During his homily at Mass, this morning, the priest — an affable senior who technically retired from service but still helps out around the parish — mentioned the pope’s recent dip in favorability according to a public opinion poll. He attributed that outcome to the fact that Pope Francis is insisting that we tend to the poor.
There are ways to interpret the priest’s explanation in a way that would be plausible, if not outright true, but it seems at the least to be incomplete.
Kicking off the afternoon of the second day of this year’s Portsmouth Institute conference, First Things editor R.R. Reno put Francis in a historical context, specifically the context of Vatican diplomacy. He titled the talk, “The Diplomacy of Bold Words and Striking Gestures.” (Complete video below.)
Beginning with Pope Leo XIII, in the mid-to-late 1800s, according to Reno, the Roman Catholic Church moved to address its own position in a secularizing, industrialized world. Coming out of an era during which the Church and governments (mainly of Europe) were deeply interwoven, Leo moved toward independence.
As the Church approached the Twentieth Century, it developed a more-rich canon law, to have its own, independent legal system, and built its own “intellectual culture,” particularly around Thomas Aquinas. A third development came through concordats, by which the Vatican negotiated its role in each country, where Church and state matters had some overlap.
The “Leonine project,” as Reno calls it, was to make the Church a complete and coherent independent entity — “a political reality strong enough, thick enough, deep enough to face and challenge modern secular authority.” One could say this was very forward-looking, inasmuch as its level of independence helped the Church to balance its role as a large organization with its international presence in a world experiment with “the state” as an almost deified abstraction. Reno gave the example of Pope John Paul II in Communist Poland, where (he says) the Church may have been the only independent organization in the country.
Thus, with John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council, the Church was positioned to redirect this “inwardly turned legal and diplomatic project” outward in order to become a diplomatic “conscience of the world,” as Reno put it. Many Americans across a broad definition of the political middle would likely see this as the appropriate role of religion; it gives a framework for our beliefs and helps us apply those beliefs to the world in which we live, but without the authority directly to command public policy.
The Church’s main method of filling this role is through persuasion — both of its own members and of the rest of society. It is in this context that “prophetic language,” as Father (now Bishop-elect) Robert Barron characterizes it, leads to the “bold words and striking gestures” of Reno’s title. The purpose isn’t to prescribe a solution, but to inject the calls of conscience into the secular policy debates.
Reno calls the pope’s recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, a “case study” of Francis’s brand of diplomacy, with its main goal being less to teach specifics as to “arrest our attention” in order to prod us to deal with the problem of a world being driven by technology and financial wizardry. And in addressing those problems, the pope suggests that we cannot simply follow the progressive playbook, because the West has seen real social decline, particularly when it comes to the family, that must be reversed.
However, as Reno points out, in following the global elite’s understanding that mankind is largely to blame for climate change and that it is an urgent, dire problem, with the inference that the bill should be paid by wealthy nations and individuals, Francis runs into the practical reality that such an approach would necessitate that the economy be put on a “radically different footing.”
Furthermore, because modern political structures and their entrenched interests aren’t “remotely capable” of bringing about such a change, said Reno, the pope implicitly advises radical restructuring in that sphere, as well.
Political and economic conservatives (in the modern American sense) will immediately observe that their preferred political and economic system would address the problems much better — and in a way much more in keeping with Church doctrine — than centralized power. Reno suggests, for example, that it would hinder the advancement of poor nations if wealthy nations were directing their resources to climate change rather than capital investment. This contradiction between the exhortation and economic reality, he says, Francis “fudges,” saying simply, “live small.”
Reno ended his talk by emphasizing that the encyclical was really just a first attempt to “get our arms around” a global political reality in which the “capitalist technological project” has triumphed. With more time, perhaps he would have applied his historical thesis to the question in order to shape a possible direction for the Church.
After all, in presenting the urgent crisis of ecology, Pope Francis effectively suggests that the “conscience of the world” requires changes in the secular order. He is therefore reasserting the Church’s role as above political and economic authorities. As true as it may be that conscience comes before practice, that truism is arguably at odds with a style of rhetorical excess.
“Arresting our attention” with striking denunciations of particular approaches to social organization — such as capitalism — and being “calculatedly hyperbolic,” as Reno puts it, about a particular mode of life require that one be right not just on the morality, or even on the related science, but also on the prudential judgment of how to resolve difficulties. In the current mix of central government planning and capitalism, if the pope incorrectly blames the latter for problems wrought by the former, then his attacks on those who believe and uphold a liberated economy put the conscience’s whip in the wrong hand.
A sense of that misapplication of invective may explain some of the pope’s lost popularity. As suggested in last week’s thoughts on Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s Portsmouth Institute talk, environmental alarmism isn’t something about which the non-elite masses are especially concerned.
Here, again, Pope Francis’s encyclical arguably backs him into an intellectual corner by cutting off solutions that don’t accord with his theme. Giving literal power to the people of the world — to the poor — would most likely ensure that they chose capital investment over some theoretical cure for climate change. Power therefore must remain with an elite whom the Church then harangues to give up its privileges for something more resembling responsibility.
As honorable as that admonition may be, it may miss the solution not only for the new global reality, but also for the Church’s role within it. Technology and new approaches to finance can democratize and liberate — even, true, to the point of individual human isolation. Perhaps the Church must move to bring its message down to that level, too —to instruct not as to what the privileged must do, but what we each must do, liberating us out of isolation.
We in the pews and in the news-consuming public hear often of the moral imperative to “raise up” those who are in need. We hear less about the need for us to rise, ourselves, and for the needy to do so, themselves.
What’s needed is a sense that everybody in the human family is pulling toward the same ends and that our mutual responsibilities are just that: mutual. That is only possible if we are interacting as individuals, with the guidance of God and conscience.
Put in the Church’s terms, the global authority can only be the Holy Spirit, guiding us through the Church and other mechanisms, yes, but guiding us as individuals, not as national and international entities that can negotiate with each other diplomatically because they claim the authority to binds people to actions against their will.