So, I was getting caught up last night on my news and social media feeds, which right now are filled with agita about how Donald Trump really is throwing everybody for a loop again with his reckless tweets and bizarre (by conventional standards) political behavior. And hey, I share those concerns! I didn’t vote for Trump not so much because I oppose his policies (some I do oppose, most I like, certainly compared to establishment Republicans) but because the American president wields too much power to be handed over to someone as unstable and driven by passion as Donald Trump.
Now that we’ve got him, he’s redefining almost every day what we can expect from a president, but also putting at risk some fundamental assumptions about American political life and the way a president behaves. Some people love that about him. Others find it unnerving. I tend to belong to the latter camp. What nobody can do is pretend that this is normal.
I happened to read Ross Douthat’s column about Pope Francis and his refusal to answer the dubia put to him by four cardinals. The dubia are formal questions the cardinals submitted to Francis, asking him to clarify the teaching in his
encyclical apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. You might think it’s inside theological baseball, but you would be wrong. It really is a big deal, and Douthat explains why. Excerpt:
This indirectness matters because within Catholicism the pope’s formal words, his encyclicals and exhortations, have a weight that winks and implications and personal letters lack. They’re what’s supposed to require obedience, what’s supposed to be supernaturally preserved from error.
So avoiding clarity seemed intended as a compromise, a hedge. Liberals got a permission slip to experiment, conservatives got to keep the letter of the law, and the world’s bishops were left to essentially choose their own teaching on marriage, adultery and the sacraments – which indeed many have done in the last year, tilting conservative in Philadelphia and Poland, liberal in Chicago or Germany or Argentina, with inevitable dust-ups between prelates who follow different interpretations of Amoris.
But the strange spectacle around the dubia is a reminder that this cannot be a permanent settlement. The logic of “Rome has spoken, the case is closed” is too deeply embedded in the structures of Catholicism to allow for anything but a temporary doctrinal decentralization. So long as the pope remains the pope, any major controversy will inevitably rise back up to the Vatican.
Love him, hate him, or something in between, you cannot deny that Pope Francis is shaking things up. He does not stick to Vatican protocol. He leads with his heart (and his mouth), which often causes a lot of confusion. And he is changing the rules of the game in a major way.
Reading Douthat’s column, and then this paragraph from a piece in First Things:
Priorities, personnel, and leadership style always change with a new Holy Father. The times also change, and with them pastoral realities and needs. So in many ways, Pope Francis and the issues that engage him are nothing unusual. But some things in the new regime really are new. All previous recent papal transitions—John XXIII to Paul VI; Paul VI to John Paul II; John Paul II to Benedict XVI—were marked by a continuity of experience that Francis does not share.
…at the same time that I was reading commentators in an uproar about Trump, led me to tweet:
Verbally undisciplined, no respecter of convention, polarizing, destabilizing — in what other ways are Pope Francis & Donald Trump alike?
— Rod Dreher (@roddreher) November 28, 2016
Well, golly. I didn’t know that you can’t ask that. Seems that more than a few people on Twitter reason that:
Pope Francis is a good guy. Donald Trump is a bad guy. Therefore, they have nothing in common, and anybody who says so is a creep!
Indignation is not a real answer to a real set of questions. My friend Matthew Sitman says that the only reason to make the comparison is to damage Francis, therefore the comparison is invalid. Really? My readers know that I’m not a fan of Francis and not a fan of Trump. I’m sure I will hear from Catholic Trump admirers who don’t like Francis, and who think I’ve insulted the president-elect by the comparison. They’re wrong too. The fact is, both men are extraordinary figures who, again, are rewriting the rules of what it means to lead their institutions.
I found out just now that Matthew Schmitz got there first re: the Francis/Trump comparison, which he made back in February. I think this is the first I’ve seen it, or if not, I totally forgot about it. After saying that on the surface, both men are extremely different figures, they actually share some qualities. Excerpts:
Despite these differences, Francis and Trump have much in common. Begin with how they choose their major targets. Both are outsiders bent on shaking up their establishments. Francis challenges a hidebound Vatican bureaucracy and flirts with revising settled Catholic doctrine. He denounces institutional maintenance, demanding “a church that is poor and for the poor.”
Trump attacks conventional Republican politicians and violates every conservative orthodoxy. He calls George W. Bush a liar and praises Planned Parenthood. His every electoral success deals another blow to a political class that is already reeling during a primary season marked by populist passions.
