Un ersatz: a phony. That’s how, the day after the papal election, Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky described the new pope in Página/12, a leading progressive paper in Buenos Aires. It’s a striking charge, one made in anger and with a certain bitterness. We do well to pay attention. Verbitsky is a prominent and influential Argentine leftist who understands what Pope Francis means and represents as a public figure. This well-informed, perceptive enemy may reveal more about the new pope than his friends and allies.
By all accounts, Jorge Mario Bergoglio is a very sincere man. Although a prince of the Church, he renounced the trappings of his office, living simply, cooking his own meals, and riding buses to work. Even as the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he preferred to be called “Fr. Jorge.” Why, then, does Verbitsky think he’s a phony?
It’s worth quoting a large and crucial chunk of his tirade. His biography, writes Verbitsky, “is that of a conservative populist, like those of Pius XII and John Paul II: unwavering on questions of doctrine but with an openness to the world, and above all, to the dispossessed masses.”
When he prays his first Mass in the streets of Trastevere or in the Stazione Termini of Rome and he speaks of the people exploited and prostituted by the insensitive authorities who close their hearts to Christ; when the friendly journalists tell how he travelled by subway or bus; when the faithful hear his homilies, recited with the gestures of an actor, and in which the biblical parables coexist with the plain speech of the people, there will be those who rave about the longed-for ecclesiastical renewal. During his three decades in the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, he did this and much more. Yet at the same time he sought to unify opposition against the first government in years that adopted politics favorable to those in need.
Now that he’s pope, Verbitsky continues, “he will be able to do this on a greater scale.” Pius XII (he asserts) got money from the CIA to support the Christian Democratic party and oppose the Communists in Italy’s first elections after the war, and John Paul II opened “the hole in the European wall.” Verbitsky worries that “The Argentinian pope can fulfill the same role” in Latin America.
His membership in the Iron Guard, and the populist discourse that he has not forgotten—which allowed him even to adopt historic causes like the Falklands—will enable him to challenge [progressive politics], to speak abstractly about exploiters and preach meekness to the exploited.
The details of Argentine politics and culture are remote to most of us, but the argument is familiar: Pope Francis is phony in the way Christianity is phony, preaching good news to the poor when in fact it’s the opiate of the masses, a pious false consciousness that speaks of transformative high ideals but in fact buttresses the status quo. The cross of Christ points us toward a spiritual revolution when what we need is a political one. Anyone who says otherwise is either duped by the rich or, worse, serves as their cynical lackey.
I find myself reassured by the anger and force of Verbitsky’s reaction to the election of Cardinal Bergoglio. A radical in his youth and affiliate of Montoneros, a left-wing terrorist group in the 1970s, he has been closely associated with the left-wing populism of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner, the couple that has dominated Argentine politics for the last decade. (It’s their government that he’s referring to as “the first government in years” to adopt progressive policies.) He sees himself as do most activists on the left: serving the interests of the people, especially the downtrodden.
This self-image, which in the last half century of Latin American politics certainly has a basis in reality, gives Verbitsky and many on the left a strong sense of moral superiority. In Argentina the left runs under the banner of justicialismo, an “ism” derived from justicia social, social justice. It’s a term that claims a monopoly on justice, implicitly labeling those who oppose their policies as immoral. In different ways, this claim to a monopoly on justice—and rationality, and compassion, and “the future”—is widespread in the West. It creates a political atmosphere in which it’s easy to insinuate, or even say outright, that anyone who dissents from leftist ideologies must be motivated by evil intentions like racism, anti-Semitism, greed, class interest, tribalism, and so forth, or simply doesn’t care about the poor.
Exactly this presumption and the extraordinary ideological advantage it confers is now being challenged by a pope who cooks his own meals and speaks for the poor but does not endorse leftist politics. This challenge very likely explains why the secular left in Argentina has fixed upon Bergoglio’s record as Jesuit Provincial in the late 1970s during the brutal dictatorship there. It’s a way to neutralize his threat to the moral superiority of the left.
Some have spoken up to defend the new pope. Adolfo Pérez Esquivel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 in recognition of his efforts to defend human rights in those years. In a BBC interview after the election of Pope Francis, he stated, “There were bishops who were complicit with the dictatorship, but Bergoglio, no.” However, that’s not good enough for Verbitsky and others. Bergoglio didn’t do enough. They accuse him of tacit complicity, one that refrained from helping the “disappeared,” those who were abducted, tortured, and killed by the Argentine military.
