I’ve lost count of the emails from readers and friends upset by Maureen Mullarkey’s sharply worded posting on Pope Francis on her blog, which we host. Is First Things turning into an organ for anti-Francis polemics? Are we flirting with sede vacantism?

Of course not. We host Maureen’s blog, as we do Peter Leithart’s. They’re not official spokesmen for First Things. They write what they want to write and post what they want to post without consulting me or going through our staff. We host their blogs because we think their voices are worth hearing.

I sometimes disagree. Peter, for example, cleaves to a form of Protestantism that puts him at odds with my Catholic convictions. But in this instance I strongly disagree with Maureen’s assessment of Pope Francis.

She calls him an “ideologue.” I see no evidence that Francis has a political or social outlook that fits with any particular modern ideology, left or right. He likes to make pungent, often hyperbolic statements about economic and other matters, but by my reading the consistent source of his rhetoric is biblical, not ideological.

(For the record, I also disagree with Maureen’s view that President Obama is ideological. He’s an almost pure example of postmodern liberalism, which combines technocratic over-confidence with leftish political-social sentiments that don’t rise to the level of a consistent ideology.)

I also think Maureen is presumptuous to describe Pope Francis as an egoist. We ought to be very wary of drawing conclusions about a public figure on the basis of the positions he takes or the kinds of speeches he gives. Only our intimates are in a position to discern our spiritual flaws.

And then there’s Maureen’s assumption that Pope Francis swallows the goofiest and least defensible forms of contemporary environmentalism. I see no reason to think he’s offering support to positions that regard “man as a parasite,” as she suggests. Nor do I have reason to think the Pope will adopt a sky-is-falling “apocalyptic alarmism” in the forthcoming encyclical on the environment.

Nor can we conclude that Francis opposes fracking. Popes have their pictures taken with lots and lots and lots of people. One photo of a distracted pope with anti-fracking advocates does not a policy position make.

Unlike Maureen, I don’t assume the forthcoming encyclical on the environment will end up sounding like Al Gore punctuated by a few biblical quotations. There will undoubtedly be phrases isolated and used by the media to show that the Vatican has adopted the latest political fashions. But the bulk will be biblical and spiritual and draw on the Christian tradition.

Most of all I don’t like the dismissive, cutting tone of Maureen’s criticisms. This is the more serious failing of her posting. The world of blogs is full of anger and denunciation, and there’s too much of that in “Francis & Political Illusion.” As a writer, I like the line about Pope Francis taking his sandwich board to the United Nations. Very clever. But at some point sharply turned phrases become slashing prose. Maureen reaches this point.

Maureen’s criticisms and caricatures of Pope Francis don’t represent “the First Things position.” They’re overdrawn and ill-tempered. But let’s not overreact to Maureen’s overreaction. The Holy Father has expressed a strong desire for a more open atmosphere in which people can speak their minds. And he has spoken his own mind, often in unguarded moments, and sometimes with an exaggerated and divisive rhetoric, some of which he doubtless regrets.

There’s a place for plain speaking, unvarnished assessments, and sharp criticisms. But our public culture needs the virtue of civility. Our church culture needs that too, of course, but also the virtue of charity. We’ll never fully realize those virtues. The passions of debate are often too strong, especially in the Church where the stakes are so high, supernaturally high. I’ve failed to be civil and charitable in some of the things I’ve written. But I’m committed to civility and charity as our standard at First Things.

R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.

Articles by R. R. Reno


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