ROME -- To absolutely no one’s surprise, Pope Francis’s visit to the United States last week was a great success. The media mostly focused on the personality of “this pope,” comparing him favorably to his immediate predecessor and hinting that his more relaxed stance on Church teaching was the main reason for his popularity. Too many forget, however, how warmly Pope Benedict XVI was received during his 2008 visit to Washington and New York and even his 2010 trip to the United Kingdom, in spite of outrageous calls for his arrest. It could be that most people, especially Catholics, love the pope, whomever he is.
Loving the pope does not necessarily mean liking or even agreeing with, let alone doing, what he says, and Pope Francis wants all of us to do a lot more than we currently are. He always asks people to pray for him, which is one way of expressing love. He asks non-believers who find themselves unable to pray to “wish him well,” which is also such an expression, nicely captured by the Italian voler bene. To will or desire the good of another is the classical Christian definition of love, as well as the basis of the Golden Rule that Pope Francis cited to much applause during his speech to Congress.
“Doing unto others what you would have them do unto you” is more than a warm sentiment or expression of compassion; it is active rather than passive, and requires one to get involved in someone else’s messy life. It also implies that we know what the good of another actually is, which may not always be the case and may come across as judgmental even if we do. Taken most seriously, doing good unto others means saving their souls, often from their own waywardness, and speaking to them about Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.
Because people disagree about what salvation and sins are, and may even do so violently, Enlightenment figures such as Thomas Hobbes reformulated the Golden Rule into a negative precept: “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.” Do no harm, rather than do good. Following Hobbes, John Locke said that the salvation of souls is a strictly personal matter and tolerance is the true aim of the Christian religion. The shift in emphasis is subtle yet significant. The Christian commandment to love others is replaced by the liberal one to leave them alone.
Liberalism presents difficulties for serious Christians regardless of their political preferences. Although he hasn’t put it in such terms, Pope Francis seems to recognize the problem when he berates the “globalization of indifference” or the loneliness of the “throwaway” culture. But it is a classically Christian critique that coincides with the political program of the anti-capitalist left. Indeed, it takes very little effort to see Pope Francis, based on his own priorities, as a man of the Catholic Left.
Yet, on his way to the United States from Cuba, Pope Francis took issue with such a characterization, saying that he teaches nothing other than the social doctrine of the Church and virtually challenging journalists to say otherwise, which none had the courage to do. But the fact is that the pope has chosen to emphasize issues that are overwhelmingly more pleasing to the Left than the Right, and none more so than capitalism. He usually blames the economic way of thinking, the profit motive, and especially financial speculation for social ills. But what if this mentality is not due to economics as such, but to modern thought or liberal democracy more generally? Would progressives still have such favorable views of Pope Francis?
The tensions between Christianity and liberalism are difficult to resolve, especially for those of us who are simply trying to lead honest, decent lives in the modern world. Partisans are just that, partial, in their positions and haven’t come to grips with the larger issues. The conflicts surely can’t be resolved by thoughtlessly condemning capitalism or, conversely, saying a few kind words about business. But after watching Pope Francis in the United States, I am tempted to say that he is more aware of the difficulty than he was.
Can we dare to say that Pope Francis has learned something about economics from his American critics? Maybe so. Compare what he said in Latin America about the “idolatry of money” and the “dung of the devil” to his speech in Congress about the “creation and distribution of wealth” and the “spirit of enterprise.” On his return flight from Paraguay, the pope had said he needed to study the American criticisms of his economic statements and admitted he was “allergic to economics.” He knows that we live in an individualistic age but shouldn’t be nostalgic or romantic about the past. Whatever happened in the pope’s thinking about economics, it was a step in the right direction.
But just a step. We’ll have to see if Pope Francis simply wanted to be a gracious guest and avoid using “harsh and divisive language,” as he’d counselled his brother bishops to do. He didn’t make explicit references to abortion or same-sex marriage in his speech to Congress, so it would appear that he chose the more conciliatory path overall. (Apparently there aren’t enough arms traders and death-penalty advocates to worry about offending.)
It is also one step to stop attacking capitalism for harming the poor and another to recognizing it as the best way to help them escape from poverty. There are spiritual and moral dangers to unleashing competition in a traditional society, as the pope has repeatedly warned. But when it is contained in a legal and ethical framework, competition allows the poor opportunities they would not otherwise have. As the PovertyCure and Poverty Inc. films explain, properly-framed competition also treats the poor as moral agents and partners, subjects rather than mere objects of our compassion.
The pope’s support of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at the United Nations was, therefore, discouraging. As a top-down, State-centric manifesto, the 2030 Agenda is simply more of the same old failed development policies dressed up in environmental garb. Much more sensible, market-driven approaches are available and deserve a look from religious leaders who are concerned about other morally objectionable aspects of the UN social agenda. This would require, however, a drastic shift in thinking in traditional Vatican diplomacy -- and not just the pope’s.
Pope Francis came to the United States as a pastor, rather than a politician or a celebrity, even if he was a bit of all three at times during the trip. He certainly didn’t come as a critic of American-style capitalism and that was a very good thing. But it is still too early, and perhaps impossible, for Pope Francis to go from “this economy kills” to “this economy saves.” Religious-minded supporters of the market economy will have to take what they can get.