We’ll no doubt hear a great deal more about exactly what Bergoglio did and didn’t do during the “Dirty War” the dictatorship conducted against its ideological adversaries. No matter how much he did, he will be accused of “not doing enough.” The topic reminds me of claims about the young Joseph Ratzinger’s failure adequately to resist Nazism (he was eighteen when the war ended) or the older Cardinal Ratzinger’s failure to adequately address clerical sexual abuse. In each case, “adequate” and “did enough” are defined in tendentious ways, and one has the very strong feeling that the truth of the matter is of remote concern to the critics.
The left is and will remain very eager to discredit the moral witness of Pope Francis and the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, because they have justicialismo on their side, few worry that Horacio Verbitsky failed to do enough to restrain the terrorist violence of the radical group he joined in the 1970s.
The double standard prevails because of the presumption of moral superiority. That’s exactly what Pope Francis threatens to undermine. And I imagine that protecting this presumption is what motivates Verbitsky’s bitter denunciation. The evident sincerity of Pope Francis’ solidarity with ordinary working people—even to the point of living a life far closer to the poor than Cristina Kirchner, who probably hasn’t been on a bus in years, and whose ritual affirmations of social justice mask a cynical system of crony capitalism that has made her very rich—represents a direct threat. How dare he challenge our moral monopoly!
Verbitsky thinks our new pope represents “conservative populism.” I like the sound of that. Poverty in Latin America has many causes, some running back to the neo-feudal oligarchies that received a great deal of support from the Church. But in the last half century it’s been revolutionary leftism that has tended to do the most damage. Its love of state power has often opened the way for cynical forces to gain control of economic life, nearly always to the benefit of the well-connected and at the expense of the poor.
To make matters worse, now the left in Latin America is adopting the cause of lifestyle liberation, as it’s doing elsewhere. It’s spreading Agent Orange over the patterns of traditional culture that provide stability and dignity that transcend economic status. Marital fidelity, moral rectitude, spiritual discipline: these riches of the soul are available to us without regard to our economic status. As the left undermines them, sometimes out of neglect and sometimes because they are in the way of its materialist view of social justice, the poor are further impoverished. We need an alternative, a conservative populism of the sort Pope Francis represents, one based in a genuine spiritual solidarity with the poor, not an ideological one.
Catholicism in America
What’s the Catholic Church going to be like in the next couple of decades? My prediction: Catholicism in America will continue becoming a more unified, more conservative, and more counter-cultural Church. It’s a forecast supported by a recent New York Times poll of Catholics in the United States. The polling results are easy to misread, which is exactly what Laurie Goodstein and Megan Thee-Brenan did in their Times article. The title says it all: “U.S. Catholics in Poll See a Church Out of Touch.”
Catholicism is more like Judaism than like Protestantism: something felt as a cultural and ethnic identity as well as a religious conviction. As a consequence, any poll of “Catholic opinion” will pick up a fairly large percentage of respondents who don’t go to church but nevertheless identify as Catholics. This group often expresses negative opinions about what the Church teaches and stands for. And there’s a not insignificant number who go to church, but sporadically. They’re likely to think about faith and doctrine somewhat differently than do folks who attend Mass every week. Therefore, it’s important to divide Catholics into three cohorts: the committed core, the lukewarm, and the lapsed.
The Times poll lets us do that. In the online version of the results, it’s possible to break down answers according to frequency of Mass attendance (weekly, once or twice a month, and a few times a year or never) and religious intensity (extremely important, very important, and somewhat or not at all important). Religious intensity very likely correlates strongly with frequency of church attendance.
Reading with these distinctions in mind, we see a predictable pattern. Taken as a whole American Catholics don’t express strong support for the Church’s teaching. That’s even true of the committed core, which certainly isn’t good, although it’s not surprising. The confusion and drift in the Church over the last fifty years haven’t helped, and when combined with cultural changes, especially the sexual revolution, which affect us all, it’s led to a relatively high degree of dissent, even among regular churchgoers. But things are trending in a good direction. The committed core expresses the most positive views of the Church (which isn’t surprising), and younger Catholics more so than their parents.
The poll shows that all types of Catholics tilt in a liberalizing direction. A majority of the committed core favors married priests (for which there is precedent in the tradition) and even women priests (for which there’s not). The same holds for contraception, which majorities favor in all the cohorts.
