We could anticipate that there would be grumblings on both the left and the right about Pope Francis. But, I had also thought such grumblings would be kept to private conversations, not aired in public and in advance of the pope’s visit. Instead, the past few days have seen a flurry of attacks on the pope and, in contrast to previous papal visits, the most vicious preemptive attacks are coming from the right. They bring to mind the question in the Book of Samuel, Chapter 6, verse 6: Why do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh did?
The Heartland Institute, ground zero for climate change deniers, has led the way. Gene Kaprowski, the organization’s marketing director, said that they can no longer blame the pope’s advisors for the fact that he embraces the same position that more than ninety percent of all scientists do, and that he thinks the Church is harkening back to medieval times when the “Feast of Fools” took pagan rituals, such as nature worship, into the bosom of the Church. “I’m wondering, as a scholar, if pagan forms are returning to the church this day,” he said. “I think that if we have a pope who doesn’t view things in the orthodox manner, we’re going to be having forms returning to religion that are not orthodox.” I am not a scholar, but I am still wondering if this man is off his rocker.
Then there is our old friend Fr. Robert Sirico, head of the Acton Institute. Fresh from attacking me over remarks I made in Rolling Stone magazine, he spoke to a Washington Post reporter about the pope’s misguided ways. “He just doesn't understand economics very well,” Sirico told the Post. The story continues:
And really, Sirico says, the Vatican shouldn’t be thinking about markets at all. Its job is to guide people’s spirits, not their purchases. “The church doesn’t profess to be an economic think tank,” Sirico says. “If that’s allowed to persist, it in effect dilutes the church’s brand.”
Setting aside the vulgarity of the phrase “the church’s brand,” why shouldn’t the Church be thinking about markets when those markets are so skewed to the rich and the powerful that they facilitate, rather than ameliorate, a culture of exclusion? If it is human, the Church has the right and the obligation to speak about it and especially when what is human turns out to be inhumane. Sirico, like Heartland, led the charge against Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ and it baffles me why Catholic institutions and Catholic universities continue to invite him and his colleagues at Acton to speak about Catholic Social Teaching. They are not explaining Catholic Social Teaching, they are not even developing it: They are undermining it.
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Yesterday morning’s Washington Post included an essay by George Will that was as venomous as it was stupid. “With a convert’s indiscriminate zeal,” Will wrote of Pope Francis, “he embraces ideas impeccably fashionable, demonstrably false and deeply reactionary.” Those ideas, of course, flow from the Gospel so Mr. Will is putting Jesus in the dock as well as the pope. “He leaves the Vatican to jet around praising subsistence farming, a romance best enjoyed from 30,000 feet above the realities that such farmers yearn to escape,” Will writes. If Will had taken the time to read anything about the pope, or simply to watch the videos of him visiting a favela, he would know that this pope is really happiest when he is in the slums with God’s people, not at 30,000 feet. And the people in those slums were often pushed off their lands, where they lived poorly but could at least feed their families, to come to the urban slums that Francis knows so well. The strangest part of Will’s column is that the idol he erects is fossil fuel. It is his god. He praises its effects, and is, pardon the expression, willfully blind to any downside. After all, he notes, the air in London is better than it was in Dickens’ time! Will charges Pope Francis with a “fact-free flamboyance” which is an odd charge for Will to make and an odd charge to lay at the feet of the pope. Mr. Will, you will recall, came to prominence as a self-styled Burkean, and Burke knew that facts were stubborn and complicated things. The pope has knowledge of the facts of daily life in the poorest slums in the world. These are facts Will may not consider important but are facts nonetheless. As for the charge of flamboyance, this pope exhibits one of the simplest of lifestyles, and not only his lifestyle. You have only to watch him celebrate Mass to recognize his utter lack of ostentation.
Another attack was indirect. If you do not want to go directly after the pope, you can always attack his collaborators. And so, the National Institute for Labor Relations Research (NILRR, which sounds so innocuous and academic, but is actually an advocacy group) attacked Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich because he upheld the Church’s teaching on workers’ rights to form a union and questioned whether so-called right-to-work laws were consistent with the values of Catholic social doctrine. The commentary from this rightwing group would be laughable if it were no so insidious, and its author seems to be one of those moralists who sees cooperation with evil lurking behind every tree. Newsflash: If you have been paying attention to the whole controversy over the HHS contraception mandate, you would have noticed that in Catholic thought, individuals are not the only ones with rights, groups have right too, and the human person, while certainly an individual, is never only an individual. +Cupich is Pope Francis’ most high-profile appointment to the Church in the U.S., so look for him to be on the receiving end of attacks from those too scared o go after the pope directly. Cardinals O’Malley and Wuerl should expect similar treatment.
There is something that unites all these attacks on the pope, in addition to their hostility and misunderstanding of Catholic social doctrine. They are all related to the Koch brothers. The NILRR and Acton are part of the Koch network, drawing money from the extraction industries and, consequently, casting aspersions on anyone who worries about the consequences of unrestricted fossil fuel use. The Heartland Institute is nothing but a front group for industry and Koch ideology. And, of course, Mr. Will’s wife works on the campaign of Koch-brothers’ darling Gov. Scott Walker.
I call attention to the Koch brothers not because I am a fan of conspiracy theories. But, in the past few days, the extreme right has been frothing at the mouth and the moderate right has not done much to defend the pope. When the fringe becomes the base, things can get dangerous. Look at today’s GOP! Indeed, the analogy is exact: The fringe started speaking about President Obama in ways that were so disrespectful as to beggar belief, but today, such disrespect is common. So wedded to, and blinded by, their ideology, the Koch brothers and their allies will tear into and try to tear down anyone who obstructs their ambition. And, they have a ton of money with which to pursue their libertarian, pro-fossil fuel agenda. They want the Catholic Church confined to the sacristy and Sunday as much as any Obama administration official, no matter how much money they give the business schools at Catholic universities.
Pope Francis has called the Church to stop being so self-referential, to remember that the Gospel calls us to go into the world and tend t the needs of the poor and the marginalized. But, many on the right do not want to listen to the Gospel, certainly not if there are to be any consequences for society and politics from that Gospel. Strangely, some on the left seem not to have gotten the memo from Pope Francis either, complaining that we need to revisit Humanae vitae, or pleading for women’s ordination, or questioning the canonization process, all of which seem pretty ad intra to me.
Compare all of the above with this truly smart and spiritual essay by John Cavadini, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. Cavadini listens to the pope’s challenges, and sets aside enough of his pride and self-will to actually hear the challenge. He does not bring his own checklist that Francis “has to deal with.” Instead, he offers the prayer that he will have the grace to hear, to be challenged, and to grow in the faith. The haters will not be moved by Cavadini’s words anymore than they will be by the pope’s, but it is their loss. This is a great moment in the life of the Church, and those of us who truly believe that Pope Francis’ papacy is a unique opportunity to re-orient the Church around the Gospel, not the culture wars, need to step up to the plate, call out the fringe, challenge those who are serious to listen, truly listen, and hope and pray that we will all have the grace to be moved in the Spirit by this wonderful pastor of the Church. Harden not your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh did!