24 September 2015

The Party of Francis

Part of my job involves listening to raw opinion over the phone. Over the past week I've heard people griping about the Pope's visit to the U.S. and his address before Congress. All the griping comes from the right. From that perspective, Bergoglio has committed sins of both commission and omission. Someone says it's none of his business to tell other countries to take in more refugees. Another says it's none of his business to try and mediate between the U.S. and Cuba. It's also none of his business to talk about climate change, someone said, unless he lectures the Chinese, the Indians and his own people in South America first. As for the sins of omission, after the address today, someone complained that he had not denounced Planned Parenthood for its for-profit organ harvesting. In short, whenever Francis ruffles Republican feathers the reactionaries say he should stick to religion, which to them means morality as preached on Fox News or political talk radio.

By comparison, from the broadly-defined left only a relative handful of hardcore feminists and Native activists have criticized the pontiff, the Natives for his canonization of a new saint they accuse of cultural genocide, the feminists for all the predictable but still-valid reasons. For the most part, liberals and progressives have been the current Pope's loudest cheerleaders. They're happy to see a Pope who's on the side of science on climate change, who's more concerned about the plight of the poor than the dangers of socialism/marxism/communism/big government, who seems at least more forgiving, if not necessarily more indulgent on gender and reproductive issues. If he makes Republicans angry -- at least one Representative boycotted today's address over climate politics -- he must be doing something right. But Bergoglio himself today warned against "the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners." While that's sound advice, it should also remind his liberal American fans that Francis isn't necessarily on their side, even if he's more obviously not on the other side. His protest that the traditional family "is threatened, perhaps as never before" by "fundamental relationships ... being called into question, [including] the very basis of marriage and the family," should remind us that the Pope isn't as progressive on all fronts as some would hope. Again, however, that doesn't put him on the Republican side of family politics. "At the risk of oversimplifying," he said, "we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family." In other words, the problem isn't just gays and feminists but also poverty and individualist consumerism. One can still ask what's worth saving about the traditional family (for Francis it seems to be all about the children) but few on the left are as daring on that issue as their predecessors were a century or more ago.

An institution like the Catholic Church that can't reconcile itself to full gender equality or the equality of all sexual choices of consenting adults clearly draws lines against progress on some fronts while leaving the borders open, if you will, on others. Just as the Pope appears to agree with the left on some issues but not on others, the left should be able to applaud him when he deserves it and criticize him and his church when they deserve it. Right now, contra Stalin, the American left seems convinced that Francis can bring many divisions to their long twilight struggle with Republican conservatism. If he does help, fine, but the left can go too far in making him a moral leader of any aspect of their struggle. It should always be understood that while a Pope may agree with the left on important issues, it remains both possible and preferable that people arrive at those positions without assuming that they're true only because God wills it. The limits of any Pope's alliance with the historic global left illustrate, perhaps better than anything else, the limit of God's will in the real world.

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