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Is Pope Francis A Kirkian Conservative?

Professor Bainbridge thinks the pontiff might be a closet Kirkian [1], because of Francis’s remarks the other day about the dangers of turning Christianity into an ideology. Prof. Bainbridge quotes that Kirk essay [2] I linked to here the other day, about the errors of the ideological mind. From the Kirk:

Ideology, in short, is a political formula that promises mankind an earthly paradise; but in cruel fact what ideology has created is a series of terrestrial hells. I set down below some of the vices of ideology.

  1. Ideology is inverted religion, denying the Christian doctrine of salvation through grace in death, and substituting collective salvation here on earth through violent revolution. Ideology inherits the fanaticism that sometimes has afflicted religious faith, and applies that intolerant belief to concerns secular.

  2. Ideology makes political compromise impossible: the ideologue will accept no deviation from the Absolute Truth of his secular revelation. This narrow vision brings about civil war, extirpation of “reactionaries”, and the destruction of beneficial functioning social institutions.

  3. Ideologues vie one with another in fancied fidelity to their Absolute Truth; and they are quick to denounce deviationists or defectors from their party orthodoxy. Thus fierce factions are raised up among the ideologues themselves, and they war mercilessly and endlessly upon one another, as did Trotskyites and Stalinists.

Witness the extreme ideologization of the conservative movement, now tearing the Republican Party apart.

As far as the Catholic Church goes, Bainbridge is onto something. He quotes Francis’s recent sermon: [3]

“The faith passes, so to speak, through a distiller and becomes ideology. And ideology does not beckon [people]. In ideologies there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. Of every sign: rigid. And when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought… For this reason Jesus said to them: ‘You have taken away the key of knowledge.’ The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge, because these close the door with many requirements.”

The Pope continued, Jesus told us: “You burden the shoulders of people [with] many things; only one is necessary.” This, therefore, is the “spiritual, mental” thought process of one who wants to keep the key in his pocket and the door closed: “The faith becomes ideology and ideology frightens, ideology chases away the people, distances, distances the people and distances of the Church of the people. But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. It is an illness, but it is not new, eh? Already the Apostle John, in his first Letter, spoke of this. Christians who lose the faith and prefer the ideologies. His attitude is: be rigid, moralistic, ethical, but without kindness. This can be the question, no? But why is it that a Christian can become like this? Just one thing: this Christian does not pray. And if there is no prayer, you always close the door.”

“The key that opens the door to the faith,” the Pope added, “is prayer.” The Holy Father warned: “When a Christian does not pray, this happens. And his witness is an arrogant witness.” He who does not pray is “arrogant, is proud, is sure of himself. He is not humble. He seeks his own advancement.” Instead, he said, “when a Christian prays, he is not far from the faith; he speaks with Jesus.” And, the Pope said, “I say to pray, I do not say to say prayers, because these teachers of the law said many prayers” in order to be seen. Jesus, instead, says: “when you pray, go into your room and pray to the Father in secret, heart to heart.” The pope continued: “It is one thing to pray, and another thing to say prayers.”

That is a powerful truth: It is one thing to pray, and another thing to say prayers.


As you know, I have been skeptical of Pope Francis, but this sermon of his really spoke to me. I had made an ideology of my Catholicism. I hadn’t meant for it to be that way, but that’s what happened. It came about mostly because I was rightly (I still believe) concerned with the loss of the sense of the holy, and of morals and doctrines, in contemporary Catholicism. But I made the cardinal error of ceasing to pray, or to pray as often or as well as I should have. I mistook talking and thinking about the faith for being serious about the faith. Ideologization helped make my faith brittle. I’ve found that the Orthodox approach to faith makes it much harder for people like me to make the ideologue’s error, though the temptation is always there.

It is hard to be mindful of right doctrine, and right morals, while at the same time remembering that the purpose of the Christian faith is not to learn how to behave morally. But it’s necessary. I am certain that Francis is onto something when he talks about how serious prayer — by which he means an encounter of the soul with the living God — is the antidote to ideological religion.

