The Pope and the Labels of Liberalism

The Pope’s historic role, which Francis is playing, is to be a very 
well-dressed critic of the liberal state in all its forms.

New Yorkers personalize everything, and the shutdown of life around town this weeks of quarentine was put personally on the head of our, Pope Francis. A certain amount of the normal exasperation felt at out-of-towners was directed at the pontiff, as though the Pope were one of those tourists trying to stuff a dollar bill into the Metrocard slot. (God, or somebody, forbid he should try to work the new Rube Goldberg contraption for the crosstown bus.)

Yet given how disruptive he was to normal life, the tone of his speach at Vaticano was astonishingly welcoming, not least because this particular Pope lit up people who aren’t normally crazy about the papacy, while—and this is part of what brought joy to the first group—driving round the bend people who normally are more Catholic than he is. And yet this Pope is no more a “liberal” Pope than he is a secret Muslim Pope—he’s the Pope. His historic role, which he is playing, is to be a very well-dressed critic of the liberal state in all its forms. The trick about this Pope is not that he is a secret liberal but that he is such a thoroughgoing critic of liberalism and its dispensations that his assault takes in parts of our experience parochially described as conservative.

It would, to be sure, be a saintly liberal who didn’t feel a little schadenfreude on hearing the Pope contradict certain shibboleths of the self-described religious right. The very people—including members of the Catholic hierarchy—who, when it comes to women’s rights to make intimate reproductive decisions for themselves, have been most passionately devoted to the idea that one can’t be a “cafeteria Catholic,” picking and choosing doctrine as you like, are now loudly determined to, well, pick and choose among papal doctrines just as they like. Making metaphysical decisions about the status of embryos for women is one thing; being asked to condemn killing criminals and torturing prisoners and poisoning the Earth, these are, apparently, different—moral options on which man must be free to exercise his own conscience as he sees fit.

The pleasure one can’t help but feel is moderated, though, tempered by the truth that the extension of his causes and the reordering of his priorities does not alter Francis’s core beliefs. Nor should it be expected to do so. The Pope is still clearly against women’s reproductive rights, and as yet no friend to their ordination. Nor has he really addressed the sexual-abuse crisis, which has done so much to diminish the Church in America; his remarks on the subject in Washington were, as one survivor of priestly abuse said, in the Washington Post, “bizarre,” more devoted to praising the mostly invisible moral courage of the hierarchy that participated in the coverup than in addressing the evil done to the abused. A leader of SNAP, the victims’ organization, called Francis’s remarks “a slap in the face to all the victims, that we’re going to worry about how the poor bishop feels.” (It is a sign of the special moral exemption the Catholic Church receives that, had any other organization in the world engaged in the same activity, many of its leaders would be in prison.)

Francis’s allegiance is to the continuity of his Church, not to its disruption on even a point of liberal law. He appears to be genuinely and, on his own terms, understandably more concerned about protecting the continuities of his organization than with getting absolute justice for its victims. And he remains anti-liberal in the colloquial sense of American politics—opposed to dissent that might run against the whole grain of stability and continuity of the Church. Though some may hope that he will see the light on the question of contraception, where the consensus of his own followers in America is against the current position, there are no signs that this will take place, even if, rationally, a belief that abortion is murder ought to include an evangelical desire to make available those kinds of contraception that prevent it from happening. But the moral core of the prohibition is really rooted in the Augustinian idea that procreative sex is (just barely) to be blessed; recreational sex never to be. It is a completely consistent and, on its own terms, fair enough position, if you happen to buy it. Dictating other people’s morality is the reason churches have Popes. It’s what they’re there to do. Not having our morality dictated by Popes is the reason we have dissenting churches (with their own moral instructors) and non-believers. The clash between liberalism and authoritarian faith is permanent.

Yet if the Pope is certainly anti-liberal in our local party sense, he is—and this is where the misunderstandings happen—also anti-liberal in the classic political-economy sense: he is opposed to, or at best deeply suspicious of, free-market rationales and free-market reasoning. He does not believe, as most of the American right has come to in the past forty or so years, that the workings of the unimpeded market are good, much less uniquely blessed. The materialism of the market is as anathema to him as the materialism of the flesh. This was the core view in his speech to Congress. It is no surprise that he distrusts the market—people who pursue profit and pleasure at the expense of holiness are exactly what his faith means by sinners. This particular form of anti-liberalism is just less familiar to us when properly called so.

The curious thing is that, brought together, these two kinds of liberalisms once cancelled each other out in an odd algebra of faith, and produced something extraordinarily valuable: the American liberal (and radical) Catholic tradition. It is now hard to recall that there was a time when passionately Catholic believers—equally out of sorts with capitalism and liberal conformism, and believing that a deeper knowledge of sin was essential to America’s salvation—were at the vanguard of social change. The Eugene McCarthy mutiny in the Democratic Party in 1968 was, as the great critic Wilfred Sheed wrote at the time, a pure triumph of “Commonweal Catholicism.” (Imagine! A movement named after a magazine. Though doubtless New Yorker liberals exist, too.) The farther reaches of the same movement produced the Berrigan brothers, whose exploits in anti-war campaigning were chronicled, brilliantly, in these pages by Francine du Plessix Gray (who, blessedly, turns a vivid and active eighty-five today).

The key to liberal, and radical, Catholicism was the faith not that modernity was wrong but that materialism was never enough. A life devoted only to getting and spending and screwing and dying was unworthy of humanity, and it was the role of the Church to remind us of a larger mission. To make that case is the historical role of the Catholic Church—it is no friend, and will never be, to liberal politics or liberal polities, but it is a voice for values and virtues that may well elude the liberal millennium. One would have to be a little deranged—hostage to a dogma—to think that much could not be learned from it. To contribute a little to the exasperation—I wait endlessly for the M86 even as I write this—one of the things that can make liberalism, and liberal cities, well, morally strong is that we really do believe that you can learn from people from a fundamentally different or even unsympathetic framework. So welcome, Francis. May much good come of the encounter of a liberal city and a popular Pope to save by the faith the infected by covid 19...

Carol Mercedes
Pink Hot Publisher / United Photo Press Magazine