The Pope Puzzle

It must be hard to be a conservative, insisting that things shouldn’t change – because tradition matters, as that’s what holds societies together. And as far as institutions go, conservatives insist that it’s dangerous to end what might not be working too well, but is working well enough. Make adjustments, don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater – the new way of doing things might make things worse, and probably will. One must be careful, and thus the minor problems with slavery could be worked out over time – except those weren’t minor problems and we had our one civil war about that, followed by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan insisting that things shouldn’t have changed, and someone would pay dearly for the unacceptable change in everything. Those who were less militant lapsed into what might be called Margaret Mitchell nostalgia, telling harmless heroic but tragic tales of the Old South, sad tales of what once was and would never return. And the pattern repeats itself. In 1954, with the Brown decision, conservatives were told “separate but equal” – the seemingly fair adjustment that had kept public schools segregated – just wouldn’t do. Things weren’t equal in our schools, and would never be, and public schools had to be desegregated. That didn’t go down well with conservatives, nor did all the civil rights stuff that followed, ending a decade later with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – ending a century of what conservatives had insisted had been working just fine, and would continue to work just fine, with a little tinkering here and there.

Many of them still haven’t gotten over that, and now, with one of the most ridiculously inefficient healthcare systems in the world, if it’s even a system at all, conservatives insist that with a few minor adjustments, things will be just fine – there was no need for this Obamacare nonsense. John Boehner summed it up – “Obamacare will bankrupt our country and ruin the best healthcare delivery system in the world” – but he was blowing hot air. Everyone knew we had a mess on our hands. Obamacare may be a complicated mess of a solution to the problem, trying to deliver uniform and effective healthcare to almost everyone by using the existing giant for-profit market-based insurance companies, who normally make big bucks insuring only the healthy and denying whatever claims they can whenever possible. Getting them to play along was a major achievement, and may not work in the end, but it was the only game in town. The Republicans offered nothing. They’re still offering nothing. Why change things?

This shows up in minor ways too:

The National Republican Congressional Committee appears to have removed a t-shirt from its website that advocates against saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

In a tweet last week, the NRCC promoted the t-shirt, which reads “Happy Holidays is What Liberals Say” in a Comic Sans font on the front and “Merry Christmas!” on the back, for Black Friday.

As of Monday, the shirt looks to have been removed from the NRCC website. The online store is still selling a t-shirt milder version that says “Not Afraid to Say ‘Merry Christmas.'”

This sort of thing happens every Christmas, because they sense things are changing, and they don’t like it, but Josh Barro at Business Insider points out the obvious:

Here’s the thing: Some people celebrate Christmas and some don’t. It’s fine to say “Merry Christmas.” But sometimes, a speaker wants to be especially mindful of the fact that not all of his or her listeners celebrate Christmas, so he or she says “Happy Holidays.”

Why should Republicans have a problem with that? When Republicans say they have a problem with it, what message are they sending to non-Christian voters?

Most voters are Christian, so a pro-Christmas position seems like it should be popular. But Republicans don’t understand how their anti-outsider messages aggregate.

Most voters are straight, so opposition to gay marriage shouldn’t be an electoral problem. Most voters aren’t Mexican-Americans, so they shouldn’t be too bothered by thinly-veiled (or unveiled) anti-Mexican messaging on immigration.

Add these things all together, and you get a political party that looks like it’s engaged in interest-group politics for straight non-Hispanic white Christians. That’s not too appealing to the increasing share of voters who aren’t straight non-Hispanic white Christians.

That’s not that appealing to sensible voters who ARE straight non-Hispanic white Christians, who have a sense of fairness, thus Barro says what everyone says:

If Republicans want to be a viable political party in an increasingly diverse country, they need to drop their opposition to pluralism. They can start by ending the whining about the “War on Christmas.”