Similarly, though, the Catholics (and other Christians) who believe that the Christian faith is a feeling, and requires nothing of us but feeling good about ourselves and being nice to others, are also wrong. Like I said, maintaining the balance is hard. But necessary.

(Thanks to the reader who sent the Bainbridge link.)

27 Comments (Open | Close)

27 Comments To "Is Pope Francis A Kirkian Conservative?"

#1 Comment By EngineerScotty On October 23, 2013 @ 12:49 pm

Similarly, though, the Catholics (and other Christians) who believe that the Christian faith is a feeling, and requires nothing of us but feeling good about ourselves and being nice to others, are also wrong. Like I said, maintaining the balance is hard. But necessary.

I won’t argue with that; but I will take issue with those who assert that the only two choices are ideology or “MTD”: that those who don’t take austere or fundamentalist positions, particularly on the social or political issues of the day, are not serious Christians. (Or Jews or Muslims or Hindus; Christianity is not the only religion afflicted with this problem).

This is the true value of Francis, for Christians: He rebuts this false dichotomy between violent, aggressive Christianity, and the vacuous kind.

Loving God does not require one to support the platform of any particular political faction. When stated abstractly, the heresy of claiming God cheers for (or supports) politicians is manifest, but when obscured by discussion of issues, it becomes rather easy to make colorable claims that “good Christians should vote for X”.

While participation in politics is an important duty in people’s roles as citizen, it should be regarded as a trivial matter in people’s religious lives. Casting a ballot (in the US, at least) is cheap and easy, for the most part.

#2 Comment By matt On October 23, 2013 @ 12:50 pm

I see nothing in Francis’ remarks to imply that ideology is earthly or revolutionary. He seems to say one’s faith can devolve into an ideology of divine salvation. In other words, Kirk’s critique is of left-wing ideologies; indeed, he seems to think their ‘left-ness’ is an essential element in their ideological character. Francis has not made this Kirkian mistake, as far as I can see.

#3 Comment By Mark On October 23, 2013 @ 12:54 pm

Jesus also said, if memory serves, that when you pray keep it simple, don’t use a lot of words, follow the Lord’s prayer. The more you introduce words and concepts to religion (or anything) the easier it is for one’s mind to get wrapped up in the rightness or wrongness of the words, and so ideology starts to set in. So at a conceptual/wordy level keep it as a simple as possible. That won’t appeal to people who are heavily invested in the idea of themselves as thinkers-of-serious-thoughts, but those are probably the people who would most benefit from focusing on the basics.

#4 Comment By David J. White On October 23, 2013 @ 1:07 pm

Witness the extreme ideologization of the conservative movement

And, for that matter, the homosexual-rights movement.

#5 Comment By William Dalton On October 23, 2013 @ 1:17 pm

Why the militant secularist, left wing or right, is a greater danger to the peace of the community and the liberty of the people than is the prayerful Churchman. Also, can this Pope preach, or what?

#6 Comment By Julian On October 23, 2013 @ 1:26 pm

Rod, thank you for this post! Your point about what happens when “ideologization” takes over deserves more attention. Prayer is listening. When we stop listening and start spouting, nothing good happens. God has made us for communion with one another as well as with God. That is a gift that we should never disparage.

#7 Comment By Devinicus On October 23, 2013 @ 1:36 pm

My greatest problem with this post is the implicit premise that there exists one spiritual condition and one way to reach people in that one condition.

Some indeed need to hear of Christ’s “tenderness, his love, his meekness”. However, others need to hear Christ say “fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Some of us are Lazarus and some of us are the rich man. Some are the prodigal son and others are his elder brother. Some are Mary and some are Martha. Some are theologians, some mystics, others plow boys.

A pastoral approach doesn’t mean “be nice” or “preach mercy”. It means understanding each sheep of the flock and what it needs to get back to the sheepfold. Consider Peter speaking to Simon Magus: “Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” This sounds like brittle arrogance perhaps? Without kindness? Even extreme ideologization? And yet what does Simon Magus say in return? “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.”

