Parsing the Pope

“The pope,” a distinguished Jesuit emailed me shortly after Francis’s speech to the Joint Meeting of Congress yesterday, “seems to be having a good day.” Quite so. He touched on issues guaranteed to give both Democrats and Republicans comfort – and heartburn – but was for the most part rather well balanced, in strong contrast with his speech at the White House Tuesday, over half of which was devoted to climate change. He continues to simply charm people with a message of mercy and reconciliation, and the after effects of his visit may lie more in that personal dimension than in anything specific he’s said. But for that very reason, there continue to be rather strong reactions, both positive and negative, to what he’s been saying – and doing. You should examine those arguments but do yourself a favor and read the pope’s own words for yourself.

If you do, you’ll see that at the meeting with Congress, there was only one point at which you might feel that he was doing a bit of outright lobbying – when he briefly returned to environmental problems: “I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a ‘culture of care’ and an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.” If you read this quickly, you might think that this is the pope simply telling Congress to get moving on climate change. But look again: he’s also speaking about an “integrated” way of dealing with poverty and the excluded.

What, exactly, does he mean? As usual, he’s not always clear and his texts require some parsing out, which inevitably leads to disputes over what’s being emphasized and not. But it’s worth noting that he says this a bit later: “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. (Laudato Si’, 129). This common good also includes the earth, a central theme of the encyclical which I recently wrote in order to ‘enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.’” (ibid., 3) He even acknowledged that economic globalization has lifted up many millions from poverty. His only objection is that the task is not yet done.

The pope’s speech to Congress was surprisingly explicit about the main principles of Modern Catholic Social Thought – surprising, because he doesn’t usually emphasize specifically Catholic social principles. Common Good is a key technical term with a long history, but it became important in the twentieth century precisely because it offered a way of understand persons and society that contrasted sharply with the collectivism of Marxism as well as the radical individualism of several currents in the Western democracies.

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The common good rests on a certain view of the human person – a being formed in a family and other social institutions, as well as possessing an individual side. That person, properly understood, cannot be submerged in a collective entity, but neither does it have the kind of radical autonomy that has become a near default setting in Western culture. In political terms, Catholics speak of subsidiarity and solidarity as indispensable social principles: solidarity, of course, is the name for our responsibility to care for one another; subsidiarity warns us that we do that primarily as individuals and in civil society institutions like the family, the church, the school etc. Expecting government, except as a last resort, to care for us, as we do so often today, is an invitation to both tyranny and decadence.

Some people have remarked that the Holy Father is much clearer and incisive when he speaks about issues that he seems to feel strongly about, e.g., the environment, immigration, the now global refugee crisis, abolishing the death penalty and even life-sentences, or banning arms sales. When he turned to life issues, for example, he delivered the formula all pro-life people were waiting for: “The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” But unless, you’re a pro-lifer you may not have quite understood this, since the A word (abortion) never appears.

As one reader wrote to me, nowhere is an important question asked: How many people are executed in America compared with the number of abortions? It’s forty a year vs. over a million. And if you’re going to go at some length about those forty a year, perhaps the million deserves more than one-line treatment.

Different people will react to the pope’s overall vision in different ways. Still, I think it is no small thing that he spoke in conclusion, at considerable length, precisely about the family. He repeated something he says quite often: we need to preserve the link between the young and the old, and to look at how economic conditions – the high rate of unemployment in particular – and cultural pressures are leading fewer young adults to marry.

Among those cultural factors, he noted, “Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.” Presumably this refers to the way acceptance of homosexuality is being promoted, by whom, he does not specify and the H word, like the A word, never was pronounced. He probably also had in mind “gender theory,” which this pope has frequently denounced as a false ideology that seeks to impose a wide variety of “gender identities and expressions” on the basically male/female biological difference. As he said at the White House Tuesday, he will be traveling to Philadelphia for the Eighth World Meeting of Families, “to celebrate and support the institutions of marriage and the family at this, a critical moment in the history of our civilization.”

Many people think he’s been soft-pedaling Catholic doctrine and I myself said yesterday that I can’t tell if he always understands to whom he is speaking. But set against those worries and intuitions, Pope Francis’s appreciation of the threat to our entire civilization is clear, and he spoke words to be grateful for to our U.S. Congress.