How to Confuse Pope Francis

How to Confuse Pope Francis
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Last week, we were treated to headlines trumpeting the news that the mercurial Pope Francis affirmed the eternal salvation of canine souls. But media outlets were soon forced to recant when it came to light that the story was, if not entirely fabricated, an unholy mix of confusions and partial truths stemming from a misleading headline originally crafted to garner web traffic.

Here is the New York Times:

"An article on Friday about whether Pope Francis believes that animals go to heaven -- a longstanding theological question in the church -- misstated the pope's recent remarks and the circumstances in which they were made...The Times should have verified the quotations with the Vatican."

This howler reveals more than the shoddy journalism that seems invariably to plague all matters papal -- especially as media outlets push digital "click bait" in lieu of "fact" (facts, it seems, are analog). In good Freudian fashion, the slip reveals something about our popular news media that should have been apparent already: the pontiff is but an object upon which misguided pundits project their ideological fantasies. This week, the performance continues.

We are now informed that Pope Francis was integral to President Obama's recent decision to unfreeze economic and political relations with Cuba. Meanwhile, Fox News's imitable Adam Shaw assures us that the "liberal papacy of Pope Francis" may secure a political victory for the Democratic Party, even "affect[ing] the outcome of the 2016 US elections." How did "the Catholic Church's Obama" (i.e., Francis) perform such a mean feat? Not by brokering an agreement between the White House and Castro the Lesser, but by giving "a green light to the social activism of left-wing U.S. nuns" in a new "bombshell Vatican report."

Leave aside the content of this report, over which Shaw rides roughshod. And ignore the oft-repeated but no less unfounded assumption that Pope Francis represents a significant theological and political departure from his predecessors. Ignore too Shaw's peculiarly preposterous notion that the millennia-old Vatican should somehow be beholden, in its internal machinations, to the ideological platforms of American political parties and the amnesiac temporality of election cycles. There is, finally, something of substance to discern in all of this, however unintended.

The temptation has grown irresistible in American journalism not simply to apply the inappropriate political labels "conservative," "liberal," "rightwing" and "leftwing" to the theology of the Catholic Church, but to do so using our own provincial interpretations of those labels. Shaw is exemplary in this regard. Pope Benedict XVI was "conservative" (read: socially conservative); Pope Francis is "liberal" (read: soft on homosexuality, immigration); Pope John Paul II was "rightwing" (read: anti-communist), Pope Francis "leftwing" (read: one of those liberation-theology Jesuits).

Not only does applying these labels in this manner grossly distort the complexities of the Church's theological teachings, it instrumentalizes them. The Church is a useful tool (for rhetorical purposes, mainly) when it appears to support one's own political views. But the Church becomes an obstacle when it appears to undermine them. In the theater of American politics, the Catholic Church is brought out on stage by both parties to be praised, pilloried, or patronized, depending on the audience.

Too often, pundits -- conservative and liberal -- treat the Catholic Church as if it were one more interest group feeding at the trough of our American political machine. Accordingly, the positions for which it "advocates" are evaluated in accordance with some pre-ordained political ideology. The Church is "pro-life," good; the Church supports immigration reform, bad. Or inversely: the Church criticizes unbridled capitalist accumulation, good; the Church opposes gay marriage, bad.

What is odd about this exercise is that it treats one's political platform as dogma and the Church's theological dogma as political platform. It subverts, in other words, the relationship between moral teaching and politics.

The social teaching of the Catholic Church is not, as Francis, Benedict, and John Paul all emphasized, a political ideology among others, nor can it be mined for policy position bullet points. As Pope John Paul II explained, when criticizing both communistic and entirely laissez-faire forms of social arrangement: the Church does not offer a "third way between liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism, nor even a possible alternative to other solutions...rather, it constitutes a category of its own."

If not a political platform, then what? In the words of Saint John Paul II, the social teaching of the Church aims "to guide Christian behavior," to further "the impulse of missionary renewal," as Pope Francis put it. That is not to say that Catholic social teaching lacks political consequences. But the latter may not be derived from the former in the mathematical fashion. Catholic beliefs -- like all religious beliefs -- provide a set of moral principles that guide (rather than determine) one's choices in social and political life. Inversely, political platforms do not (or should not) guide one's choice of moral principles.

Of course, political realities, such as the rule of law, constitutionality, and the exigencies of electoral politics can and should constrain how moral principles are brought to bear on political matters. Defending the dignity of human life may or may not translate into "executive amnesty;" promoting the common good may or may not translate into neo-classical economics. The path from moral principle to policy position is often unclear, being strewn with the detritus of history, circumstance, and political conflict.

Therein lies the labor of politicians -- not theologians.

M. Anthony Mills is a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, specializing in philosophy of science.

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