Perhaps they can switch to relatively harmless Christmas nostalgia, like on the Hallmark Channel on cable television, and drop the in-your-face stuff about being proud to be pure white and amazingly straight and Christian and wealthy, but they probably won’t. There’s no precedent for that, except that there actually is one precedent. After the Civil War, the Klan, among other things, was thoroughly anti-Catholic, but when it reemerged in the early twenties, it wasn’t. Those evil Catholic folks had become just fine, or at least harmless enough. They were the cops on the corner, and the Wearing of the Green on Saint Patrick’s Day was kind of fun. For the more intellectually inclined, William Butler Yeats was a fine poet. Change had come, and it wasn’t so bad. There was a brief flurry of concern when Kennedy ran for president in 1960, but no one really believed he was going to take his orders from the Pope, and he was one damned cool dude. Nixon wasn’t, so we elected our first Catholic president and the world as we knew it didn’t end. We got Camelot, not the Vatican of the Borgia crowd.

Things did change, and in the decades since, conservatives have embraced each Pope, whoever he was. The Pope, and thus the Catholic Church, and thus all Catholics, opposed abortion of course, and all birth control, and they reviled gays. The Pope was a social conservative just like them, even if each successive Pope was against every war we waged, for the good of the world, and perhaps for Jesus, and each said stuff about caring for the poor. They forgive each Pope for that, as if that were an odd eccentricity, and Popes didn’t ever say it was the government’s job to take care of the poor, with taxpayers’ money. He was on their side, generally, and the Catholic bishops in America would help them destroy Obamacare. They hated that birth-control mandate, establishing that all health plans had to include access to contraception and family planning services, except for church plans. The bishops held that no health plan should include any of that, as that stuff was morally evil. Anyone offering a health plan should be allowed to refuse to provide what he or she knew, as a matter of faith, was morally evil – and that would be the first crack in the wall. American social conservatives could then chip away at the rest of Obamacare, with the Pope’s help. And each successive Pope was always reliably anti-gay. That was a bonus.

This was a big shift, and then they got a new Pope, the current one, Francis, who is saying odd things. Francis has told the Church to back off on the abortion and contraception and anti-gay stuff. There are more important issues, like taking care of the poor, like Jesus says. That other stuff will work itself out – love and kindness and charity are far more important.

This wasn’t a change in doctrine, just a change in emphasis, but it was a change nonetheless, and it caught American social conservatives off-guard. The new Pope even said he was fine with atheists of good will – perhaps they could chat. As for gays, who was he to judge? Yep, he did say that – and all was lost.

Now it’s one more thing:

As head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis is charged with bringing people into the faith. But the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano reported the pope told churchgoers Sunday that he used to make money by kicking people out of clubs as a bouncer, according to the Catholic News Service. He told the group of parishioners that his work teaching literature and psychology later in his life, rather than his days working a nightclub door, taught him the secret to bringing people into the church.

Hey, it was just a job long ago – chill out, folks. At least he hadn’t been a member of the Hitler Youth League like the previous Pope, although in certain circles on the right that might have been better – but this is one more thing that makes Francis a problem for American social conservatives. He was a nightclub bouncer? What next?

What came next had already come in late November. As discussed previously – at some length – that was his apostolic exhortation that tried to set a few things straight:

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. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.

The new Pope was attacking everything the Republicans have been saying for generations, and he sounded like a bleeding-heart liberal:

How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

And there was more:

While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.

It seems that this new Pope recommends vigilance for the common good, perhaps as with Dodd-Frank and the new Consumer Protection Bureau, which the Republicans have done their best to destroy, like so much else:

In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.

And then he calls for political change:

A financial reform open to such ethical considerations would require a vigorous change of approach on the part of political leaders. I urge them to face this challenge with determination and an eye to the future, while not ignoring, of course, the specifics of each case. Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor.

The American right never saw that coming, and it took a few days to sink in, but it finally was time to fire back at this upstart Pope, and Fox Business host Stuart Varney was just the guy to do it:

Capitalism, in my opinion, is a liberator. The free choice of millions of people is the essence of freedom. In my opinion, society benefits most when people are free to pursue their own self-interest. I know that sounds like a contradiction, but it is not.

You have to trust him on that, and besides, the Pope has no business mixing politics with religion:

I go to church to save my soul. It’s got nothing to do with my vote. Pope Francis has linked the two. He has offered direct criticism of a specific political system. He has characterized negatively that system. I think he wants to influence my politics.

Pope John Paul II was much more Varney’s kind of guy – very against communism, and very into private property, and of course he never made rich people feel bad for having too much while millions of others went without, or something.

