Last week Pope Francis made his first, historic visit to the USA. His whirlwind tour included, among other things, meeting with President Obama, addressing the United Nations, and giving the first ever papal address to a joint session of the United States Congress.
There has been much to-do in the media this week regarding how conservatives do not like the Pope much. Conservative commentator George Will scathingly called him a ‘false prophet’. The Daily Telegraph ran a piece by Tim Stanley entitled ‘Conservatives Will Hate the Pope’s Speech to Congress’. And The New York Times gleefully informed us, in a nauseating, juvenile way, that the Democrats gave more standing ovations during the Pope’s speech to Congress than the Republicans did. But who’s counting?
Ideas, I’ve noticed, once articulated a few times, have a tendency to take on a life of their own. So because someone somewhere suggested that Pope Francis has a ‘non-conservative’ agenda – whatever that might mean – now all of a sudden there is a popular perception that Pope Francis is left-wing. Then the media perpetuates this perception by portraying the Pope’s critics as ‘conservative’ and his supporters as tolerant and compassionate – which are code words for ‘liberal’.
The result is that one gets the impression that the conservatives stood their distance from the Pope this week – either wringing their hands with self-doubt, or grudgingly acknowledging him with a Protestant-esque self-satisfaction – while the liberals went to mass, received spiritual enlightenment, brought their children and their pets to be blessed by the Pope (apparently he saw fit to bless a parrot), and went home singing praises about the Pope’s vision for social justice. Or so claimed The New York Times.
Allow me to inject some reality into this rather deluded narrative. Conservatives have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, from the Pope’s visit this week.
First of all, the fact that the Pope even addressed Congress is a matter of huge importance for conservatives. Our culture is becoming ever more hostile to public, and even to private, expressions of religion. This has been especially true as Western countries have battled over issues such as same-sex marriage, a battle at which the Catholic Church was at the forefront. One sees the term ‘religious extremism’ used to describe not only acts of violence perpetrated in the name of religion, but also any theological view that does not conform to current liberal orthodoxy. On that definition, simply being ‘religious’ makes one ‘extremist’, and therefore unworthy of participation in the public space.
And yet, the Pope’s very visible speeches at both Congress and the UN were a strong signal to the world that religion is still a public good. It is a signal that religious reasoning does, can, and should have an important place in our public discourse. It is an important step away from the view that ‘freedom of religion’ in the public sphere is the same thing as ‘freedom from religion’ in the public sphere.
Second, the Pope put forward a political philosophy in his speeches which probably cannot – and at any rate should not – be classed as either ‘right’ or ‘left’. As Tim Stanley put it, it was ‘just Catholic’ – Christian, yes, but steeped in a rich scholastic tradition that dates back to Aquinas. That tradition asserts that man has a God-given nature which man himself cannot override. ‘Man does not create himself’, said the Pope. God’s creation is ‘compromised’ when as humans we refuse to recognise the boundaries, or definition, of ournature. When we ‘no longer recognise any instance above ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves’ – that is, when we only acknowledge our will and not our nature – then we begin to misuse ourselves, others and the natural environment around us. Thus, we must realise that there is a ‘moral law written into human nature itself’, above and beyond what we can create with our will.
There is nothing here antithetical to conservative principles. Indeed, this natural law theory is, if anything, in direct opposition to the post-modern ideologies which drive much of the Left, including Marxism and many forms of feminism.
True, the Pope used this theory in his UN speech to advocate greater care for environment as well as the ‘fight against exclusion’, which are typical buzzwords of the Left. But he also explicitly pointed out that this moral law of human nature includes ‘the natural difference between man and woman, and absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions’.
In other words, natural law dictates – among other things – that we care for the environment; avoid extortion and excess; and reach out to help others both materially and spiritually. But it also dictates that we value the essential, and different, roles played by man and woman in the traditional family unit; respect our gender as God-given; and eschew abortion and the death penalty. Given that conservatives care deeply about the environment, creating an inclusive society, helping the poor, defendinglife and the traditional family, what’s not to like here?
Of course, Pope Francis spoke movingly about the problem of immigration, and this, too, was seen as a coup for the Left. Yet, he did not promote any particular policy; rather, he taught the Christian principle of loving thy neighbour; something that, frankly, we should expect him to do: ‘We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our ‘neighbours’ and everything around us.’
If anything, he seemed to call for a rejection of American isolationism, which could be seen as a veiled criticism of Obama’s rather apathetic foreign policy: ‘Building a nation calls us to recognise that we must constantly relate to others … to respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Overall, I was struck by the humility and the charity displayed by the Pope during his time here. Although he did speak of political things, he did it in such a way that he seemed to speak above politics – refreshingly different, and a much needed injection of someone ‘from the outside’, as it were. He spoke truth to power, enumerating true principles regarding our human nature, human dignity, the human family, and human responsibilities. If the Left feels they can get on board with these principles, then I say, ‘Welcome’. The more the merrier.