Evangelism is not one size fits all.

#8 Comment By MereChristianRadio On October 23, 2013 @ 1:50 pm


I’m glad Orthodoxy has broken your bent for ideology and rigidity. I have Orthodox friends that I wish could experience the same brokenness. One friend of mine went from being an a-hole Calvinist, to being an a-hole Reformed Episcopalian, to being an a-hole Orthodox Christian. For him it probably feels like major paradigm shifts. For his friends it’s the same old crap.

#9 Comment By Reinhold On October 23, 2013 @ 2:23 pm

Kirk very weirdly associates ideology with “collective salvation here on earth through violent revolution….” Really? All ideologies affirm violent revolution and collectivism? Less an analysis of ideology and more an allegedly ‘non-ideological’ critique of socialism….

#10 Comment By Liam On October 23, 2013 @ 2:28 pm

Btw, some of us are Lazarus in some parts of our lives and Dives in other parts of our lives. The assumption that each of us is one or the other is … an invalid assumption as a general matter. One of the great problems of listening to the Gospels is understanding that we are both: prodigal child and elder child; publican and Pharisee; chaff and wheat; et cet.

Discipleship is theosis, not moralism. Moralism is tidy and to that extent easy; theosis is messy and to that extent hard.

#11 Comment By Gretchen On October 23, 2013 @ 2:29 pm

I’m thrilled with the new Pope’s shaking things up. I was driven out of the Church by ideologues, and bemused by the number of people who feel they know better than, or are “more Catholic than the Pope”. I hope this humble man brings some humility to the people he leads..

#12 Comment By Bernie On October 23, 2013 @ 2:39 pm

I see two main issues with the Pope’s remarks, even though there are a number. The first is to avoid being like the Pharisees, with their legalism, self-righteousness, and measuring the goodness of a person only by how well he keeps numerous rules and regs.

Secondly, kindness must accompany religious teaching. In other words, love and truth must be companions and walk arm-in-arm. They are not rivals or competitors. If we have one without we other, we fall off the spiritual rails. We can make an idol of religious teaching, and then it becomes an agenda (ideology) and tends to become devoid of consideration for others. But as Rod states, if our spirituality becomes simply being nice and kind to others, we lack a belief system in which broader *truth* matters. Truth and love both matter – a lot.

#13 Comment By Mike W On October 23, 2013 @ 2:49 pm

Kirkian…is that similar to Klingon?

#14 Comment By Rich On October 23, 2013 @ 2:55 pm

EngineerScotty: “While participation in politics is an important duty in people’s roles as citizen, it should be regarded as a trivial matter in people’s religious lives.”

This is what Pope Francis had to say recently:

“Citizens cannot be indifferent to politics. None of us can say, ‘I have nothing to do with this, they govern.’ … No, no, I am responsible for their governance, and I have to do the best so that they govern well, and I have to do my best by participating in politics according to my ability. Politics, according to the Social Doctrine of the Church, is one of the highest forms of charity, because it serves the common good. I cannot wash my hands, eh? We all have to give something!”


#15 Comment By EngineerScotty On October 23, 2013 @ 4:27 pm


Francis also said:

“I say that politics is the most important of the civil activities and has its own field of action, which is not that of religion. Political institutions are secular by definition and operate in independent spheres.”

I’m not suggesting that the religious ought to abandon politics wholesale; but that use of the State as a means of evangelism is a Bad Idea.

#16 Comment By Irenist On October 23, 2013 @ 4:34 pm

I struggle with this, myself: being a disciple of Jesus, and not merely a member of the Roman Catholic Church who roots for her in the culture wars and strives to live out her moral teachings. It’s so easy for me to get caught up in liturgy, theology, philosophy, and politics (all of which are important!) that I forget to have a relationship with Jesus Christ–and the people in my life in whom He manifests Himself to me–instead of a relationship with my books about Christianity and with my punctiliously gardened political tastes. Pope Francis–like Benedict before him, in a very different way–continues to give me the splash of cold water in the face I so often need.

