The Pope Francis Threat
In Rome this past week, I had lots of conversations with informed Catholics. It’s fair to say my interlocutors were all on the orthodox (that is, theologically conservative) side of things, and that most of them were Italian. Every single one was deeply concerned — I mean profoundly concerned — about the present and future of the Catholic Church. I’d say the gamut ran from apocalyptic to “this is going to be like the Arian crisis — grave and long-lasting — so we had better prepare for a fight that lasts generations.” Nobody I talked to saw this as anything other than a crisis that strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a Catholic. For what that’s worth.
One thing that’s on the lips of insiders: that in the next few weeks, the Vatican will finally release the findings of its investigation of Cardinal McCarrick — but whatever they say, nobody will believe it, even if it’s the gospel truth, because the institutional Church has shot its credibility on sex abuse.
I read on the flight back yesterday the Catholic scholar Daniel Mahoney’s cover story in the new edition of National Review. It is such an eloquent and thorough summation of these conversations that I thought I would rather quote it at length than try to dredge up the details from my talks. I offer these excerpts to you as an exceptionally precise insight into what smart Catholic conservatives in Rome and from around Europe are thinking:
Political correctness — and hostility to the West as the West — pervades a good deal of what this papacy says and does. This is a papacy that has been largely silent about the decimation of ancient Christian communities in the Arab and Islamic Middle East. The Koran, Pope Francis insists, is incompatible with “every form of violence.” This is false, and everyone knows it. Where Bishop Sánchez Sorondo sees social justice and Catholic social teaching at work in China, others, as Robert Royal has noted, see intensified persecution of Catholics and other religious believers, environmental damage that is unprecedented in the East or West, a cruel forced-abortion policy, Orwellian surveillance of dissidents and of every expression of independence in civil society, and the rounding up in concentration camps of over 1 million Muslim Uighurs in the northwest. As Royal, president of the Faith & Reason Institute and editor of The Catholic Thing, aptly observes, the Vatican’s misjudgments are all too commonplace: “The Vatican currently pursues a steady line of anti-Western criticism, against the alleged xenophobia, rapacious economies, and environmental ‘sins’ of both Europe and North America.”
Royal refers to these juvenile ideological clichés, and predictable policies, as manifestations of “simplistic progressivism.” This is a Vatican that conflates the truth of Christ with a “religion of humanity” that has become a substitute for a religion that affirms transcendence. Sober political thinking is not much in evidence, nor even a modicum of realism and moderation in human affairs. Love and charity have been hopelessly politicized, confused with a sentimentality that excuses every excess carried out in the name of a perfected “humanity.” When one sides with an atheistic and totalitarian regime that endangers the children of God, one has entered into morally and theologically troubled territory, indeed.
The point Mahoney keeps making in the essay is not that Francis favors this or that left-wing cause that conservatives dislike. It’s that Francis is operating far from the theological tradition of the Catholic Church. Yes, it’s the conclusions that the pope draws, but it’s also how the pope draws them. More:
On matters of war and peace, and immigration and the integrity of borders, Francis has been guided by the same humanitarian moralism that has informed his “frenzied activism” on other fronts. In a 2018 book of interviews with the left-wing French sociologist Dominique Wolton, Francis lightly dismisses the rich Catholic tradition of ethical and prudential reflection on matters of war and peace. In the tone of a person with no political responsibilities, and no sense of what they might be, he declares that there is no such thing as a just war. If he means that no war is simply or absolutely just, he is reiterating age-old Christian wisdom about the impact of original sin even on decent political communities attempting to defend the civilized patrimony of humankind. But this pope, abandoning equitable or balanced judgment, declares that only with peace do you “win everything.” He overlooks the fact that “peace” can also be a vehicle of mendacity, oppression, injustice, violence, and genocide, as that proffered by totalitarian regimes. As Vladimir Solovyov argued in his “Short Tale of the Anti-Christ” (1900), there can be such a thing as an “evil peace” and a good or legitimate war (and vice versa, of course). Francis’s conception in no way resembles the “tranquility of order” so richly articulated in Book 19 of St. Augustine’s City of God. If only he would display more deference to the rich theological and philosophical wisdom of the past.
One more clip:
By becoming shrill, dogmatic, and moralistic practitioners of a politically correct religion of humanity, the Church follows the path of perdition. The political philosopher Leo Strauss, speaking in 1964 at the University of Detroit, a Jesuit institution, said that the Roman Catholic Church was the last remaining spiritual body or institution to truly appreciate all the pitfalls of a modern project that openly and self-consciously rejected natural right in the classical and Christian senses of the term. Strauss made that remark at the very moment when important elements within the Church were succumbing to modernity at its least wise, least sober, least admirable. This is what the political philosopher Eric Voegelin so aptly called “modernity without restraint.”
Please, read the whole thing.
And I commend to you Prof. Mahoney’s recent book, The Idol Of Our Age, a series of reflective essays on the difference between Christianity and what he calls “the religion of humanity.” The spiritual warfare happening now at the summit of the Catholic Church is going to be decisive for the future of the world. All of us — Catholic and otherwise — had better pay attention.