2007 this same organization published a new political agenda for the United States entitled, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship”. Here (on page vi) the emphases have become: 1) fighting against abortion and euthanasia, 2) preventing “Catholic ministries” from being forced to “violate their consciences”, 3) combating efforts to “redefine marriage”, 4) reducing public spending in order to reduce economic crises, 5) promoting “true respect for law” in the immigration system, and 6) questioning “the use of force and its human and moral cost,” particularly in the Middle East.

The risk has thus shifted from that of the Catholic Church in the US being “the Democratic Party at prayer” to their being “the Republican Party at prayer”. Much of this shift can be credited to conservative intellectual leaders among US Catholics –– currently Robert George in particular. A relatively sympathetic feature article about Professor George in the New York Times in 2009 tells of him having confronted the nation’s Catholic bishops that spring and told them, “with typical bluntness that they should stop talking so much about the many policy issues they have taken up in the name of social justice. They should concentrate their authority on ‘the moral social’ issues like abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and same-sex marriage, where, he argued, the natural law and Gospel principles were clear. To be sure, he said, he had no objections to bishops’ ‘making utter nuisances of themselves’ about poverty and injustice, like the Old Testament prophets, as long as they did not advocate specific remedies. They should stop lobbying for detailed economic policies like progressive tax rates, higher minimum wage and, presumably, the expansion of health care — ‘matters of public policy upon which Gospel principles by themselves do not resolve differences of opinion among reasonable and well-informed people of good will,’ as George put it.”

Meanwhile John Paul’s physical limitations finally caught up with him, sending him to join his predecessors in the Vatican crypt. His replacement was a fellow who had the reputation of being John Paul’s doctrinal guard dog: “the German Shepherd,” Joseph Ratzinger, who chose the papal name Benedict XVI.

Benedict never had a period of initial popularity as pope, and he never really even tried to step out of John Paul’s political shadow. He did, however, make a profoundly important though largely unnoticed position statement with reference to John Paul’s two-part legacy in his third encyclical letter, Caritas In Veritate. There Benedict attempted to reconcile these legacy aspects by showing the inherent interconnection between them. Essentially, in order for the ideal of an ethic of “openness to life” to work in practice –– only allowing sex within the context of potentially procreative marital relations –– Benedict realized that there would/will have to be massive global systems for wealth redistribution established. These would act sort of like the United Nations, only far more powerful, with “real teeth”: “Such an authority would need to be universally recognized and to be vested with the effective power to ensure security for all, regard for justice and respect for rights. Obviously it would have to have the authority to ensure compliance with its decisions from all parties, and also with the coordinated measures adopted in various international forums” (Caritas In Veritate, 2009, 67).

By burying this statement under vague condemnations of the socialist welfare states in general and appeals to the central authority limiting principle of “subsidiarity,” and by keeping the world’s press otherwise preoccupied with his absurd statements against condom distribution in Africa and the like, Benedict succeeded in keeping his friends on the political right from actually recognizing what a radical proposal he was making. It’s hard to imagine that Benedict imagined that such an organization for world economic justice could ever be established; but by offering this sort of abstract possibility he could still defend the theoretical possibility that his (and John Paul’s) idealized version of “pro-life” politics could someday be put into practice without destroying the world in the process –– even if that too remains a political impossibility. The point though is that, even though he didn’t really want to go too far in publicly admitting it, Benedict intellectually recognized that for the rest of Catholic social teaching to remain coherent, a radically expanded system of international socialist wealth redistribution would have to be added into the mix.

For whatever murky psychological, medical or political reasons there may have been, Benedict surprised the world in February by announcing that he would be stepping down as pope before it was time to bury him. As his replacement the College of Cardinals selected a fellow who, on paper at least, looked like a reasonable political compromise figure: in many ways a fresh and new sort of leader, yet very much a product of staunchly traditional orientations within the church. Before taking on the name of Francis I, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was recognized as a friend of the common people, yet not in any politically radical way. He is South American by birth, but a respectable Italian by blood. He was no friend of Marxists, but was not on particularly friendly terms with his country’s military dictators either. As a Jesuit he has a pedigree for being impeccably rational and doctrinaire, yet having his feet planted solidly on the ground where laymen walk. Overall he seems to have come across as someone who might be able to restore some of the popularity and credibility the church enjoyed during the first half of John Paul’s reign without screwing up the status quo too badly in the process… or so they might have thought.

Francis is actually off to a far more radical start to his papacy than anyone expected. No, he’s not about to start performing same sex weddings or ordaining women, but those are about the only radical reforms he’s taken off the table. When it comes to reaching out to the common people and being in touch with the laity’s concerns he has been out John-Pauling John Paul. He has made strong public statements against homophobia and against the corrupt “old boy network” within his organization. Without naming them directly, in a homily on October 17th of this year he unmistakably referred to the conservative political ideology adopted by the American bishops as a “sickness within the church”. Now he has taken the social justice realizations of his three immediate predecessors and offered them up in their starkest and bluntest form yet, without the slightest bit of anti-communist, anti-socialist gloss over them.

But the central point of Francis’ fresh opus, Evangelii Gaudium, is not to attack the world economic system as such, but to lay out a game plan for the Catholic Church’s self-promotion over then next decade or two. Analyzing that will have to be a separate entry here. If you’ve read this far though, you’re obviously one of those rare people who has a deeper interest in such things than most, so now you’ll have something to look forward to. 🙂


Leave a comment

Filed under Ethics, History, Politics, Religion, Sexuality

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s