[NFR: I hear you. — RD]

#17 Comment By Mont D. Law On October 23, 2013 @ 4:38 pm

I am the furthest thing from Catholic but I seem to be the only one that credits the two Pope’s with telling the truth. They are responding directly to what God personally told them to do. That He made it clear to them directly.

Which is weird and disturbing.

Do you people not believe God speaks to Popes? Is Benedict lying when he says God told him to resign? Is Francis lying about God touching and filling his heart when he was elected and never leaving him? Giving him the strength and the vision to renew the Church in exactly this way?

If you don’t believe that these two men received a personal revelation from God and both are lying, why bother?

#18 Comment By dominic1955 On October 23, 2013 @ 5:36 pm

Ideology is quite different than orthodoxy. One thing I appreciate is some folks I’ve known who have joined the Catholic Church from lefty mainline groups affirm that they believe what the Church teaches, not that they swam the Tiber to get away from x, y, or z “progressive” teaching in their old group.

On the other hand, I had an acquaintance assert that the Anglicans who are joining the Ordinariate groups are doing so because of the ordination of gays and women and such. Furthermore, the local paper shows its slant when they didn’t say why these folks were joining the Catholic Church.

I’d say the first example is a good example of orthodoxy, while the second is ideology. While I certainly and totally agree with Catholic teaching on all points, I do so because the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ. “To whom shall I go, Lord, you have the words of eternal life” should be what one’s belief on the Church should be. It shoult not be either, “I’m here because my other group lets queers into the ministry” or “I’m here because this group ordains women and gays!” Both are ideology, both are detrimental to the spiritual life but for different reasons.

It seems the “conservative” ideologue will have a hard time ever finding that “pure” religion. He can hole himself up in whatever self-selected group tickles his fancy, but if its part of a larger group (however directly or loosely) he will remain in frustration. He will find himself by widening his horizons, seeing the grace that abounds amid the sin and imperfections. Nigra sum sed formosa.

The “liberal” ideologue will often pick up the “victim” mantle. They will also hold themselves up in a self-selected group and click their tongues at all the barbarians outside their walls, just like their “conservative” counterpart. The way out for them is obedience. They need to realize that there is something bigger than their own judgment.

Unfortunately, I think these distinctions are easily lost in the U.S. where everything is so simply dichotomized. Orthodoxy is quite exciting, like Chesterton wrote about it.

#19 Comment By Robert Pickard On October 23, 2013 @ 7:00 pm

Kirk was right on target about many things. However to say the ideology is inverted religion is a mistake. Religions of various hues are just different ideologies.
Foe those who truely subscribe to one or another “faith” compromise is impossible, they will accept no deviation from the “Absolute Truth” of thier particular view.

I suggest that the difficulty lies in the need for and embace of sets of absolute ideas. Whatever they may be called — Calvinism or communism or what have you — they all require their adherents to toe the line and to despise those who do not share thier world view.

#20 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 23, 2013 @ 7:02 pm

On the whole very intellectually stimulating as for the substantive import. not much.

I understand that once someone becomes or obtains a ph.d they may entertain argument as they will. But are there no parameters for acknowledging that which is already established.

Another self serving definition of ideology. It is ideology that provides a frame for which a person is able to compromise. There is nothing in an ideological frame that prevents a person from compromise. Ideology, in my view is not separate from faith on matters of christianity.

From that frame I have a better method of determining just what i or what Christ might provide for room to compromise.

The ten commandments are nonnegotiable. That does not mean I am incapable of acting with tenderness, empathy, compassion, consideration or any of the other human qualities that vehicles for compromise. Even as to principle, one may extend their defenses in a manner such that it goes beyond a mandate from Christ.

Case point, I can pray with a Catholic or even a Mormon, despite having significant areas of disagreement about the nature of scripture —
There are clearly places of agreement in which we can thread a needle. Even in voting for a Mormon.

But that requires no compromise on the ideological constructs of scripture.

