Criticism of Pope Francis on the American Right seems to have reached its high point. Aside from the usual accusations that the Pope is a Marxist, is ignorant of economics, oblivious to illegal immigration, weak on abortion, homosexuality and the liturgy, a new accusation has arisen: the Pope, we are told, never once mentioned Jesus Christ in his Congressional address. The Right’s discontent may tell us more about the paralysis that has afflicted conservative politics in the United States than about any presumed crisis in the Papacy.
Perhaps the heaviest criticism of the Pope voiced by some stalwarts of the American Right is that he never once invoked the name of Jesus Christ. This accusation is misleading on a number of levels. First, as a matter of Biblical exegesis, we ought to recall the instances when Christ Himself, usually following on the heels of a miracle or when those closest to Him happened to guess that He was the Messiah, explicitly forbade others telling anyone about His Divine nature and His miraculous acts. His followers seldom heeded His commands and spread the forbidden word. Pope Francis may well have concluded that there was merit in Christ’s approach to the method by which He wished to reveal Himself to the pagan world, that the Lord at times saw fit to prohibit His zealous pupils the righteous luxury of being direct. Instead of invoking the name of Jesus Christ, the Pope invoked His words:
“Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Mt 7:12).”
It is uncharitable for the American Right to accuse the Pope of not invoking the name of Christ when the American Right is presumably aware of Who it is that the Pope is quoting. Being more explicit may have actually deflected the importance of Christ’s teaching in favor of Christ’s ego. It may just be that some have grown accustomed to Beltway culture that they presume that Jesus Christ lacks name recognition. This is not exactly how the Vatican conducts politics. The Pope is not up for re-election, and he tends to take the long view of things. It is not unreasonable to think that the Pope, whose mandate is rather longer than that of an average Congressman, was not aiming to win a vote on the Senate floor, but to deliver an address that would endure beyond its time.
As to the matter of the immigrants and refugees in relation to whom we ought to be applying this Golden Rule: for some odd reason, the Pope’s words are convoluted into advocacy for illegal immigration, universal amnesty, and a host of other schemes to bypass the rule of law. Yet such an interpretation flies in the face of the Pope’s actual words, by which he explicitly made the contrary clear:
“Yours is a work which makes me reflect in two ways on the figure of Moses. On the one hand, the patriarch and lawgiver of the people of Israel symbolizes the need of peoples to keep alive their sense of unity by means of just legislation. On the other, the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”
When the Pope explicitly tells us that the “patriarch” of Israel symbolizes the need of peoples to keep alive their sense of unity by means of just legislation, we find therein a defense of the importance of Fatherhood and the duties of men which extend from family life into civic life, and we find a defense of the notion of a unity of particular peoples forged by just law. It is no accident that the Jewish state is homogeneous and uninviting. The Jewish state is the exact opposite of the multicultural state, and Moses made it so. To praise Moses is not to advocate the creation of a global and universal Jewish state, but to acknowledge the justice of political bodies that represent, refine and preserve the unitary character of a people or nation rather than dilute that character through Towers of Babel.
To identify and differentiate a Tower of Babel from a universal Church encompassing men and women of different cultural and linguistic pedigrees is difficult, but necessary. It is the logical consequence of the universality of one religion’s particular God that elevates Him from a tribal to a universal God in a universe of human tribes. The Pope’s reference to Moses also testifies to the importance of law. To claim that law ought to be welcoming for the immigrant and the refugee is not to claim that the law should be broken by either one.
Likewise, to invoke the example of Moses and explicitly claim that Moses is a “good synthesis” of the calling of the United States Congress is to open the matter of Natural Law as the basis for just civil law. The Ten Commandments are divided into divine and human laws. The first of the Commandments order the relations of Man and God and the final ones order the relations of Man to Man. The Ten Commandments cannot be fulfilled piecemeal. We will never fulfill the last set if we ignore the first set because human beings are fallen and imperfect. Without the habits attained through the worship of God, the reasonability of the last set of Commandments which regulate human relations would be undermined by the irrationality of Man.
Thus the Pope explicitly affirms that just civil law is only possible amongst a people who fulfill their religious obligations to God. The Pope is attempting to do just that and lead by example. He has shown charity to refugees, encouraged parishes to do the same, but he has not suspended, overridden or abrogated the law of the Vatican. Vatican City does not have an open border policy, merely an open heart and mind.
Finally, the teaching of the Pope applies just as well to the immigrant and the refugee as it does to the citizen. The immigrant and the refugee are to treat others as they themselves would like to be treated: if they expect justice from the law, they surely must respect it. If they expect charity from citizens, they surely must give it. Where they break the law, where they are uncharitable towards those of whom they expect charity, they will receive their due.