Schmitz says that both Francis and Trump appeal to outsiders, to those they say have been marginalized within the Church (in the pope’s case), and America (in Trump’s). More:
In making these appeals, Francis and Trump prioritize an iconoclastic style over substance — or coherence. The pope has heartened many Catholics, and shocked others, by supporting heterodox views on communion for the divorced and remarried. But he is hardly a down-the-line liberal.
He opposes abortion and has described gender theory as a violation of nature similar to the use of nuclear arms. His scattershot rhetoric finds its parallel in the opportunistic bombast of Trump.
Both an opponent of immigration and a critic of immigration rhetoric, both antiabortion and a supporter of the nation’s leading abortion provider, Trump boasts a political program that is no clearer than Francis’s theological one. Both men prize bold words and gestures at the expense of clear arguments and specific policies.
Schmitz goes on:
Their admirers overlook these inconsistencies. Why? The basis of their appeal is a mistrust of institutions, which is widespread and increasing. According to the Gallup Organization, only 42 percent of Americans now profess confidence in organized religion, down from a historical average of 55 percent. Only 8 percent have confidence in Congress, down from a historical average of 24 percent.
In such an environment, anti-establishment personalities become immensely attractive. It seems that all we need is a Strong Will (in Trump’s case) or Good Intentions (in Francis’s). Institutions, with their rules and customs, seem irrelevant at best.
Read the whole thing. I think it holds up very well as a general conservative critique of the undisciplined style of both men. Matt Sitman strongly disagreed when Schmitz (and Douthat too, as it turns out) said this back in February. He re-upped his February piece tonight in response to my tweet. Excerpts from it:
But does this stand up to scrutiny? When you move beyond empty generalities, the comparison falls apart. Take Schmitz’s assertion, noted above, that Francis and Trump are both “outsiders bent on shaking up their establishments.” In reality, Francis’s relationship to the church is strikingly different than Trump’s relationship to the GOP or the political establishment more broadly. Francis was a Jesuit provincial and then the cardinal archbishop of a major diocese. He arguably had more administrative and institutional experience “running things” than his predecessor Benedict XVI did before becoming pope.
Moreover, one reason in particular Francis was chosen to be pope was to reform the church’s bureaucracy, especially the Roman curia. Here’s how George Weigel described the situation on the eve of the 2013 papal conclave: “There were, as there are before every conclave, concerns about the Vatican bureaucracy in 2005. But today there is a widespread and firmly held conviction that the central administrative machinery of the Church is broken.” Francis was not an outsider insurgent, then, attempting a Trump-style hostile takeover of the Vatican; he was specifically selected by the most elite members of an institution – an institution to which Francis had committed his entire life – to help reform it, precisely because many of those involved were fully aware of just how much was broken. There is all the difference in the world between that and Donald Trump using the Republican party as a vehicle for his own ambitions. And it is just such differences – between necessary reform and angry destruction – that the glib moniker “outsider” papers over so easily.
Sorry, I don’t buy it. Of course the comparisons between an American presidential politician and a Roman pontiff will fail at some point, but I don’t find Matt’s analysis persuasive, especially in light of what’s happened since he wrote this in late February.
On the American front, Trump went from being a barbarian attacking the system from the outside to defeating both the entire Republican Party in the primaries and the Democratic Party in the general election. That was one of the most extraordinary achievements in American political history, and almost no one saw it coming. He could not have done it if the system he has now been elected — elected! — to lead wasn’t perceived as being badly broken. It is now conventional wisdom in both parties that Establishment Washington brought this disaster on itself by giving itself over wholeheartedly to free market dogma and not paying enough attention to the human cost of globalism on the working class. The United States of America doesn’t have a College of Cardinals to vote in a reformer. It has the people. Had the Wise Men And Women of Washington been wiser, they would have responded to the need for reform, and given the voters change agents they could believe in. Anyway, Trump is indeed an outsider, but the term is relative. After all, a billionaire who lives in a Fifth Avenue penthouse atop a skyscraper with his name on it is not exactly Wat Tyler, is he?