I tend to think that the above is that subtle nawing at the frame to advance something else. Again, the Pope has been swayed by his educational training —

Christianity is an ideology but not in accordance of the loaded definitions and examples provided.

#21 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 23, 2013 @ 7:24 pm

When I was teaching ages ago. A student arrived in my office and told me he had cheated on an exam. by rights an “F”.

Did he get an “F” I permitted him to take another exam with different questions and we moved on.
He violated the law. he lied.

Was their room for compromise – sure on the response not the law. Did it require that I abandon any ideological parameters – no. The real issue rests on whether what is being offered in compromise is within an arena of compromise. And that varies from issue to issue – circumstance to circumstance. And the content and context of the compromise being requested.

#22 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 23, 2013 @ 7:25 pm

“Some indeed need to hear of Christ’s “tenderness, his love, his meekness”. However, others need to hear Christ say “fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” ”

Christ in my view, can be separated from neither

#23 Comment By Fred On October 23, 2013 @ 7:50 pm

This Catholic Trad crowd disagrees w/you, Rod:

#24 Comment By Chris 1 On October 24, 2013 @ 12:32 am

That is a powerful truth: It is one thing to pray, and another thing to say prayers.

Yes, and yet the two are not mutually exclusive.

The best description I ever heard of prayer was this: “Lifting up your heart to God.” Sometimes saying prayers helps, sometimes they get in the way.

#25 Comment By wolfgang Franz On October 24, 2013 @ 5:04 am

“I mistook talking and thinking about the faith for being serious about the faith.”

I don´t agree with you, Rod. For a man able to use his brains talking and thinking about the faith is necessary and means being serious about it.
St. Thomas Aquinas already saw the danger when the church stops thinking. The intellectual mind will ridicule the faith as it can´t answer the deeper questions. Possibly this is more valid in Europe and North America than in Argentina.
Of course it is a wrong way of running around with the moral tone all the time. That´s not what Christianity is all about. But this is a question of the situation, especially today.

[NFR: I’m not at all saying we shouldn’t think about the faith! I am saying that we shouldn’t assume that thinking about the faith is the same thing as becoming more faithful. — RD]

#26 Comment By jweaks On October 24, 2013 @ 9:21 am


“You Keep Using That Word, I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.” – Inigo Montoyo

#27 Comment By CitizenE On October 27, 2013 @ 12:09 pm

This Pope has found favor among those who see the essence being superior to the letter. Indeed, from a perspective of someone who is not Christian, it strikes me that Jesus’ big revolution from established Judaism, was to de-emphasize literal belief. He preached in parables, his commentary on the Sabbath, in which he said one should save a drowning horse if that became necessary; his commentary on literal revenge; extreme punishments for adulterers, and so on.

Doestoevsky pondered the declension of the spiritual message of Jesus to the ideological message of the Church in his own parable about the Grand Inquistor, in which the issue is how the Inquisitorial Church lifted from individuals the terror of freedom. And to me, that is at the heart of all fundamentalist religiosity, a fanatical self-despisal that does not credit humanity with the capacity of moral behavior, lacking the enforced guidance of a church, temple, mosque, and so on. It also speaks to that same underestimation of those atheists or secularists who live moral lives calling upon the basis of their humanity (read Camus’ The Plague, for example).

All religions have written into them the practical, whether it be meditation or prayer. And indeed, again as someone who is not Christian, this essential fundamental goes to the heart of the so-called “saved” mentality, which denies that spirit and being are a moment by moment activity, all of us falling off the wagon repeatedly as we go through life, the humility then of prayer or meditation, like sleep to waking life, a great antedote to our natural forgetting.

The history of religion is a mixed bag because it has also been a vehicle, under the guise of ideology, of some of humanity’s most immoral behavior, its greatest oppressions. There is little solace that Jesus understood this was to be so in considering those oppressed in his name for those oppressed. The case against ideology from someone outside the Christian tent is that rather than being God given it is the product of humans, often at their least moral, least spiritual, least compassionate, most cursed and damnable.