Stuart Varney is a bit of a clown, but the New York Times’ Ross Douthat isn’t, and Douthat offers this:

After Francis’s latest headline-making exhortation – which roves across the entire life of the church but includes a sharp critique of consumer capitalism and financial laissez-faire – politically conservative Catholics have reached for several explanations for why … They have insisted on the difference between church teaching on faith and morals, and papal pronouncements on economic issues, noting that there’s nothing that obliges Catholics to believe the pontiff is infallible on questions of public policy. …

Finally, it’s true that there is no Catholic position on, say, the correct marginal tax rate, and that Catholics are not obliged to heed the pope when he suggests that global inequality is increasing when the statistical evidence suggests otherwise.

Who knows what statistical evidence Douthat sees, but the main point is that the Pope is obviously infallible on moral issues, but not on economic issues, and policy toward the poor is an economic issue, not a moral one at all, really – and anyway, capitalism has done a hell of a lot of good for a hell of a lot of people, so the Pope doesn’t know everything, even if he is infallible.

Politically conservative Catholics are in a tough spot here. Douthat actually does argue that public policy toward the poor cannot be a moral issue, and goes on to lecture the Pope on capitalism, because that’s where conservatives are infallible, not him, this new Pope who even gets the proper understanding of Catholic teaching all wrong:

Catholic social teaching, properly understood, emphasizes both solidarity and subsidiarity – that is, a small-c conservative preference for local efforts over national ones, voluntarism over bureaucracy.

Someone should explain to the Pope what it means to be Catholic, obviously. Catholics never call on any government to do anything, even if the poor keep getting hammered, by the political system itself.

This calls for some analysis, and push-back, from a politically conservative Catholic, who is also gay, and that means Andrew Sullivan:

Pope Francis’ criticism of the market as the core relationship between human beings is not in any way new in Catholicism. Nor is it some form of ideological leftism. It’s simply an orthodox call to remind us of our fundamental duty to the poor and the sick and the vulnerable, our manifest obligation to treat every human we encounter with dignity and worth – both personally and through the social structures we democratically assent to.

That’s the issue:

Of course, the theoconservatives were among the last to allow any prudential, conscientious disagreement with papal pronouncements when they held sway in the Vatican. Those of us who dissented on priestly celibacy or the civil equality of homosexual persons or the ban on all contraception or the new and extremist doctrine on end-of-life issues were routinely dismissed as outside the fold. But as the theoconservative project, like the neoconservative one, lies in rubble and manifest failure, there’s no need for tit-or-tat now that the papal shoe is on the other foot (and no longer Prada).

There is, for example, little doubt that the free market has brought more wealth, comfort and health to human beings than any other form of economic model in human history. The last three hundred years have improved our material lot more than the previous 200,000. Socialism is a grim failure of a system, communism even worse. But what all these systems have in common is a materialist vision of what makes human life worth living. That’s not a criticism in particular. Most such systems do not have within their remit a deeper understanding of human existence – a grounding in something other than prosperity. A Catholic, however, has exactly that grounding, which enables us to examine all such systems from different, higher ground.

And the way in which market capitalism has become a good in itself on the American right is, well, perniciously wrong.

All good Catholics should see that:

As soon as a system ceases to be a means to a human good, and becomes an end in itself, it has become a false idol. Perhaps the apotheosis of that idol worship was the belief – brandished on the degenerate right in the past decade or two – that markets are self-regulating. Of course they’re not, as Adam Smith would have been the first to inform you. Another assumption embedded on the American right is that more wealth is always a good thing. The Church must say no. This is a lie. Wealth is a neutral thing above a certain basic level of non-drudgery. Above that, it can be an absolutely evil, deceptive thing, distorting human souls, warping their dignity, vulgarizing their character. An American right that worships at the altar of both free markets and material wealth, and that takes these two idols as their primary goods, is not just non-Catholic. It is anathema to Catholicism and to the Gospels.

