How Pope Francis Challenges the Catholic Left

by Michael Sean Winters

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Many articles have been written about how Pope Francis is challenging the Catholic Right in the United States. I will give my two cents on that topic tomorrow. But, Pope Francis also challenges the Catholic Left in important ways and the Catholic Left should allow itself to be challenged.

A friend of mine likes to say, in jest to be sure but with a kernel of earnestness as well, that if you are a leftie Catholic, and you are not satisfied with Pope Francis, it is time to think about finding a different religion. I do not want any Catholic looking for another religion. Instead, the experience of discontent should be a prod – not to the pope, but to ourselves. Sadly, such is the ideological reification with the Church today, too few people allow themselves to be prodded out of our self-satisfied preconceptions and settled opinions, and thus grow incapable of experiencing the newness of the Spirit to which Pope Francis is so clearly, and repeatedly, calling the Catholic faithful.

The first, and most explicit, criticism the Holy Father has leveled at the left came in his closing address to the synod last October. The pope criticized “[t]he temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the ‘do-gooders,’ of the fearful, and also of the so-called ‘progressives and liberals.’” The phrase “destructive tendency to goodness” is striking. How can that be? Aren’t we Christians supposed to seek and do good things?

The concern here is with the neo-Pelagianism of the left, the idea that we can achieve our own salvation by good deeds, a point of view which leaves little room for grace. I saw on Facebook a poster a few days back that said something like “Let’s feed the hungry, help the poor, end the wars, and then we can argue about religion.” It was flippant, to be sure, but it spoke to a way of thinking that afflicts some progressives, one that distinguishes good works on behalf of justice from their transcendent source in God, that puts the focus on us and our efforts instead of on God and His Grace and His Mercy. Elsewhere, the pope has reminded the Catholic faithful that the Church is not an NGO. Our commitment to the poor is rooted in our experience of Christian faith, not the other way round, and that commitment must be consistent with our other Catholic commitments. Admittedly, too often a certain set of issues, abortion and same sex marriage being the most obvious in recent years, has been allowed to exclude others from the Church’s public witness. As Pope Francis said, we cannot be obsessed only with those issues, but that is not to say that we should ignore them or minimize them or fail to give witness to them when we can, and when it will make a difference. Admitting a division of labor, Catholic advocates for the poor should, when possible, remind their non-Catholic colleagues that we also care, and care deeply, about the unborn. The consistent ethic of life cannot be invoked, if it is properly invoked, to dismiss issues like abortion; That ethic merely keeps us from relativizing all other issues to the issue of abortion.

A second area where this pope challenges the Catholic Left is what I would call a disproportionate value we place on the social sciences. I am all for social science and we know more than we otherwise would because of the fine work many social scientists undertake: They tell us a lot about the signs of the times. But, Catholics are called to discern the signs of the times, not to ape them. Discernment requires that we be searching for the ways that God is active in the world, but it does not mean looking for data that confirms our prejudices or makes us think we can dismiss an article of faith because it is honored mostly in the breach. The fact that some percentage of Catholics believe X or do Y tells us nothing about the truth of the Church’s teachings. The fact that certain sociological phenomena can be isolated does not tell us how it can be integrated into what we know from faith – and, besides, those phenomena can never be as isolated as the professor needing to make a splash suggests. A cultural anthropologist can explain much about patterns of belief in different cultures, but no cultural anthropologist can validate the claim we Catholics make when we recite the Creed about the unique salvific significance of the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ and His abiding presence in the Church.

An obvious example of this would be the recent NCR editorial about the LCWR, specifically this paragraph:

The negotiations and meetings between the nuns and church authorities were all conducted on the men's terms, on their turf, with their representatives given full authority and power over the women's organization. All of it was conducted behind closed doors. We recognize that some matters of family, if that is an apt analogy, must be conducted in secret, that negotiations are rarely successfully conducted in public. But this began as an appalling abuse of power in a relationship in which the participants were hardly equals. It is essential to understand that they still are not equals.