On the Roman front, yes, it’s true that Jorge Bergoglio is an insider who emerged from the College of Cardinals — which is effectively the only place that a pope can emerge from. There are no billionaire businessmen who can force their way into a conclave. The system is not set up for that. But Francis has positioned himself as an outsider critic of the Vatican establishment, starting with his decision to refuse to live in the Papal Apartments. And he has repeatedly attacked that same establishment in populist terms. Douthat wrote:
The public style that produces these “say what?” moments can get them both into a kind of trouble. But the billionaire and the pontiff both seem to believe — on some evidence — that a little troublemaking is the best way to make the disaffected pay attention.
And by reaching people who usually tune out churchmen and politicians, they have become leading populists in our increasingly populist moment. The popular constituencies they speak for are very different, of course. Trump is a nationalist, speaking on behalf of the unhappy Western working class, while Francis is a Latin American and a globalist, speaking for the developing world’s poor — which is why immigration policy naturally puts them at loggerheads.
But they nonetheless share a common enemy: Not just specific guardians of business as usual, whether Catholic or Republican, but the wider Western ruling class. Whether it’s the Donald attacking “the very, very stupid people” making policy in the United States, or Francis deploring the greed and self-interest of rich nations and wealthy corporations, the pope and the mogul are now leading critics of the neoliberalism that has governed the West for a generation or more.
Neoliberalism needs critics, as the Republican Party needs reinvention and the Catholic Church needs reform. At the same time, as Schmitz notes, what both Trump and Francis promise — deliverance “from inconvenient and unresponsive institutions, with all their strictures and corruptions” — downplays the value of rules, customs, and traditions in protecting people from the rule of novelty and whim.
This is always populism’s peril: That it relies too much on the power of charisma, and tears down too much in the quest to make America or Catholic Christianity great again.
As with Schmitz’s column, I think this holds up very well. Douthat — again, writing in February, when a Trump presidency was all but unthinkable — points out that both the Pope and the Donald, who had been feuding, are both attacking neoliberalism, as well as shake up the governing class of the institutions that they lead or, in Trump’s case, aspire to lead.
What has happened in the Roman church since Douthat, Schmitz, and Sitman wrote their pieces is that Francis released an
encyclical apostolic exhortation that appears to pave the way for Catholics living in irregular marital situations to receive communion. In the US, at least, there is widespread popular support among Catholics for the pope’s views on liberalizing communion rules. In this sense, Francis has taken a populist stance, but he has not been unquestionably clear about how he intends the encyclical to be taken on its most controversial points. This has resulted in a situation in which some bishops interpret Amoris one way, others interpret it another way. The dubia put forth by the four cardinals — read them here — ask Francis to speak unambiguously to clarify several basic points in which it appears to them that Amoris contradicts settled Catholic doctrine. This is a very big deal, for reasons Douthat and others have been tirelessly pointing out. Francis loves to denounces his critics as “rigid” and “legalists,” but the rule of canon law in the Catholic Church is as important a safeguard of the integrity of the system as the rule of constitutional law is in the United States. You can’t just roll over rules, customs, and traditions because you don’t like them, or because the masses agree with you.
What Francis is doing by his actions is risking a showdown that would be the Roman Catholic equivalent of a constitutional crisis. There is a lot at stake here for the Roman church and its future. Similarly, I don’t think it’s a matter of whether Donald Trump will blunder into a constitutional crisis for the US, but when and how.
If I had read (or had remembered reading) Douthat’s and Schmitz’s pieces from earlier this year, I wouldn’t have tweeted about it. But I didn’t, and so I did, and here we are. The case for comparing Francis to Trump is even stronger now than it was earlier this year. Matt Sitman is wrong when he writes:
Let’s be honest: the only reason to compare anyone to Donald Trump is to make that person look as bad as possible. There is nothing you can learn about Pope Francis by contemplating the antics of Trump. Juxtaposing the two is an exercise in obfuscation and deception.
No it’s not. This is something that only someone who thinks Trump is uniquely evil and/or that Francis is unusually saintly could say. There’s a big problem with this kind of angelism-vs-bestialism thinking — and I admit to falling prey to it myself from time to time.
