Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Who has a "Pope Francis Problem"? Not only Republicans . . .

Michael Perry posted my friend Charlie Camosy's recent op-ed suggesting that "Republicans have a Pope Francis Problem."  Indeed, they do (along with several other problems!).  But, of course, so do the Democrats, and so do most of us.  The Pope -- like his predecessors, and like the Church, and like Christ -- proposes an understanding of the human person and of human community that does not map neatly onto or cohere with any major camp in American politics. 

Many Catholics who lean to the left politically tell a story in which "the Democrats are so close to being Catholic -- after all, unlike the Republicans, they care about the poor, and the environment, and equality, and are communitarian rather than individualistic -- if only they would moderate their stance on abortion", but this story strikes me more as wishful thinking than accurate description.  It is not plausible, even if it is comforting for some, to regard the Democratic Party as a force for human dignity, the common good, and solidarity (in Charlie's words, for "social justice and nonviolence"). 

To say this, obviously, is not to say that the Republican Party is such a force.  I'm pretty sure Charlie and I agree that, in many respects and on a number of issues, the policies promoted by the GOP are not, all things considered, thoughtful applications of Catholic Social Doctrine.  But if the Republicans have a "Pope Francis Problem", then the Democrats -- the party of "no" on school choice and education reform, the party of Planned Parenthood, the party of irresponsible borrowing and spending, and the party that is stingily statist when it comes to religious freedom -- do, too.

More than a little bit of the post-(papal) election commentary I've read has included almost-gleeful assertions that Pope Francis is making "conservatives" nervous or mad, as if the fact that a Pope's election irritates one's political opponents is a, or the, reason to like that Pope.  But, putting aside a few nutty commenters on traditionalist blogs, I've heard from "conservatives" nothing but enthusiastic words of thanksgiving and welcome regarding Pope Francis - as it should be.  He seems (like his predecessors) wonderful, a real gift.  Is this because the Pope -- or, for that matter, the Gospel -- doesn't challenge many American "conservatives'" political premises and positions?  Of course not!  But it would involve not hearing the Pope very well for American "liberals" to imagine that his words about (for example) "protecting" creation constitutes endorsement of the Democratic platform (or even of that platform-minus-abortion-rights).  


Garnett, Rick | Permalink


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"But if the Republicans have a "Pope Francis Problem", then the Democrats -- the party of "no" on school choice and education reform, the party of Planned Parenthood, the party of irresponsible borrowing and spending, and the party that is stingily statist when it comes to religious freedom -- do, too."

People who support these policies have much more than a Pope Francis problem. They, like all of us, face an accountability problem to which we will be answerable in the Final Judgment.

Ed Peters and Fr. Z have some recent comments in this regard:


Posted by: CK | Mar 21, 2013 9:35:07 AM

I have a problem with this erroneous statement of Pope Francis, which apparently is a reflection of an erroneous Vatican Ii Document, Nostra Aetate:

"...the Muslims, who adore the one living and merciful God and who call upon Him in Prayer."

The Muslims do not worship The Communion of Perfect Love that Is The Blessed Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Posted by: N.D. | Mar 21, 2013 10:34:15 AM

I suspect that the homily at the opening of the conclave stressing unity may turn out to be prescient, and that in Pope Francis, we have someone who may be able to help begin to bridge the corrosive divide between so-called "conservatives" and "progressives" in the Church. As Rick suggests, both Democrats and Republicans likely have a "Pope Francis Problem" in trying to defend the platforms of political parties that don't align with Catholic doctrine. In Francis, we have someone who will be consistent in challenging both sides to fidelity to Catholic teachings.

But, for those Catholics who have felt social justice teachings have been relegated for too long to a back corner and casually ignored, it is perhaps understandable that they might be gratified to see a "preferential option for the poor" once again being viewed as a relevant consideration at a time when important long-term budgetary choices are being made in nations across the globe.

Posted by: Jim D. | Mar 21, 2013 11:10:54 AM

Pope Benedict spoke at great length about the needs of the poor and social justice. I have repeatedly heard that Benedict "relegated" these concerns.

I have a theory that the reason people think this is that Benedict was perceived as "concervative," so, of course, he didn't care for the poor.

During his pontificate, Benedict wrote two (out of a total of three) moving and beautiful encyclicals on the needs of the poor and our duties to care for them. He repeatedly criticized global financial systems that caus great harm to the poor.

This was not a small or "relegated" part of his papacy.

Posted by: CLS | Mar 21, 2013 11:31:06 AM

I absolutely agree that the Democrats have a major Pope Francis problem in the abortion area, as they would with any other Pope and as they do with the USCCB. However, the same "conservatives" who have indeed welcomed Pope Francis so far won't hesitate to question his statements if he starts speaking on our foreign policy. As the folks at First Things and the National Catholic Register did in questioning John Paul II and the USCCB in questioning the invasion of Iraq, one can also see them questioning Pope Francis' competence to speak out on potential invasion of Syria and especially Iran.

Posted by: Edward Dougherty | Mar 21, 2013 12:37:36 PM

CLS: I did not mean to suggest that Benedict did not care about the poor or that his encyclicals do not reflect that. Catholic doctrine is remarkably consistent on that point. My point about the concerns raised by social justice advocates was actually more directed at the USCCB. I do think there is reasonable ground for debate about the "balance" of the priorities and emphases by the USCCB -- and how that has been applied to divisive political issues within the U.S. Whether that balance now shifts somewhat under Pope Francis remains to be seen.

But, my point was not to dwell on such perceived past divisions, but rather to emphasize the more hopeful unifying possibilities that Francis' new papacy brings -- and not just on the divide over the relative importance of social justice teachings in the public policy realm, but also concerning the possibility for beginning to bridge the millenia-old schism between the Eastern and Western wings of the Church.

