The Pontifical Spin Cycle

Published May 5, 2015

National Review Online

Imagine for a moment that the evangelist Luke lived today, in our world of 24/7 news cycles, ideological combat conducted in cyberspace, sound-bite “analysis,” and controversies manufactured by bloggers who double as their own editors (thus reminding us why God invented editors): a world of all spin, all the time. And assume, which is quite reasonable, that the Christian community of his day, like that of our day, was divided into various factions and camps, each with its own take on the public meaning of what those first disciples called The Way. In this case, imagine that some Christians believe that The Way ought to be more aggressive toward the Romans, while others counsel either cooperation with established authority or nonviolent resistance. The followers of The Way thus take different positions on the Zealots, a ragtag bunch of anti-Roman activists, and their role in the First Jewish–Roman War, which was fought from 66 to 70 a.d.; some Christians think the Zealots heroes, others think them fools. The debate continues even after the Romans have suppressed the rebellion and Titus has laid waste to the Second Temple.

Then word gets around the Christian community that Luke, a man of some authority who is known to have been a traveling companion of Saint Paul, intends to write a Gospel: an “orderly account” of “the things that have been accomplished among us.” The various Christian camps jump right into the spin cycle. A pro-Zealot apparatchik gives an interview to the Jerusalem Guardian suggesting that Luke’s work will vindicate the Zealots. More conservative followers of The Way take the bait, flood the Internet with blog posts, and take to the David Street Journal with op-eds, all suggesting that Luke has, at best, a shallow knowledge of the relevant history and that his Gospel is likely to make a huge mess by playing into the hands of the powers of the day. Neither camp has seen a paragraph of the forthcoming Gospel, but their to-and-fro continues for months.

The Gospel According to Luke is then published, and a quick scan of its sixth chapter reveals the following: “In these days [Jesus] went out to the mountain to pray; and all night he continued in prayer to God. And when it was day he called his disciples, and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles; Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip and Bartholomew, and Matthew and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.”

The pro-Zealot party among the followers of The Way spits on its hands and starts pumping out press releases, op-eds, and blog posts: Luke — that hero who helped bring the Christian faith to Europe,  a wise physician and notable historian, a friend of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and of Paul — has made it perfectly clear that the Church stands foursquare behind the Zealots and their program; why else would Luke have written about “Simon who was called the Zealot”? The anti-Zealot party agrees that the reference to “Simon who was called the Zealot” fully aligns Luke with the pro-Zealot party; it then proceeds to wail and lament that the evangelist has taken sides in a dispute involving matters of prudential judgment that he has no authority to resolve.

On and on they go for weeks, while paying virtually no attention to these episodes in the Lucan account: the Annunciation by the Archangel Gabriel and Mary’s Magnificat; the story of Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem; the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple, the prophecies of Simeon and Anna, and Simeon’s Nunc dimittis; the finding of the boy Jesus in the Temple; the Gadarene swine, possessed by demons cast out by Jesus, who go charging into the lake of Galilee; the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector; the story of Zaccheus’s conversion; the parable of the wicked tenants; the story of the Good Thief, whom Jesus forgives from the Cross; the story of the disciples who meet the Risen Lord on the road to Emmaus; and the ascension from Bethany. What with the spin battles over “Simon who was called the Zealot” — spin battles set in motion months before the Gospel was published — the combatants ignore almost everything that is unique, and most that is important, about Luke’s telling of the story of Jesus.

Which we would, I hope, think a shame: For the sake of scoring points in an ideological tug-of-war, the combatants missed the main point of Luke’s Gospel and the distinctiveness of its perspective on the life, teaching, ministry, and Resurrection of the Lord.


Something like this, I suggest, has been underway for months now in anticipation of Pope Francis’s forthcoming encyclical on humanity and the natural world. Late last year, a third-tier Vatican official with a taste for gauchiste politics and self-promotion gave an interview to the Guardian, suggesting that the encyclical would be, in effect, a papal endorsement of the U.N.’s approach to issues of climate change: a piece of spin the leftist British paper was more than happy to highlight, although doing so required the Guardian to take a brief break from its usual Catholic-bashing. Thanks to the Internet, an article based on that interview instantly leapt the Atlantic, and, just as instantly, Catholic skeptics about both climate-change science and Pope Francis went into panic mode, warning that the pope was going to write something that would align Catholicism with Al Gore, Tim Wirth, and the worshippers of Gaia. None of the parties to this dispute, which has now continued for almost half a year, has seen a draft of the encyclical. But all of them are quite sure that it’s a “global-warming encyclical” — just as my fictitious combatants in the first century were sure that Luke’s Gospel was all about the Zealot party — and have taken up the rhetorical cudgels accordingly.