An analysis of “power” drawn from political science seems at odds with the critique that NCR and Pope Francis have both directed at the culture of clericalism, that leadership in the Christian Church should be about service, not power. The nuns lead lives of service and, so, are true leaders of the Church, whether they have “power” or not. Besides, “authority” and “power” are only equivalent terms if you sideline some pretty core Catholic beliefs about the hierarchic structure of the Church. 

The interplay of theology with social science in the past fifty years from the Council has led to a decidedly mixed result. Indeed, the role of theology within the academic community has been challenged in various ways since the Council, not all of them helpful. Theology is not like other disciplines, yet theology faculty now consider themselves a part of the academic guild, not merely as part of the Church, and that guild is not entirely free from foolishness and fads. Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, in his book “The Sacred Project of America Sociology,” documented the distorting and self-destructive tendencies within that particular branch of social science, and the ways its unwittingly proposes an alternate religious vision that is not consistent with the Christian faith. As well, there is a scientism, an intellectual pathology, abroad in the intellectual arena that is poison to the academy and to the Church, and it is usually from the bleachers on the left that we find a dull acceptance of scientism, with notable exceptions like Leon Wieseltier. But, how many Catholics on the left have joined Wieseltier in his effort to save liberalism from the advocates of scientism?

In his biography of Pope Francis, Austen Ivereigh details the conflicts between Jorge Mario Bergoglio and those Jesuit intellectuals affiliated with the Center for Social research and Action in Argentina. He quotes a former director of the Center reflecting on Bergoglio’s tenure at the Jesuit college, called the Maximo:

It was a very closed regime. You can’t believe it, he introduced Argentine Jesuits to popular religiosity. He took them all to the barrios, and turned the Maximo into a parish, even though we already had a parish nearby. As rector of the Maximo he was an academic but he managed also to be a parish priest. He created a hole load of chapels. And he encouraged a style of popular religiosity among the students, who would go to the chapel at night and touch images! This was something the poor id, the people of the pueblo, something that the Society of Jesus worldwide just doesn’t do. I mean, touching images….what is that? And the older ones, praying the Rosary together in the gardens. Look, I’m not against that, but I’m not in favor either. It’s just not typical of us. But it became normal at that time.

There is a snobbery in the quote that one can easily have found in any number of theology schools in the U.S. in the past fifty years, yes? And, the Jesuit who is here quoted criticizing Bergoglio’s formation methods evidently forgot that Ignatius was originally resistant to the idea that the Jesuits should conduct educational institutes, and when he relented, he insisted that those institutes be attached to a parish, precisely so that the education would be linked to the ecclesial faith of the people. Bergoglio valued and validated the faith of the simple people, the people of the barrios, and wanted those entrusted to him for formation to do the same. He earned sneers.

As pope, Francis is not shy of speaking about the Devil. Does that language make you uncomfortable? It is the language of the barrio. Also of the Bible. It is doubly appropriate. Why, then, should it make us uncomfortable? Because we are too sophisticated to think of evil as so real? We, who live in a country that dropped two atomic bombs? We who suffer in a world scarred by terrorism almost every day? We who lived through Rwanda and Srebrenica? We who worry more about the perks of middle class life while millions starve? Are we really so superior? Too many Catholics on the left sound like that anti-Bergoglio Jesuit in Argentina, fretting about people touching images. They worry overmuch about sophistication, fitting in with the ambient culture and its ways. So, we let the snide remark about pro-life activists pass. We accept foolish metaphors for the key dogmas of the faith, disowning the wisdom, the true wisdom, of Flannery O’Connor who, after listening to a sophisticated dinner conversation conclude that the Eucharist was a mere symbol, interjected, “Well, if it’s just a symbol then to hell with it.” The Catholic left needs to shed that disposition to sophistication, to fit in, to accept whatever cultural winds are blowing in those intellectual and social circles where we feel comfortable. Pope Francis shows the way: We should follow him, not dismiss him.