Posted by: Jim D. | Mar 21, 2013 12:39:29 PM

Ed -- yes, and the "liberal" Catholics will squirm when it turns out he actually meant what he said about SSM. I understand why partisan journalists would want to reduce the Pope, Church, and Gospel to "whose side are you on?", but I think we Catholics should resist it. Yes, I'm sure that many of the Pope's opinions on various policy are matters are ones with which I disagree. And, that doesn't bother me a bit. He wasn't called to be pope to give the American left a morale-boost -- he was called to be pope because he's who (the Holy Spirit inspired the College to conclude) has the gifts to shepherd the Church and evangelize the world Now.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Mar 21, 2013 2:10:09 PM

Dr Garnett,

You point out that Democrats face a number of challenges from CST including education reform, abortion, irresponsible finances, and religious freedom. But these particular beliefs (excepting abortion) hardly seem endemic to the Democratic party in the same way Republican distinctives seem to be. This doesn't put them any closer to CST, but I've tended to think that it made them more available for that work. But in earlier comments, you suggested that the Dems would not be able to become "operationally pro-life." I'm still not sure I understand what you mean by that.


Posted by: Nick | Mar 21, 2013 3:40:37 PM

Let me gently suggest that Rick is mistaken when he calls the Democratic Party the party of "no" on education reform. (Note that I'm not addressing his similar charge about school choice.) As these things go, and without wanting to give him more credit than he's due, Arne Duncan has been a fine appointment and certainly not a nay-sayer.

I must add, as an outsider, that I would have thought that all Catholics in America have a "Pope Francis" problem, or even more strongly a Saint Francis problem, to the extent that they worry about which party is more consistent with the Pope's views rather than about how to live all of their lives, political and otherwise, in conformity with Catholic teaching. Granted, I would go further than that and say that just about everyone has a Luke 14:25-27 problem, but surely even those who don't go that far can agree that transient American political parties are pretty damn poor proxies for questions about living a just life or ensuring a just society.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Mar 21, 2013 5:11:29 PM

Nick -- I am afraid I have not earned the title "Dr." but, putting that aside, it seems pretty clear to me that strong support for abortion rights and strong opposition to school choice are (unfortunately!) every bit as "endemic" to the Democratic Party as any thought-objectionable GOP position. By "operationally pro-life" I mean "not only saying 'safe, legal, but rare' and 'let's find policies that could reduce the "need" for abortions' but 'it is part of our platform -- something we intend to try to bring about -- to enact reasonable regulations of abortion."

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Mar 21, 2013 5:16:30 PM

Paul -- I take your gentle point about Arne Duncan, though I guess (and not merely to be ornery) I'd say that his relative (and, as you say, commendable) openness to education reform still sits uneasily in "the Democratic Party" (as does the openness of, say, a Cory Booker). He is to the Democrats on education what John McCain is to the Republicans on immigration, maybe. (And, in my view, both McCain and Duncan are right.)

I agree with your second paragraph, which is why I said "and so do most of us" in my own post. But, to be clear, I don't have any interest in conducting -- put aside winning -- an argument about which American party is more authentically Christian (though we Americans cannot avoid talking, or at least thinking, about which one is the better vehicle, this side of Heaven, for facilitating the flourishing of the vulnerable); my aim was just to push back on those who (as I see it) are reducing the Pope, and his message, by trying to "claim" him for their party or pet issue.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Mar 21, 2013 5:22:13 PM

Generalizations about the Republican Party are problematic, because the Party is actually a rather broad coalition of libertarians, fundamental Protestants, businessmen, traditional Catholics, National Defense Advocates, Tea Party Activists, and the list could probably be lengthened. It is actually hard to list much that everyone agrees upon, other than support for the Constitution. Possibly, religious freedom is the only issue which would receive universal support; an issue which the democrats abandoned under the current administration. It is disappointing the issue was not stressed in the recent election. Hopefully, the Pope will speak out clearly on the need for freedom in America if he comes to visit.

Posted by: Malcolm Coate | Mar 21, 2013 6:49:03 PM

To state that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare", is to deny the self evident truth, that from the moment of conception, every human person has been created in The Image and Likeness of God, equal in Dignity, while being complementary as male or female. While it is true that all Christians are called to Love one another, it is respect for the inherent personal and relational Dignity of the human person that determines authentic Love from its counterfeit. One cannot be One Nation under God, and thus indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all, if one does not respect The Sanctity of every Human Life, and The Sanctity of Marriage and The Family.

Posted by: N.D. | Mar 22, 2013 11:03:02 PM

"Preferential option for the poor" never meant "render the poor unto Caesar".

Nor was anyone ever asked to "sell all your neighbor has, give it to the poor, and come applaud Me."

Who has a "Pope Francis problem?"

Posted by: Micha Elyi | Mar 23, 2013 5:05:03 AM

The Democrats and Republicans should look to the Church and not expect the Church to look to them.

Posted by: Godwin Delali Adadzie | Mar 23, 2013 5:51:01 AM

You lost all credibility when you claimed that the Democrats are "the party of irresponsible borrowing and spending". Any honest look at the facts would show that would be the Republicans. With massive tax cuts, two unfunded wars and the Medicare part D expansion. That and the Bush Recession account for 90% of the deficit. Republicans took a quarter trillion dollar surplus and turned it into a trillion dollar deficit. The deficit is actually declining under this President and spending has grown considerably slower than it did under Bush. Shame on you for throwing lies to the wind.

Posted by: Andrew Riley | Apr 2, 2013 6:29:42 PM