The crucial difference is that the committed core is less liberalizing. Question: In general, do you think the Catholic Church is in touch with the needs of Catholics today? Response: 51 percent of the committed core say yes; 40 percent of the lukewarm respond positively; only 22 percent of the lapsed give the thumbs up. Most of the responses to questions follow this pattern. The committed core tends to affirm the bishops and priests currently leading the Church; the lapsed have a negative view. The lukewarm fall in between, though leaning in the direction of the committed core.
In some cases the differences between the cohorts are quite pronounced. Close to a quarter of the committed core responded “not possible” to the question of whether a “good Catholic” can dissent on core issues like contraception, abortion, and divorce. That compares to a mere 5 percent of the lukewarm and the lapsed. Twenty-five percent is not 50 percent, to say nothing of unanimity. But it’s substantial, especially considering the American counter-message of autonomy and self-definition. Moreover, denying “good Catholic” status to dissenters amounts to “judgmentalism,” which is a postmodern heresy. That a quarter of the regular Mass-going Catholics responded in such a way is thus quite striking, a sign of counter-cultural power, not weakness.
Goodstein and Thee-Brenan aren’t entirely wrong in claiming that Catholics think their Church is out of touch. Large-scale social trends shape Catholic opinion at all levels of commitment, and most work against the Church. Even among the committed core a majority shrinks from being “judgmental” about who is and isn’t a good Catholic. But we can see some firmness in the committed core. It’s not all sweetness and light, but there’s the possibility of revival and renewal.
An optimistic reading of trends makes sense because there’s another way to slice the data that suggests an improving rather than worsening situation for the Church. In responses to almost every question, Baby Boomers (those forty-five to sixty-five years old) are the cohort most dissatisfied with the Church’s traditionalism. Younger people (eighteen to forty-four years old) are slightly less dissatisfied and slightly more willing to accept the Church’s current teaching on controversial issues.
That doesn’t surprise me. I’m a Baby Boomer, and my generation often defines the world in me-centered terms. Question authority! We don’t like anyone telling us what to do and how to live. But we also want to remake the world in our own image. It’s not enough for the Catholic Church to give up her claim to exercise discipline, which is what has largely happened over the last fifty years, at least functionally if not officially. We’re arrogant and want the Church to affirm our moral revisionism. And we’re mad as hell when that doesn’t happen.
Not so with the younger generation. They’re less revolutionary, less urgent, and less frustrated when the world doesn’t go their way. In my two decades of teaching I found my students increasingly compliant, and also increasingly compartmentalized. Today young people are comfortable having a workplace self, a weekend self, and a Facebook self, all without a felt need to bring their different selves into a tight coordination or consistency.
This generational difference supports countercultural traditionalism. Younger Catholics are more doctrinally correct than their Baby Boomer parents. Their attitude toward institutional identity is more affirming. For example, they’re significantly more likely to affirm the teaching authority of the pope than their parents. And perhaps most important of all, even if they harbor doubts about the Church’s stances on controversial moral issues—and the data suggest that they do—younger Catholics don’t feel the need to remake the Church in their own image.
Yes, the Times poll reminds us of what we all know: American Catholics are Americans, which means often at odds with the Catholic side of their identities. But the poll also suggests that we’re exiting the post-Vatican II era. That’s an important change. Consider how things felt for a parish priest in 1975. The new trends in the post-sixties culture ran counter to established worship, teaching, and discipline. These pressures were compounded by an awareness that young adults—the Baby Boomers coming of age—were even more dissatisfied than their parents. The forces demanding change seemed to be gaining strength. Married clergy, women priests, accepting contraception: How could the Church survive without bending to the times? Many thought it couldn’t.
In 2013 parish priests see something different. The Baby Boomer generation remains very much alive and active. More often than not, we’re mad at the Church. But a different generation is coming of age, one that foretells a more congenial context. They don’t so much disagree with Baby Boomers as lack our arrogance. Moreover, they’ve grown up in a world where unbelief has become a widespread option. There’s less reason to be Catholic—other than believing. And so the younger generation is more likely to be either in or out. And if they opt into the Church, their relative comfort with compartmentalization and institutional authority makes them more docile than their parents, no matter how heterodox their personal views.