There is no question that Pope Francis has said and done things that contribute to the concerns on one side of this dispute. But there is also no question that he has said and done things that would give extreme heartburn to Tim Wirth, if the former undersecretary of state for global affairs (whose desk displayed a “condom tree” during a meeting with a senior Vatican official) had ever bothered to read them – such as the pope’s denunciation this past January of the “ideological colonization” of the Third World by First World population controllers like . . . Tim Wirth.

The inept Vatican press operation has proven incapable of disciplining the pre-encyclical spin; and no good service was done the pope or the reception of his encyclical when the Vatican official who triggered this whole affair in the Guardian staged a climate-change conference in Rome that assiduously excluded those skeptical of the U.N.’s global-warming orthodoxies (thereby defying the pope’s expressed wish for open conversation in the Church). Still, the non-stop brouhaha over the impending encyclical — the pre-spin that has one camp exultant and another in darkest despair — seems quite out of proportion to what we actually know, ahead of time, about the Catholic Church, environmental issues, and the encyclical-to-come.

One thing we know for sure is that there is nothing new at all about popes’ addressing environmental issues. John Paul II did it; Benedict XVI did it; and now Francis is going to do it. Storylines suggesting that the forthcoming encyclical is some sort of radically new departure in the list of subjects addressed by the papal magisterium are manifestations of hopes or fears; what they are not is historically accurate. Moreover, there is no reason to think that Pope Francis intends to change or dramatically alter the paradigm in which the Catholic Church thinks about humanity and the natural world: a paradigm drawn from Genesis 1:27–30, in which human beings are at the center of the natural world; in which human beings have a responsibility for cultivating the natural world; and in which human beings certainly aren’t to be considered pollutants of the natural world, pace Bill McKibben and those of his persuasion.

Another thing we know for sure, at least judging from his statements as pope and his record in Buenos Aires, is that Francis tends to think of “environment” and “ecology” far more comprehensively than those spinmeisters conducting the pre-encyclical Battle of the Blogs. I don’t have the slightest doubt that the encyclical will address climate change; I have no idea what the pope will say on the matter, although my own Roman contacts suggest that “he won’t get into the science.” I’m reasonably sure that any discussion of climate change will be set in a far broader moral context stressing the Biblical theme of human stewardship for the created order. I have a hunch that the pope will pick up an important theme from Benedict XVI and discuss “human ecology” in the sense of the public moral culture of our times, and that within that context he’ll promote the dignity of human life from conception until natural death. And I’m willing to wager that the pope will, once again, have sharp things to say about a “throwaway culture” in which both things and people are treated as disposable, depending on their “utility” or lack thereof. It would seem quite likely, in other words, that the encyclical’s discussion of climate change is going to be set in a quite different, much more complex, and thus far more interesting context than that set by Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. bureaucracy, and the global-warming industry.

But I’m also reasonably confident that a lot of this is going to be missed by those who have already made a huge investment of time, energy, and credibility in taking what will be one facet of a comprehensive papal discussion of humanity and the natural world and making it into the whole story. As I suggested a few months after his election, Pope Francis has become a global Rorschach blot, onto whom are projected an extraordinary number of hopes and fears, fantasies and anxieties. This Rorschaching of the Pope has gotten to the point where, now, it’s very difficult to find the real man and his authentic teaching amidst the pre-spin, the spin, and the post-spin. That the Vatican press office has proven incapable of coping with this is another sign that the deep reform that Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope to undertake has yet to be achieved in full. And that deficiency is, alas, likely to be on full display when the pope’s encyclical is finally released.

Of course I hope I’m wrong about that. Because if my little historical counter-factual about Luke makes any sense in helping us understand the rhetorical maelstrom into which this encyclical is going to fall, the pope’s principal moral message is going to get lost in the spin cycle. And it would be a shame to miss the Resurrection for the sake of endless battles over the meaning of “Simon who was called the Zealot.”

— 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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