The Pope And The American Right

Pope Francis Visits Sardinia

I borrow the title of the post from Ross Douthat who has a typically nuanced take on the subject. Maybe it’s best to start with where we agree. Pope Francis’ criticism of the market as the core relationship between human beings is not in any way new in Catholicism. Nor is it some form of ideological leftism. It’s simply an orthodox call to remind us of our fundamental duty to the poor and the sick and the vulnerable, our manifest obligation to treat every human we encounter with dignity and worth – both personally and through the social structures we democratically assent to. It is primarily something that only each human soul can accomplish: social justice cannot replace interpersonal caritas, as some theocons have long rightly argued. The former is accomplished via the latter. And yes, a Pope’s treatment of social and economic matters is not doctrinally dispositive. There is room for dissent here, and prudential disagreement in good conscience.

Of course, the theoconservatives were among the last to allow any prudential, conscientious disagreement with papal pronouncements when they held sway in the Vatican. Those of us who dissented on priestly celibacy or the civil equality of homosexual persons or the ban on all contraception or the new and extremist doctrine on end-of-life issues were routinely dismissed as outside the fold. But as the theoconservative project, like the neoconservative one, lies in rubble and manifest failure, there’s no need for tit-or-tat now that the papal shoe is on the other foot (and no longer Prada).

There is, for example, little doubt that the free market has brought more wealth, comfort and health to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Meets With Pope Francismore human beings than any other form of economic model in human history. The last 300 years have improved our material lot more than the previous 200,000. Socialism is a grim failure of a system, communism even worse. But what all these systems have in common is a materialist vision of what makes human life worth living. That’s not a criticism in particular. Most such systems do not have within their remit a deeper understanding of human existence, a grounding in something other than prosperity. A Catholic, however, has exactly that grounding, which enables us to examine all such systems from different, higher ground.

And the way in which market capitalism has become a good in itself on the American right is, well, perniciously wrong. As soon as a system ceases to be a means to a human good, and becomes an end in itself, it has become a false idol. Perhaps the apotheosis of that idol worship was the belief – brandished on the degenerate right in the past decade or two – that markets are self-regulating. Of course they’re not, as Adam Smith would have been the first to inform you. Another assumption embedded on the American right is that more wealth is always a good thing. The Church must say no. This is a lie. Wealth is a neutral thing above a certain basic level of non-drudgery. Above that, it can be an absolutely evil, deceptive thing, distorting human souls, warping their dignity, vulgarizing their character. An American right that worships at the altar of both free markets and material wealth, and that takes these two idols as their primary goods, is not just non-Catholic. It is anathema to Catholicism and to the Gospels.

The neoconservative version of American exceptionalism is equally anathema to Catholicism. No country on earth is any more inherently moral than any other. It may achieve great things in advancing human good, as the US has clearly done. But as soon as you identify one country with all human good, and believe that its model, let along its divine providence, is dispositive for the whole of humankind, you are also worshiping a false God. It is that self-worship that allows a country to commit evil and justify it. Torture is such an evil. The American justification of it by the false doctrine of exceptionalism is something the Devil would have celebrated as a great triumph in the Screwtape Letters. And the American Catholic right’s acquiescence to it – including the last Pope’s – is a dark and indelible strain.

This is a critique of English exceptionalism as well, of course, and of colonialism as the purest expression of national self-love. It applies to the lie of communism as well as a global panacea- and to all systems that seek to impose a human set of ideas on mass populations by force of law, and that deny the innate dignity and equality of all of us. So yes, much of the right’s critique of communism, fascism, social democracy and the secular hubris of progressivism endures. But we must add to it the panacea of capitalism.

So in the spirit of conversation, let us get specific about two key issues now on the table: healthcare and Iran.

Now it seems to me that the Church is rightly neutral about the means of achieving the end of universal care. It is not a single-payer Church or an Obamacare Church. But it cannot and is not neutral in any way when it comes to the core moral imperative that each individual in our society, especially the most vulnerable, be able to get care in the wealthiest country on earth. In so far as the Republican party is absolutely indifferent to the millions of Americans without health insurance, in so far as they have relentlessly opposed one feasible plan for universal insurance without offering an alternative that could achieve the same thing, the Republican party simply cannot be supported by Catholics right now. Now there are good-faith proposals for a conservative approach to universal healthcare, as we’ve discussed on the Dish, so this critique does not apply to them. But it sure does apply to the GOP leadership.

Similarly on Iran, there is plenty of space within Christian realism to worry that our current attempt at engagement is foolish, that the Iranian regime is not susceptible to change or any peaceful presence in the world. But to refuse even to try and test the possibility of peace – which seems to be the neoconservative position – is clearly against Church teachings to seek peace at all times whenever possible. Pre-emptive war is just as anathema to Catholic “just war” teaching, as, of course, is torture. How much time have theo-conservatives spent this past decade examining the crime of the Iraq war and the evil of torture? I suspect the Pope’s answer would be: not nearly enough. And it’s high time they did.

(Photos. Top: The Pope visits the sick on September 22, 2013 in Cagliari, Italy. By Franco Origlia/Getty Images. Right: Pope Francis receives Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a private audience at his library on December 2, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. By Vatican Pool/Getty Images.)