This leads to the third and arguably the most obvious challenge the pope makes to the Catholic Left. As I predicted in the first months of his papacy, a cleavage has developed within the Catholic Left between those of us who warm to the social justice teachings and are animated by concern for the poor, and those on the Catholic Left who care mostly about issues related to gender and sexuality. Each year, I grow more suspicious of those activists and intellectuals in the latter category. When I read the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, the theme of liberation is found throughout, but I do not find any warrant for suggesting that sexual liberation, as it is commonly understood, is a Christian project. Nor is liberation the same thing as license. Especially in the New Testament, human sexuality is scarcely viewed as a thing to be celebrated, but today’s Catholic Left seems incapable of warning about the way carnality can enslave. The principal sense of liberation in the New Testament is a liberation from sin, but the left today seems unwilling to even entertain the possibility that there is such a thing as sexual sin among consenting adults, as if consent was the heart of the matter. It also seems to me that those who challenge the Church’s teachings on sexual and gender issues tend to demonstrate a self-promotional quality, or at least self-assertion, never self-abnegation, which is closer to the way of Christ. Nor do I think that well educated activists in the wealthy West can meaningfully claim the mantle of being excluded or marginalized. Nor do I think that issues that concern the contemporary West should be allowed to dominate the agenda of a universal Church. For years, we on the Catholic Left objected to the fact that the Church spent so much time talking about pelvic theology, but now we have a Pope who talks more about the poor and the marginalized and we on the Left clamor for more attention to gay rights and contraception. The list goes on and Pope Francis has challenged us on all of them.

Pope Francis has clearly warned against “gender ideology.” He has not explicitly stated what he means by this ambiguous term, but I think it is fair to say that he worries that gender and sexuality are no longer viewed as facts but as props in an ideological agenda. I share his worry.  It is stunning to me that the Catholic Left celebrates Laudato Si’ and its call to pay attention to the natural rhythms of the climate, and to banish a false sense of dominion over nature, but if you pay attention to the natural differentiation of the genders, still less the natural rhythms of the human body, you are a troglodyte. Yes, there is a sense in which gender is a socially constructed category, but it is not only that, it is also rooted in nature and in common sense experience. I celebrate greater social acceptance of gays and lesbians. I deplore the shift in language from father and mother to spouse #1 and spouse # 2, and I am betting Pope Francis does too. 

There is a sizable section of the Catholic commentariat that has long since ceased to wrestle with the Church’s teachings and instead has created a counter-ideology, fashionable but not faithful. I will be the first to admit that the Church needs to do a better job of developing its teachings in this area, but it seems obvious to me that Pope Francis wants those teachings to develop in ways that they never lose their intrinsic power to challenge ambient cultural norms and certainly not to be divorced from their roots in Christian revelation. When I was in seminary, a very fine priest professor used to begin Mass “In the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sanctifier,” to avoid gender specific designations. I think we should be more concerned to be faithful to the biblical revelation of the nature and names of the Trinity than to be faithful to the politically correct norms of the moment, no?   

Another example. This newspaper has spent much time covering and editorializing upon the clergy sex abuse scandal. We have steadfastly, and rightly, condemned the clerical culture that permitted that scandal to metastasize. We have been relatively silent on the recent videos that showed Planned Parenthood officials discussing the grisly dismemberment of children. Why is that? And, in asking why that is, let us ask further questions: Do we look for excuses for the politicians on the left, the way some made excuses for the clerical cover-up of serial sex abusers? Is our instinct to defend the vulnerable, unborn child with the same fervor and righteous anger that we defend the victims of clergy sex abuse? The answer is no. Until we ask ourselves why that is, we will not be on the same page as Pope Francis. We will not be on the same page as Jesus Christ.

Much of what the pope will say next month will thrill the Catholic Left. The fact that he is holding up the Church’s social justice teachings in such provocative ways is a thing to celebrate. But, I hope the Catholic Left will also hear what he says that challenges us. I hope we will be less dismissive of the non-rational aspects of our faith, less utopian in our understanding of the human adventure, grasp that, for the Christian human happiness is not an end in itself. And, I hope that we on the Left will not whitewash the things the pope says that do not fit easily with our agendas or biases, as too many on the Right do, but allow ourselves to be challenged, really challenged. The Christian in me clings to that hope even while the analyst in me entertains his doubts.   



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