Didn’t someone once say that the love of money is the root of all evil? Maybe here is where we went wrong:

Prosperity theology (sometimes referred to as the prosperity gospel, the health and wealth gospel, or the gospel of success) is a Christian religious doctrine that financial blessing is the will of God for Christians, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to Christian ministries will always increase one’s material wealth. Based on non-traditional interpretations of the Bible, often with emphasis on the Book of Malachi, the doctrine views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, he will deliver his promises of security and prosperity. Confessing these promises to be true is perceived as an act of faith, which God will honor.

The doctrine emphasizes the importance of personal empowerment, proposing that it is God’s will for his people to be happy. The atonement (reconciliation with God) is interpreted to include the alleviation of sickness and poverty, which are viewed as curses to be broken by faith. This is believed to be achieved through visualization and positive confession, and is often taught in mechanical and contractual terms.

It was during the Healing Revivals of the 1950s that prosperity theology first came to prominence in the United States, although commentators have linked the origins of its theology to the New Thought movement which began in the 1800s. The prosperity teaching later figured prominently in the Word of Faith movement and 1980s televangelism. In the 1990s and 2000s, it was adopted by influential leaders in the Charismatic Movement and promoted by Christian missionaries throughout the world, sometimes leading to the establishment of mega-churches.

Catholics just weren’t into that – “blessed are the poor” and all that – but Sullivan sees another schism:

The neoconservative version of American exceptionalism is equally anathema to Catholicism. No country on earth is any more inherently moral than any other. It may achieve great things in advancing human good, as the US has clearly done. But as soon as you identify one country with all human good, and believe that its model, let along its divine providence, is dispositive for the whole of humankind, you are also worshiping a false God. It is that self-worship that allows a country to commit evil and justify it. Torture is such an evil. The American justification of it by the false doctrine of exceptionalism is something the Devil would have celebrated as a great triumph… And the American Catholic right’s acquiescence to it – including the last Pope’s – is a dark and indelible strain.

And then there’s healthcare and Iran:

Now it seems to me that the Church is rightly neutral about the means of achieving the end of universal care. It is not a single-payer Church or an Obamacare Church. But it cannot and is not neutral in any way when it comes to the core moral imperative that each individual in our society, especially the most vulnerable, be able to get care in the wealthiest country on earth. In so far as the Republican Party is absolutely indifferent to the millions of Americans without health insurance, in so far as they have relentlessly opposed one feasible plan for universal insurance without offering an alternative that could achieve the same thing, the Republican Party simply cannot be supported by Catholics right now. …

Similarly on Iran, there is plenty of space within Christian realism to worry that our current attempt at engagement is foolish, that the Iranian regime is not susceptible to change or any peaceful presence in the world. But to refuse even to try and test the possibility of peace – which seems to be the neoconservative position – is clearly against Church teachings to seek peace at all times whenever possible. Pre-emptive war is just as anathema to Catholic “just war” teaching, as, of course, is torture. How much time have theoconservatives spent this past decade examining the crime of the Iraq war and the evil of torture? I suspect the Pope’s answer would be: not nearly enough. And it’s high time they did.

But other than all this, the Pope is a good Republican? Nope, no Pope ever was, really. For a time there were some overlapping issues on which there was agreement, but they weren’t at the core of things, at least for the Church. It was a bit of a misunderstanding. Oops.

Yes, it must be hard to be a conservative these days, when you’ve lost the Pope after all these years, but things do change – or they never changed at all.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to The Pope Puzzle

  1. Speaking as a lifelong and pretty active Catholic almost all those years, this is an outstanding post. There is a small history note about the Ku Klux Klan and Catholics which bears noting, however. In the late 1920s, at least in North Dakota and Minnesota, odd places for the Klan, a rather virulent strain of Ku Klux Klan anti-Catholicism reared its head for a time. Perhaps it is because there weren’t any blacks to kick around, at least in this part of the world, but nonetheless it is a rather odd fact. As for Pope Francis I, he already is changing the tone of the office of Pope, and that will be a very good thing, provided the social justice wing of the Catholic Church not only stays engaged, but gets even more engaged. I happened to be in Tampa FL area when the Pope was elected in mid-March 2013, and luckily found myself in a Franciscan Catholic Church in downtown Tampa the weekend after his election. I described the feeling that weekend in my own blog,Outside the Walls of March 31, should one be interested: http://www.outsidethewalls.org/blog/2013/03/31/

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