Q: Are you excited about Pope Francis’ visit?
A: I’m uncomfortable, if that counts.
Q: What’s the matter?
A: I feel exactly as I used to when I’d throw a party for all my hyper-educated, underemployed friends, and my dad (whom I always invited) would take the floor and start to hold forth to them. I never knew quite what would happen.
He might recount his stories of serving under General Patton in Germany, or tell them what it was like to grow up in the Great Depression, while caring for his mother — a Croatian immigrant with limited English who was crippled by Parkinson’s. (She had grown up in a houseboat on the Hudson, taking baths when her parents lowered her on a rope into the river.) Or he might talk about his encounters with Jackie Gleason and Woody Allen, whom he met while delivering their mail. (He had worked almost 40 years as a letter carrier in the days before mail moved in carts—he hauled it on his back.) Or else he’d tell ribald but harmless ethnic jokes.
But sometimes his mood was different, and he would choose to share with my colleagues and college friends some of the… theories he had about the world, and “little known facts” that he’d picked up over the years. Then we would hear about how the Turks had in fact built Venice. Or how annoying it was that so many of the readings we heard in church were centered on the Jews—didn’t they have their houses of worship? Or how much he hated “home-owners” (we always lived in tenements) because their “friggin’ driveways” took up so many parking spots. At least he didn’t blame the Chinese for Pearl Harbor—that historical grudge was peculiar to my mother.
I was disappointed at the set of things “Il Papa” has chosen to talk about. He could have shared the worthy, genuine insights that he is uniquely qualified to offer as Vicar of Christ. We needed to hear him reaffirm the commitment of Catholics to the natural law that God wrote in our heart, which teaches us a long list of truths:
That innocent life is sacred from conception till natural death. Francis singled out the death penalty for condemnation — despite the support for it in the Old and New Testament, and through 1900 years of papal teaching. While addressing the legislative body that just failed to cut off $500 million of annual funding for the baby-parts merchants of Planned Parenthood, he never mentioned abortion. That’s like touring the ante-bellum South, and never speaking the word “slavery.”
That marriage is between men and women.
That Christian marriage is indissoluble.
The pope recently said that up to half of the marriages contracted by Catholics around the world are invalid, because the spouses hadn’t been taught the real meaning of the sacrament by their pastors. Catholics need to know what he plans to do about that global spiritual and social catastrophe — beyond offering easy annulments to temporarily clean up the mess. Given that in America, some 50 percent of those raised Catholic leave the church as adults, most never to return, it would have been good to hear what steps Francis is taking to hold his bishops accountable for their failure to evangelize and catechize their flocks. Not a peep.
Instead we heard a lot about the ill-informed political and economic theories of an elderly Argentine gentleman who seems to resent the country I love, perhaps because it embraced the market economy and grew rich, while his own land chose socialism and squalor. Argentina was as rich as the United States, a hundred years ago. Its politicians embraced the rhetoric of envy and resentment, and they ruined the country. If we follow the redistributionist policies that Francis seems to favor now, what will happen here is what happened in Argentina decades ago, and what’s happening in Venezuela today. The poor will see the bottom drop out of their lives. The middle class will disappear. But at least the rich will get a little bit poorer, so for the Left the whole experiment will be worth it.
Q: Maybe you’re just upset that Pope Francis is using his uniquely prophetic voice to challenge your own narrow political and economic ideas, with the Gospel message of inclusion for the marginalized.
A: There is nothing unique about popes being concerned for the poor. There is something new about a pope embracing the massive redistribution of wealth via leviathan governments; the centralization of power in transnational agencies; and the de facto destruction of national boundaries — and with it, of citizenship. All those things are indeed new — which means that they aren’t part of the Deposit of Faith that Jesus gave to the apostles. They are private theories of one man, and are no more binding on me than my father’s history lessons. I loved the man, but he had his limits. So do popes.
Q: Doesn’t it bother you that you’re standing against the Vicar of Christ on the issues he considers most important to his pontificate?
A: It depresses me, to see the office of the papacy reduced to its current state, a political foosball bounced around by anti-Christian global elites, while the church dwindles and fails.
Q: Haven’t you considered that you might be wrong, that Pope Francis might see something essential about Catholicism that you’re missing?
