Anyone not touched by Pope Francis’ appearance on ABC television earlier this month may want to have their pulse checked for signs of a heart. Quite frankly, he knocked it out of the park in this writer’s humble opinion. Whether speaking to the plight of immigrant children, obviously enjoying a young girl’s vocal rendition of a hymn, or offering encouragement to a single mother of two, Francis was in his element.
As I marveled at the Pope on primetime, national network television, I also considered his declining U.S. popularity ratings. According (subscription required) to National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru:
In 2014, 76 percent of Americans viewed him favorably. American conservatives have led the downward trend, with only 45 percent now positive about him. By comparison, 68 percent of liberals like him.
Much of this drop in popularity may or may not be attributed to the too-easy politicization of the Pope’s Laudato Si encyclical as well as very public pronouncements, much of which has been repeated devoid of context.As noted by Ponnuru:
Francis did not, in fact, refer to capitalism as the ‘dung of the devil’; he was speaking instead of the idolatry of material things. One of his most quoted remarks came a few months into his papacy, when he said, ‘A gay person who is seeking God, who is of good will – well, who am I to judge him?’ Most of those who quoted him are not aware that his next sentence commended the discussion of homosexuality in the Church’s catechism, which makes a distinction between desires and actions that he was trying to echo.
In January, Pope Francis was quoted saying that Catholics do not have to have children ‘like rabbits’; inevitably, the verb ‘breed’ was used in nearly all the write-ups. This was taken to be a criticism of large families. It does not appear to have been meant as such. The pope was saying, instead, that the Church does not teach that married couples have an obligation to maximize the number of children they have, and can have good reasons – he cited maternal health specifically – for periodically practicing abstinence so as to avoid conceiving children.
What then to make of Pope Francis’ writings wherein he addresses matters environmental and economic? Ponnuru writes:
Francis wrote that ‘the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.’ Does this mean businesses should never modernize or mechanize to improve efficiency by reducing labor costs? Or does it mean that governments should not purposely pursue economic policies that raise unemployment in order to raise profitability? Is his point absurd or trivial?
Francis recently admitted that he does not know much about economics and invited critics to join him in dialogue. Conservatives who think some of his commentary is misguided should take opportunities to do so. They should not respond, though, in a spirit of alarm or anger. It’s not as though Pope Francis has proposed, or ever would propose, that the view that businessman should never fire anyone is binding on the consciences of Catholics. These are his opinions, not the teachings of the Church. American conservatives should also keep in mind that these are the opinions of a man whose understanding of economics has been shaped by an Argentinian political economy very different from our own….
[Catholic Democrats] will more or less quietly concede that they disagree with him about abortion, but loudly tout his agreement with them about poverty, the environment, and so on. Church teaching does, of course, insist on a public responsibility to care for the poor and the environment, but it does not – and Francis does not – propose a program to achieve these objectives. Whatever a particular pope’s personal views happen to be, the Church does not claim authority to adjudicate between those who favor market-oriented, economic-growth-enhancing approaches to lifting people out of poverty and those who support greater government intervention in the economy and more of an emphasis on government-run social-welfare programs. The disagreement about abortion is different in kind, because it does not concern how best to respect the right to life of unborn children but rather whether that right exists and must be respected.
Ponnuru eschews a rebuttal of Pope Francis’ remarks on climate change, but one can apply the same principles Ponnuru employs regarding economics and poverty. The Pope, after all, is a spiritual leader who has witnessed extreme poverty and environmental devastation in his lifetime. Both, he tells us in Laudato Si, require addressing, and all reasonable persons must concur with this observation if not his science and economics.
The Pope’s call to end the use of fossil fuels isn’t a justified means for our mutual desired ends – if those ends are the reduction of world poverty and starvation and malnourishment. That said, I agree with Ponnuru:
Conservatives, inside and outside the Church, should cajole and correct and criticize the pope when appropriate; and they should speak out especially when he is used to provide cover for abortion. But conservative Catholics should not think of themselves as being in some kind of revolt against Francis. He is, after all the pope. He is owed respect and, within the proper sphere of his authority, obedience. Conservative Catholics surely understand that. They have – rightly! – criticized their liberal co-religionists for failing on both counts for more than 50 years.
Just so. Just as I can spill gallons of ink refuting the Pope on his environmental and economic views, I can still choke up when Francis blesses a single mother for shouldering the burden of birthing and raising two daughters rather than the alternative, asks a Chicago teenager to sing for him, and offers spiritual hope to immigrants near the Texas-Mexico border. He’s my Pope, after all, and I admire him immensely.