This notion is a quintessentially Catholic teaching, and nowhere is it more evident than in the current refugee crisis. The crisis, which the Pope calls the greatest since World War II, is a direct consequence of Western political action over the past several years. The war, colonial power politics and discord that the West has inflicted upon Muslim nations and Latin American nations, destroying law and order in favor of either utopian fancy or greed, has sown seeds that the West now reaps.
9/11, as we should all now recognize clearly, was blowback for having systematically transformed the United States from a Republic into an Empire. Whether the United States or France or Great Britain or Germany, old colonial powers and new colonial powers whose policy has been the maintenance of exploitative political economy for centuries now face the often tragic consequence of the Golden Rule. This is why the Pope is so forceful in his argumentation on behalf of identifying the arms trade as a blood industry, and ending wars and strife amongst nations and bringing accord. This is why the Pope laments the blood profits of the military/industrial complex and calls upon Americans to embrace their idealistic and humane heritage rather than continue to wallow in political decadence.
Having identified much of the source of present tumult in our own hubris, the Pope is not blind to the threat posed by a terrorism motivated by wayward religious fundamentalism. The Pope has also made clear that the global discord we now bear witness to appears to have been systematized within a body of political economy that exists as a parasite praying on human suffering.
On this note, the American Right errs in accusing the Pope of Marxism. All schools of political economy are “Marxist” because they share an insistence on the application of narrow positivism, rationalism, calculation, and rigid logic to a subject requiring a far broader optic than two schools of atheistic economic thought which differ only on the question of the role of the state (one claims the state ought to be systematically limited, the other that the role of the state ought to be the perpetuation of socio-economic revolution) at a single stage in the development of their utopia in which, as Marx and Mises agree, the state ought not and will not exist.
It is against this vision of chirping sectarians (to borrow a phrase) that the Pope addresses his listeners, pointing out problems which are real, notwithstanding that they might well be problems more commonly identified by the modern political left in America and asking that they work to solve these problems, advising that their solution may rest in the classical view of political action as cooperation for the common good, a view opposed to the Marxist notion of class warfare as inherent in history and opposed to the liberal notion that there is no common good only individual goods.
The Pope told us explicitly that business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good ( a direct quote from Laudato Si’, 129)… yet the American Right insists he is a Marxist?
In the exasperation of the American Right one spies a distinct discomfort: the Money Changers at the Temple take offence to the suggestion that their role is the promotion of the general welfare, particularly since it was this general welfare that had justified their profits up to now. After all, the key argument in the arsenal of American economic pragmatism has always been some form of the idea that capitalism is good because it lifts the masses out of poverty and provides a wider scope of opportunity.
Yet here we are in another year of a jobless recovery, in a world in which the resources of the state have been put to the service of the financial elites who ran their companies into bankruptcy and refused the consequences, while millions of regular families have seen their livelihoods evaporate, where economic colonialism is ascendant, checked only by the ambition of rising powers wishing to re-assert their sovereignty.
The Pope paints no utopias for our politics to strive for, he found himself in the midst of a foreign tribe known as “Americans” who seem of late to have adopted a number of odd notions, such that they are not moved by the plight of the unborn nor phased by the decomposition of the American family nor particularly worried about growing poverty and unemployment in their midst.
Pope Francis recognized that things were not always so, ergo his references to Lincoln, King, Day and Merton – some examples of the better angels of America’s nature. Better angels, but not angels. The Pope did not presume to deify these individuals, merely to praise the good in them, “the complexities of history and the reality of human weakness notwithstanding.” Critics seem to ignore these missives as rhetorical courtesies. They are not.
We can either accept the disquieting and imperfect reality of a political world that shuts its ears to certain words or phrases and therefore endeavor to speak in quiet tones as the Pope does, we can scream louder and ridicule our adversaries or we can withdraw into the havens of our little platoons. In reality, throughout our lives, people of good will do all of these things. Some find solace in withdrawal, some in prudent engagement, some in righteous popular anger. All of these dispositions have a role to play in political life. Why does the American Right deny the Pope his Papal disposition? One can understand that the American character finds abhorrent the very notion of an institutional authority in spiritual matters. Americans are their own pastors, and the American Right seems to have proclaimed itself too proud to be a flock. Still, the pious patriots of various Empires which bestrode the Earth have risen before, convinced that their grandeur, scope, and splendor made them unshakable in the face of old pontificating Pontiffs, only to suffer decline and dust. If the American Right continues to attack the Pope rather than embrace him, it will either marginalize itself in favor of a newly Christian Left or, even if it seizes power, it will steer America further towards decline. Picking a fight with a Pope is the height of political folly. Just ask Hitler and Stalin how their global empires are faring.
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