If you really find Trump to be repulsive beyond comprehension, you’ll miss why so many people support him and find him to be worth taking a chance on. Back in February (that month!), I wrote a speculative post laying out “A Social Conservative Case For Trump”. I got a lot of instant pushback from a number of my fellow social conservatives who thought that I was actually endorsing Trump. I wasn’t, as I made clear in an update to that post, but it was telling to me that to no small number of prominent religious and social conservatives, even to say out loud that one of our tribe might justify a vote for Trump was to speak dangerous heresy. I would like to say that I was less blind to the appeal of Trump than many of my friends and colleagues, and I guess I was, or I wouldn’t have written that post. But I still did not believe that Trump was going to win the nomination, nor, when he did, did I believe he would win the presidency. Two weeks before the election, I sat with a very worried liberal friend over coffee and told her to relax, that there was no way Hillary could lose this thing. I believed it too.
My point is this: if you construe a leader you fear and loathe as so wicked that no reasonable person can possibly see them as normal, you risk blinding yourself to their virtues, or if not their virtues, then at least their source of support among people not like yourself. You risk underestimating them, at your peril.
On the other hand, there is also a risk in thinking of a leader you love and admire as incapable of serious fault. This is the great mistake many faithful conservative Catholics made about John Paul II during the abuse scandal. I always believed and said (you can check the record on this) that John Paul was a saint, as he has since been proclaimed by the Roman church. But the qualities that made him a saint did not also make him a good supreme governor of the Roman Catholic Church. He was pretty bad at it, actually, and allowed the scandal to fester.
There is no system that is failsafe, and that will protect itself against the flaws, tragic and otherwise, of those given the responsibility to administer it. John Paul was one of the greatest Christians ever to walk this earth, but he was a poor governor, and the Church suffered because of it. But back from 2002 until JP2’s death, it was all but impossible to get conservative Catholics to concede this. It wasn’t because they were bad people, but rather that they were so personally invested in the sanctity and heroism of John Paul II that they could not or would not see that his misgovernance was leading the Church into a bad place.
So too with Francis. I understand why liberal Catholics love him so much. But they must take care not to allow their affection and admiration for him blind themselves to his weaknesses. The papacy and the institution it serves is much bigger than a single man, but a single man can do great damage to it if he is too reckless or inattentive to details. So too with the US presidency.
I think we all have a tendency to believe that if a leader is good, then whatever he decides to do with his power is justified. I asked a Trump-voting friend earlier this fall if there was anything he could do to lose her vote. Nope, she said. Even kill a guy? I said. Not even that, she said — and she wasn’t kidding. She had decided that Trump was her man, and anything anybody said against him was wrong and driven by low motives. I checked with her not long ago, and she still believes that, and told me I had better not write anything bad about Mr. Trump. I don’t think folks like her believe Trump is good as much as they believe he is necessary.
Obviously I don’t believe that Pope Francis partisans would go that far, but I do think there is a similar degree of blindness. They do believe that he’s good, and they also believe that he’s necessary. The idea that a man as upright as Pope Francis has anything in common with a vulgarian like Donald Trump is deeply offensive to them. But they can easily see how Trump’s unshakable belief in the righteousness of his cause, disrespect for his opponents and disregard for the finer points of governance can go badly awry for the presidency and for the country. Jorge Mario Bergoglio may be more far more angelic than the rough beast Donald Trump, but the starkness of the contrast blinds them to the similarities.
We live in an era that does not reward the company man, the establishmentarian. But law evolved to protect institutions from human nature. It’s dangerous to forget that, and we ought to be a lot more careful than we are to guard against complacency, and to trust overmuch in the durability of our institutions.
UPDATE: Insightful comment from Ben H.:
Some more similarities:
– both are dramatic and emotional, not intellectual: we are used to thoughtful and intellectually solid even if you disagree justifications from conservatives and popes and you are not going to get that from either
– both are far less ideologically extreme than reckoned: Francis ‘theological liberalism’ stems more from emotional fuzzyism and the need to be liked rather than the revolutionary character Ross assigns to him. Trump’s supposed racism etc. exists in the context of the modern liberal’s inability to state disagreement in any other form than moral condemnation. His own behavior towards people with such characteristics (he’s been a public figure since the 1980’s) has been far more conventional and ‘nonjudgmental’.
– Both are quoted out of context, and the quotes have taken on lives of their own. Trump’s supposed comments about rapey Mexicans is actually about the Mexican government’s policy of exporting their troubles to our country, which is in fact the case. Francis likes to be liked, so he says things a certain way sometimes, but we don’t get the full story. I don’t see big headlines about his theories about the Satanic origins of gender theory and transgenderism for example.