This pastoral reality, which the Times poll captures in small ways, foretells a paradoxical future for Catholicism in the United States. American culture as a whole is becoming more hostile. The Obama campaign won in part because of the success of thinly veiled anti-Catholic slogans like the “war on women.” There can be no doubt that the Catholic Church is heading into a storm. However, the parish culture is becoming less resistant and more open to Church teaching. The committed core is slowly differentiating itself from the larger culture, a trend reinforced by the up-and-coming generation of Catholics. For the first time since Vatican II, the Church in America may be able to renew and solidify her theological and spiritual integrity.
Maryland governor Martin O’Malley worked hard to pass legislation repealing the death penalty in his state, succeeding in March. It’s part of a larger trend. Six states have repealed the death penalty in the last six years. Maryland is now the eighteenth state to renounce capital punishment. Good news.
The Catholic Church has led the opposition to capital punishment in recent decades, making it part of her larger and urgent efforts to defend the dignity of the human person from conception to natural death. However, some, perhaps most, misunderstand the moral arguments against the death penalty, wrongly thinking it a fundamental evil like abortion and euthanasia.
Cardinal Dulles clarified the issue in our pages some years ago (“Catholicism & Capital Punishment,” April 2001). “The Catholic magisterium does not, and never has, advocated unqualified abolition of the death penalty.” That’s not surprising, given that the Bible endorses it. Logic does, as well. The same reasoning that helps us understand the legitimacy of a just war and the just use of lethal force by policemen shows that government can properly kill for the sake of justice.
Why, then, the recent Catholic turn toward opposition? It stems from an awareness that we need to adopt a very strong presumption in favor of life. In Evangelium Vitae, the 1995 encyclical composed to confront the culture of death, John Paul II laid out reasons this presumption leads us to the practical if not theoretical conclusion that capital punishment is wrong. Put in the most succinct way, if we don’t need to execute (where need has to do with the capacity of government to sustain the moral and public order and thus the conditions for justice), then we shouldn’t.
In the United States we don’t need to execute criminals, even the most heinous. As O’Malley pointed out in debates leading up to the vote to repeal in Maryland, states that impose capital punishment don’t have crime rates lower than those that don’t. In fact, the contrary is the case. So, like John Paul II, he concludes that we shouldn’t execute criminals. Sound reasoning, and made all the stronger by the fact that support for continued executions often comes from advocates of “victims’ rights.” This mode of reasoning reflects a morally disordered view of crime as a private offense calling for revenge rather than an assault on the moral order calling for retribution.
Nobody has been executed in Maryland for years. As is the case in many states, there’s been a practical abolition of capital punishment even as it remains a legal possibility. That makes the repeal largely symbolic, as O’Malley recognizes. It’s a statement—we respect human life—and one we should make as often as possible. I just wish Governor O’Malley would make it more often. Sadly, he doesn’t. He’s a notorious defender of our regime of unlimited abortion.
We don’t need to settle the ultimate question of the rightness and wrongness of capital punishment to recognize that a combination of practical realities and a presumption in favor of life means we need not and should not execute. The same goes for late-term abortions. What could be a clearer and more salient practical fact than the viability of the child outside the womb? What part of the presumption in favor of life doesn’t cry out for us to protect, protect, protect that life?
It’s obvious that if O’Malley were remotely consistent, he’d be campaigning to abolish late-term abortions in Maryland. But he isn’t. That’s because he’s a Democrat, a member of a party that politically executes any who challenge the abortion license.
From the Editor’s Desk
First Things has been updated for the iPad. It has the same elegant style as the print magazine, but we’ve changed the formatting in significant ways to make the articles more readable for electronic subscribers, and easier to navigate. You can buy individual issues or sign up for regular monthly delivery. Check it out in Apple’s iTunes store, or on our website (which I hope you’ve made your homepage).
We can thank Austin Stone for the iPad update. He steps into a new role at First Things, that of e-publisher responsible for “pushing out” our content on “multiple platforms.” (That’s a sentence I never imagined myself writing.) First Things remains committed to old-fashioned print. That’s my preferred way to read serious articles and essays. But we also want to give our electronic readers formats as easy and pleasurable to read as the crisp, clean pages of America’s finest journal of religion and public life.
While welcoming Austin Stone to the team, I’d also like to acknowledge the departure of Joe Carter, our former web editor. He is now senior editor of the Acton Institute and an editor at the Gospel Coalition. Joe is an important voice among religious conservatives, and a man whose faith, integrity, and intelligence I admire a great deal. In his five years with the magazine, Joe was an adept tech guy, an insightful writer for our website, a faithful Christian, and a good friend. Thanks, Joe.