The Domestication of Indifference


The Holy Father has spoken frequently about what he terms the “globalization of indifference,” the way all of us can too easily resign ourselves to the current state of affairs, unsure how to even proceed in meeting the injustices of our day and, so, preferring to ignore them. It is a powerful, and a specifically spiritual, indictment. Alas, here in the U.S., this indifference is not only global in its reach, it is becoming thoroughly domesticated in our politics.


Adam Shaw of Fox News had a post up yesterday bemoaning Pope Francis’ concern for the poor. The entire screed is worth reading, but only if you have a strong stomach. This paragraph captures precisely the domestication of indifference:

In trying to please the media and the modern world, Francis mistakes their glee for respect. Just like Obama thought he’d won over Putin by promising a reset, Francis thinks by talking vacuously about the poor, he will be respected. And it is vacuous -- the pontiff recently asked why it’s news that the stock market drops but not when an old person dies. When your leader is asking, “Why isn’t the newspaper a laundry list of obituaries?” you know you elected the wrong guy.

First, anyone who read Evangelii Gaudium, rooted so obviously in Pope Francis’ lived experience of the Gospel, would be hard-pressed to say the pontiff is “trying to please the media and the modern world.” Nor would anyone with a beating heart describe the pope’s words as “vacuous.” But, what is really frightening is what Mr. Shaw took away from the pope’s observation that something is wrong when it is news the stock market drops two points but not news when an old person dies destitute on the streets. Mr. Shaw seems concerned that his morning routine of reading his newspaper might be interrupted by news of the suffering of others. Is that what he took away from the pope’s statement? That is just sad.

Of course, there is a side of me that admires Mr. Shaw for his candor. In reading some other commentators on Evangelii Gaudium, such as Father Robert Sirico and Mr. Samuel Gregg of the Acton Institute, it is hard not to conclude that instead of stretching their own ideas and being challenged by what the pope has said, they are prevaricating. There is a difference. I am not surprised. As I have noted before, Fr. Sirico and his acolytes at the Acton Institute present their views as developing the social doctrine of the Church but me thinks they are actually out to undermine that doctrine. Certainly, the doors they thought were opening based on a paragraph or two from Centesimus Annus and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, always cited without reference to the more numerous other paragraphs that challenge their laissez-faire approach, those doors are closing shut under Papa Francesco.

Yesterday, President Obama gave a speech on income inequality in which he quoted that same passage from Evangelii Gaudium about it being news when the stock market drops a couple of points but not when someone dies on the streets. I thought the President’s speech was fairly balanced, indulging in some populist rhetoric, but nothing overblown. Unfortunately, the President has no viable political strategy for enacting the kinds of policies that might ameliorate income inequality, but at least he was naming the problem, a problem that not only offends our Catholic sense of justice but which eats away at the myth we call the American Dream. I do not use myth in a derogatory way. Americans have long celebrated our lack of relative social security compared to most other Western democracies precisely because we believed that a less secure, but more free society permitted the kind of upward social mobility that we think should characterize a free people. But, turns out, income inequality in America is growing, social mobility is actually higher in some of those more secure European democracies than in our own, and if we fail to address this, we invite greater social ills. This should be obvious to all.

It wasn’t obvious to Rush Limbaugh. Having President Obama quote Pope Francis is the very definition of a Ditto-head nightmare. He lashed out at the pope again yesterday saying that the pope is giving President Obama an orgasm. The comment is vulgar, of course. I was hoping to wake up this morning to find some defense of the Holy Father from some of our bishops who are not allergic to the spotlight or a microphone. My hope has not been fulfilled. And, last week, when Mr. Limbaugh said the pope was spouting “pure Marxism,” a remark for which he was called out by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, Bill Donohue of the Catholic League did not attack Limbaugh, he attacked CACG. Nice. Cardinal Dolan: Please put a muzzle on this embarrassment to the Church.

Limbaugh and Donohue are both blowhards looking for ratings. How to excuse Speaker John Boehner, one of the highest ranking Catholics in American government. His spokesman responded to the president’s speech by saying, “The president’s economic policies promote government reliance rather than economic mobility. Rather than tackling income inequality by lifting people up, he’s been fixated on taxing some down.” How dare Obama think that America’s wealthiest citizens, who have reaped almost all the economic growth of the past 30 years, should contribute more to strengthen the social system that has permitted them to do so well! An economist friend whose judgment I respect told me that if you compare GDP growth in the U.S. with that of France over the past thirty years, and you strip out the top one percent in both countries, France, sclerotic, government-rich France, outpaced the U.S. I have not seen the study that reached this conclusion, and my friend is traveling and unable to send it. I will share it when I get it. But, the point is beyond obvious that income inequality is large and growing and that it is unhealthy for any society not to address it.

Boehner and his Republican friends have displayed their indifference in other ways. In the past two months, during the debate over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, has any Republican or conservative commentator voiced the concern that, whatever the reservations about the ACA’s approach and impact, something must be done to assist the uninsured? Do they have any plan to achieve this? For all of its problems, as a result of the ACA, there are hundreds of thousands of Americans today, most of them living in states with governors who tried to make the ACA work rather than undermine it, who will have insurance on January 1. As someone who went without health insurance for several years, I can assure you, it is a debilitating situation to be in, it consumes one’s thoughts and activates a host of worries. Yet, not a word of concern from our Republican friends, not a hint of a proposal, only rejection, opposition, blame.

The critics of President Obama and of Pope Francis sometimes make the case that these two leaders have skewed worldviews, or that they do not understand how the economy really works, or that their policies will actually frustrate the goals they seek. But, underneath these various arguments, one detects a strange thing. The critics seem more concerned about vindicating the “rules of the market” than about actually solving a problem. Here is what Pope Francis rightly calls the idolatry of the market.

There is a domesticated indifference on the left, to be sure, and it shares this same desire to uphold “the rules” rather than to solve a problem or alleviate human suffering. This manifested itself in the debate about Syria, when the President seemed more concerned about preventing further violations of international norms against chemical weapons, which is an important concern to be sure, than he was with ending the suffering of the Syrian people who now get to be killed by non-chemical means. Many of my friends on the left are genuinely disturbed by the legalized, routine destruction of unborn children in America’s abortion clinics. They are frustrated that the pro-life party has done so little to really address the issue, and do not know how to combat this evil in our midst. They find few ears in the Democratic Party even willing to listen. But, there are also some folks on the left who hide behind this frustration to make excuses for their pro-choice allies, becoming fellow travelers, instead of in-house critics, in today’s Democratic Party. They, too, suffer from a domesticated indifference to the suffering of others.

Pope Francis has pricked the consciences of all who will listen. It is one thing to prick a conscience and another to shape it. May Pope Francis have a long life so that he can continue to challenge us all to look at those areas in our lives where, in the face of injustice and evil, we throw up our hands and turn away. The first step towards solving a problem is acknowledging a problem. And while the mystery of evil will never be ultimately "solved," it is emphatically the mission of the Catholic Church to confront that evil, especially when it finds a place in our own hardened hearts and manifests itself as an indifference to the suffering of our brothers and sisters. Indifference is a thing to defend against, not a thing to domesticate.


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