My late professor, Leo Strauss, alerted us to an often overlooked dimension of political life when he wrote of “persecution and the art of writing” – the art of “writing between the lines.” Many of the grand works in political philosophy were not written in liberal political orders. They were written with an awareness of a censor not far away, in an authoritarian or despotic political regime. Strauss’s thesis provoked controversy, but an even livelier argument ensued on the question of whether this need to write between the lines could become necessary even in the most liberal countries. For it could be explosive for the philosopher to lay bare the premises on which even the liberal polity has been provisionally settled.
Strauss had observed that when a skilled writer falls into a mistake or contradiction that would embarrass a schoolboy, that may be a sign that the contradiction is quite deliberate. The writer may be drawing in the close reader, to read even more closely yet. And the reader may find there the deeper teaching that the writer, for one reason or another, has decided not to trumpet in public. His deeper teaching he holds back in prudence from a wider public not prepared to understand and receive it.
All of this came to mind as an alternative explanation, worth at least pondering, for Pope Francis’s “excellent adventure” in America. A friend from a Catholic conference in the Midwest, visiting Washington, was rather depressed by Francis’s speeches at the White House and in Congress. He was jolted when Francis raised the issue of the “sanctity of life” – and moved quickly, for his example to capital punishment. Not a word at that critical moment for the 1.2 million innocent lives destroyed every year by abortions in this country. But as it turned out, that omission was so glaring, so obvious, that it stirred the surprise and wonderment even of people who are pro-choice. Could it be that Francis, with that move, was signaling us to read more closely? Was he pointing us to the many places, in his talks and writings, where he was affirming the orthodox teaching on marriage, or the primacy, among all moral issues, of destroying the most innocent human lives in abortion?
The meeting with Kim Davis might have borne out that interpretation. It was not part of the public, official schedule; but it took place at the papal nunciature. Francis affirmed there his understanding of the only rightful form of marriage and the claims of “conscience.” But that interpretation was undermined when the Vatican Press Office denied the import of the meeting – the only import that could plausibly attach to the meeting. In striking contrast, Francis’s meeting with an old friend, a man now “married” to another man, was indeed on the schedule, and was not to be disavowed. His embrace of the men, his kisses for them, could be taken as a sign of compassion. And yet it could be wholly compatible with his intractable refusal to accept in principle their form of “marriage.”
In any case, I thought I would look again at Francis’s writings, with more attentiveness this time to the difference between the more amplified and the more muted teaching. I turned again to the reading of Laudato Si. And I must say that I found certain charms there that hadn’t impressed me earlier – beginning with his quotation of the Patriarch Bartholomew on “the world as a sacrament of communion.” There was of course the boilerplate, with all of the liberal clichés on “climate change,” along with the curious deploring of the fossil fuels and the economic growth that have dramatically lifted millions out of poverty.
But the striking thing was this: for virtually every tag line, every familiar rubric, marking a concern for the “environment,” Francis sought to show that if we traced the question to its root, the matter of “human life” has an even higher standing within that order of “nature” – indeed as the very peak of Creation. And the concern for lives impaired by scarce food and bad air hardly compares with the immediate destruction of the lives of the unborn on a mass scale.
Francis points out, then, forcefully that the concern for the earth cannot be taken to “imply a divinization of the earth,” as environmentalism backs into paganism. The concern for the animal world would be turned morally upside down if it “put all living beings on the same level” and “deprive[d] human beings of their unique worth.” And so Francis complained about the obsession in “protecting other species” and “denying any preeminence to the human person.” It is “clearly inconsistent,” he said, “to condemn trafficking in endangered species while remaining completely indifferent to human trafficking, unconcerned about the poor, or undertaking to destroy another human being deemed unwanted.”
But of course these strands in the encyclical were not picked up by the liberal media, even though they supplied the deepest premises – and the deepest teaching – in the encyclical. The same thing would surely be said of Francis’s speeches in America. And there was the pitfall of the two levels of writing: The orthodox teaching was confirmed quietly for the faithful, listening closely. But the things thought fit for the ears and eyes of everyone else were the things that would flatter the prejudices of a broad public, while insuring that nothing serious would really be taught.