I recieved an email this week from a man who would like to become Catholic, but finds his politics getting in the way. He identifies as a political conservative. He perceives Pope Francis to be a political liberal. The Pope’s recent words about capitalism and the environment give him pause. They are a stumbling block. What should he do?
The problem is not a new one. Friends of mine who are political liberals responded vitriolically to what they perceived as the conservatism of John Paul II and Pope Benedict. In fact, Popes throughout the centuries have exerted great political influence (wittingly and unwittingly), and it is not always easy even in hindsight to evaluate that influence. In the case of my correspondent, this has provoked a real crisis of conscience.
Some simplistic responses to this problem are clearly inadquate. The “easy” way is to dismiss the pope, to write off what he says as “poor prudential judgment,” constantly to qualify him, to talk about what “he really means,” to point out that he’s not speaking ex cathedra, or otherwise mitigate his point of view. This response fails to take seriously that we owe the Pope a religious submission even when he is not teaching dogma. He is the vicar of Christ, raised up by God to teach the faith and to relate that faith to the the concrete demands of human life.
There is another error that is perhaps more dangerous. We can fully embrace what we think he is saying, or what we’d like him to be saying, by assimilating it completely to our own political ideology. We can enlist the Pope as politcal partisan in the service of our agenda. In some ways this error is worse than the first, since we don’t even allow ourselves to hear what the pope says before accepting or rejecting it. We are so enclosed within our ideological worldview that we have lost the ability even to hear competing voices.
Third error is the most pernicious. We dont’ like what the pope is saying, and so we reject the authority of the Church altogether. The political or ideological agenda is our real authority. We are only interested in the Church to the extent that it furthers that agenda. Do not think that this danger applies only to “the other guy.” There are ideologues across the political spectrum who would sacrifice their souls for the sake of “the agenda.”
Fortunately, the popes themselves have told us how to address this problem. In the encyclical Solicitudo rei socialis, St. John Paul II explained that Catholic social teaching does not fall along the continuum of existing political discourse. The Church is not left or right. She is not capitalist or socialist. Nor is she halfway between the two. Rather, social doctrine is in the genre of moral theology. The Church is in the business of pointing out the moral demands of the just society, not in dictating the political program necessary to get there.
This is something Pope Francis himself has said over and over. On his recent trip to Latin America he remarked,
It is not so easy to define the content of change – in other words, a social program which can embody this project of fraternity and justice which we are seeking. So don’t expect a recipe from this Pope. Neither the Pope nor the Church have a monopoly on the interpretation of social reality or the proposal of solutions to contemporary issues. I dare say that no recipe exists. History is made by each generation as it follows in the footsteps of those preceding it, as it seeks its own path and respects the values which God has placed in the human heart.
Sometimes, of course, the Pope does speak immediately to matters of public policy. John Paul II, for instance, was a vocal critic of U.S. War policy in the middle east. But even then, it is still a mistake to assimilate the Pope fully ino one political camp. The Pope has very different reasons for weighing into contemporary debate. Ultimately, the Popes remind us that we are made in the image of God. We possess a dignity that transcends partisans poltics. Politics may be unavoidable, but the Church calls us to submit our ideologies to that trasncedent dignity. Following St. Paul, we “take every thought captive in obedience to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5)
It’s very easy to dismiss the Pope when we don’t like what he says. It’s even easier to press him into the service of our personal political program. It’s much harder to lay down our agenda and listen attentively. But in the final analysis, I have to try and listen. “Whoever has ears,” the Lord said, “out to hear.” (Matthew 13:9)