A: It would have to be something that no pope ever saw before — that the Catholic faith demands a massive socialist state, powerful world government bodies that cripple national sovereignty, and pretty much open borders, such that millions of Muslims can march into Europe and vote to impose sharia; or millions of Latin Americans can enter America and vote to redistribute our wealth.
Q: You mentioned Latin American immigration. Doesn’t it bother you that you favor excluding your fellow Catholics, to benefit mostly non-Catholic Americans?
A: Let me say this slowly and distinctly: Not. In. The. Slightest. That kind of sectarian narcissism is proper to Islam, not Christianity. If the Catholic church taught that we should vote against the common good of our fellow citizens, in order to benefit foreign Catholics or the church’s institutions — for instance, to fill our emptying pews — that would be a definitive argument for keeping any more of us from entering the country. But the Church doesn’t teach that, and never has.
Q: Maybe the pope is seeing something new, is grasping implications of the Gospel that no other pope had seen before, or dared to articulate. Don’t you trust that the Holy Spirit is guiding him?
A: The church doesn’t believe that the pope is an oracle of new revelations coming from God. That Mormons hold to something like that, but we don’t. The papacy’s theory of itself is that each pope is running in a relay race, passing along the same baton that Jesus handed to Peter. A pope might wipe it off or polish it, but it has to be the same baton. Anything he adds to it, any ribbons or streamers for instance, is purely his own invention and has no divine protection.
And no, of course I don’t believe that the Holy Spirit guides the pope’s daily decisions and statements. The slightest knowledge of church history proves that such an assertion is absurd. Do you want to blame the Holy Spirit for those crusades launched against fellow Christians? For centuries of a papally-sponsored Inquisition that tortured Christians then burned them alive? For the practice of castrating choir boys to sing in the Vatican’s choirs—right up through the late 19th century? To say that borders on blasphemy against the Third, co-equal Person of the Blessed Trinity. No thanks.
I’ve written elsewhere at length about how the popes changed their minds about lending money at interest, the morality of slavery, and the persecution of Protestants. The idea that there is some divine authority guiding the popes’ statements about politics and economics simply doesn’t pass the smell test. Popes have the power to articulate broad, guiding principles, informed by their understanding of natural law and the implications of the Gospel. Clearly, they don’t have any divine guarantees that they will correctly apply these principles to specific situations. Unless you think, for instance, that the Inquisition was right in 1600, but is wrong today, because now the pope thinks differently. If that’s your theory, stop reading columns on the Internet and get hold of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Because you’re not a Catholic but a Stalinist, dutifully following the “Party Line” wherever it leads you. That has nothing to do with Christ.
Q: It sounds to me like you’re a conservative first, an American second, and a Catholic third. Doesn’t that bother you?
A: In the sense that you seem to mean it, “Catholicism” is not a creed but a tribal identity, or membership in some totalitarian political movement. So a “good” white supremacist or Communist will look out for the interests of his race, or the Party, and leave the well-being of his neighbors and fellow citizens for last. That is contemptible.
Christianity is obviously more important than nationhood, just as family is more important than citizenship. But that doesn’t give you the right to steal from strangers just to benefit your relatives. Popes may have practiced nepotism (the term comes from “nipote,” or nephew, and was invented to refer to papal nephews who were named cardinals), but they never claimed that it was a Christian virtue.
My faith comes before my political opinions or patriotic sentiments, because eternal salvation is more important than even freedom or the common good. But why should we think that these things are in conflict? The same God Who wills our salvation also wants us to enjoy liberty and reside in peaceful, orderly communities. Anyone who says otherwise, who tries to impose the slavery of socialism or the chaos of open borders, is hijacking the Gospel for an alien political agenda.
No truth of faith can repeal the natural law, or the principle of causality. We know with certainty from repeated, bloody and ruinous experiments, that massive redistribution of wealth destroys the economy and impoverishes everyone — especially the poor. Any reading of the Bible that asks us to deny such plain facts is a false reading, since truth can’t contradict truth.
Likewise, any interpretation of the Gospel which contradicts the facts of history or truths of reason is false — however eminent the office of the person who makes the statement.
So I’m left with a cognitive dissonance: I never stopped loving my dad. But the Turks still didn’t build Venice.