Pope Francis and Those Radical, Permanent Things

Published September 29, 2015

National Review Online

In the wake of Pope Francis’s extraordinary pastoral visit to the United States, marked as it was by an unprecedented outpouring of enthusiasm and affection, a question for the long haul occurs. In his efforts to reach out to disaffected Catholics and religiously uninterested secularists, is the pope ignoring what we might call the Iron Law of Religion and Modernity: the law which suggests that religious communities maintaining a clear sense of their doctrinal and moral boundaries can survive (and even flourish) under the pressures of modern and post-modern culture, while those with porous and permeable borders wither and eventually die?

Progressive Catholics and those on the political Left fervently hope that the answer is “Yes, the pope is ignoring it” — a hope born of the fantasy that Francis’s pontificate marks a decisive turn in Catholicism parallel to that taken by liberal Protestantism over the past two centuries. Meanwhile, the political Right and a lot of Catholics energized by John Paul II and Benedict XVI seem to be taking a cue from the saga of Shoeless Joe Jackson and urging Francis, “Say it ain’t so . . . ” Both are missing essential elements of the pope’s message in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia.

The three key addresses of the papal pilgrimage were to a joint meeting of Congress, to the General Assembly of the United Nations, and at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. In Washington and New York, the pope made strong statements about climate change, immigration and refugees, intolerant religion, avarice, and the plight of the poor. From the rostrum of the House of Representatives he lifted up two iconic figures of the Catholic Left, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, and at the U.N. he repeated his criticism of what he often terms a “throwaway culture” — all of which lifted hearts and raised expectations on the port side of the ecclesiastical and political spectrums. Yet look at what else Francis said in those addresses.

He insisted, in both venues, that politics must be animated by a passion for the common good — which is to say that politics is a moral exercise, not just an exercise in power. He proclaimed the bottom-line political and moral “responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” from the womb through natural death — and got his most sustained applause in the House chamber for doing so. He suggested that we not judge the colonial past by the “criteria of the present” — and underscored that point by canonizing the 18th-century Franciscan missionary to California, Junípero Serra, vilified by some activists as an exemplar of the European subjugation of native peoples. At the U.N., he lifted up the Catholic social-ethics principle of “subsidiarity,” first defined by Pope Pius XI in 1931 as an antidote to political modernity’s tendency to absolutize state power. Pope Francis made clear his understanding that there can be no distribution of wealth without the creation of wealth, and he quoted himself on business as a “noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world.”

Both in Congress and at the U.N. (as at the White House welcoming ceremony on September 23), he quietly but unmistakably defended marriage as traditionally understood and insisted that the family, not the state, is the primary engine of personal and social development. And at the U.N., he took a theme from John Paul II and proposed that the empowerment of the disadvantaged to be “dignified agents of their own destiny,” rather than wards of charity or of the welfare state, was the goal that should guide anyone seeking to “enable . . . real men and women to escape from extreme poverty.”

So it was not all climate change, income inequality, and immigration policy — not by a long shot.

Moreover, the thread tying the congressional and U.N. speeches to the Independence Hall address was the pope’s steady defense of religious freedom. At the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, Francis insisted that, while religious freedom “certainly means the right to worship God . . . as our consciences dictate,” it is also a “fundamental right that shapes the way we interact socially and personally with our neighbors.” Why? Because religious traditions “remind us of the transcendent dimension of human existence and [of] our irreducible freedom in the face of every claim to absolute power” — like the claim of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that it can compel the Little Sisters of the Poor to participate in insurance programs that include contraceptives and abortifacients.

This defense of religious freedom in full — not that mere “freedom of worship” that has become the preferred language of the Clinton/Kerry State Department — is no abstract point for Pope Francis. The pope has called the Church to be a “field hospital” attending to those wounded by 21st-century culture and society. The various branches of that field hospital — like the Little Sisters of the Poor’s home for the indigent elderly in Washington, to which he made a surprise visit, or the school for underprivileged kids he visited in New York, or the Catholic Charities office where he gave the blessing at a lunch for the homeless of the nation’s capital — cannot do their work unless they are allowed to be themselves, living out the truths the Catholic Church holds. And as Francis put it in Philadelphia, it’s because of those truths that the Church can proclaim “the . . . dignity of the human person and human rights.” A just state, he was suggesting, would acknowledge those agencies’ right to live out the truths by which they serve the common good of all.

Although this complex of messages will inevitably be cherry-picked to advance particular causes, it simply doesn’t fit the conventional Left/Right categories of our politics (including our ecclesiastical politics). To parse it in those terms is to miss its roots in a Christian radicalism that challenges all forms of modernity, from socialism to libertarianism — and does so in the conviction that the permanent things of this world include certain truths: that human beings are not simply congealed stardust; that there are moral laws, built into the world and into us, that we ignore at our peril as individuals and as a society; and that the reduction of “politics” to the quest for power, like the reduction of “history” to the exhaust fumes of the means of production, inevitably ends up creating tyrannies of one sort or another.

Pope Francis has no experience of a mature democracy, although he demonstrated his admiration for American ideals and challenged us to live them out more fully. He doesn’t have firsthand knowledge of well-functioning markets, regulated by culture and by law. What he does know is the truth with which John Paul II, when archbishop of Cracow, challenged young priests whose vocations seemed animated by a desire to join the struggle of Polish Catholicism (and nationalism) against Communism. He admired that determination, he told these newly ordained men. But it wasn’t enough. For, as he put it, the real battle-line in late modernity (as in today’s post-modernity), runs straight through each human heart. That battle is one of resistance to modernity’s siren songs of radical personal autonomy and instant gratification. And it must be fought at that radical — “root” — level every day, with the truths biblical religion teaches us about who we are, and what our aspirations should be.

— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. 

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