First Things stands for something. Many things, actually. One of them is a commitment to reality-based conservatism, both in matters of faith and of public life. I mention this, because I've decided to end our hosting of Maureen Mullarkey’s blog.
Maureen has a sharp pen and pungent style. Her postings about Pope Francis indicate she’s very angry about this papacy, which she seems to view as (alternately) fascism and socialism disguised as Catholicism. This morning she put up a post that opens with the accusation that the Vatican is conspiring with the Obama administration to destroy the foundations of freedom and hobble the developed world. I've had my staff take it down.
I do not subscribe to the view that Catholics should not criticize the papacy. When Catholicism was derided by an ascendant Protestant elite, it made sense to close ranks. Today we're very much a part of the elite. When Francis spoke to Congress, he shook the hands of a Catholic Secretary of State. When he spoke he was flanked by a Catholic Vice President and a Catholic Speaker of the House (who had succeeded a Catholic Speaker). In the front row sat Supreme Courts Justices, the majority of whom are Catholic. There's no cultural need today for Catholics to maintain an artificial united front.
I’ve criticized Pope Francis and his encyclical, Laudato Si. However, Maureen’s commentary on Francis goes well beyond measured criticism. She consistently treats him as an ideological propagandist, accusing him of reducing the faith to secular political categories. This is her way of reducing him to the political terms she favors. And those terms are the ones used by radio talk-show hosts to entertain the public with mock-battles against various Empires of Evil. I don't want First Things to play that game.
More is at stake here than decorum. I’m much more favorable to free markets than Francis seems to be. That’s something worth spelling out. But it’s a sign of moral blindness and intellectual poverty if we fail to recognize an important truth in his harsh words about the global system organized to promote capitalism, and with it largely American interests. That system—our system—does not shower blessings on everyone. To point that out, as Francis does, in no way makes him a supporter of the Castro brothers or a disciple of Che Guevara, as Maureen implies.
Enough! We need to think about the church and the world as they actually are, not by way of caricatures.
I was recently interviewed about Francis by America magazine. The interviewer asked whether American conservatives were not now the “cafeteria Catholics.” I answered that, in a certain sense, yes, we are. We're all at odds with some aspect of the Church's leadership. It's not possible for Rome to teach in a way that entirely satisfies the social, moral, intellectual, and spiritual needs of more than one billion people. There's a hierarchy of truth that helps us understand why some things are obligatory, while others are recommended to us for our consideration. What matters most, however, is our spiritual disposition. Are we docile to our bishops and their fraternal head, the pope? Are we willing to see and learn what they want to teach us? Will we accompany them, to use one of Francis' favored images?
The Church asks us to be docile. That's my goal. I don't need to agree with Francis in all instances, even most. But I need to be open to instruction. I need to try to see what he's trying to get us to see.
In a much, much more limited way, the same is true of our political adversaries. Citizenship is a kind of friendship, a mutual commitment to share the public project of our nation. We certainly disagree, debate, and try to win arguments as well as elections. But in all this we need to have the moral and spiritual generosity to enter into our adversaries’ ways of thinking, if but for a moment. We’re in this American project together. We need to accompany each other, even as we contest for the future.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.