Politics and the Pope


It would be unfair to say that this morning’s Papal speech to Congress has been the subject of immediate politicization, since that started even before the speech was given.

Lachlan Markay noted on Facebook how embarrassing it was to have pretty much everyone in Washington picking and choosing favored parts of the speech.  Michael Walsh (alias David Kahane) implored non-Catholics to just shut up about the Pope, since he’s not an American politician.

Markay is right, that the attempt to claim the Pope for one’s own side is a trivializing exercise, mostly to the politicians involved.  And Walsh is right that non-Catholics probably don’t understand Catholic doctrine very well.

That said, it’s pretty much an impossible situation for our political culture.

The Pope is a religious figure, which we tend to see as a non-political figure, who doesn’t fit neatly into American political categories.  At the same time, he’s giving speeches where he opines on manifestly political topics, in an inherently political town, including one to an inherently political body.  Not discussing these issues in a political context would be absurd.  And indeed, why does the Pope speak on these subjects if not to influence the real world debate?  Of course, that’s what he wants, and his means of doing do is to influence the moral framework through which Catholics see these issues.

To those who don’t like mixing politics and religion, though, the Papal visit a good reminder that almost all political arguments are inherently moral ones.  Virtually every question in the public arena today is cast as a moral matter – from health care, to the environment, to welfare, to foreign policy, is a moral question.  One of the reasons that conservatives tend to lose these debates is because we’re terrible at pointing out that our side has at least as good a moral argument as the allegedly caring Left.  (It’s actually a far superior moral argument, but for purposes of this post, we’ll settle for there being two sides to the coin.)

That doesn’t mean the government has to get involved in everything, or that it should be a sectarian tool. But even libertarians make moral arguments about policy – they just claim that it’s more moral to leave the government out of most things.  The case is a bit of a bank shot, but it’s got solid fundamentals – if capitalism raises people out of poverty, and if moral societies are more robust when mediating institutions are strong on their own, then a smaller government usually is more moral.

Where libertarians tend to lose out is when the judgment that the government shouldn’t be making moral calls leads them to complain about any moral judgments at all, and I’ve seen this happen – a lot.  Both Thomas Merton and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik would agree that no man is an island, that societies exist in the real world, and that they only work when they can internally enforce moral norms.

There is also some slight difference between starting from Catholic doctrine and arriving at political conclusions, and working backwards to find support for your politics in religious thought.  The reporting on this Pope’s comments has been so truly awful that I really can’t tell how much of it is the press trying to co-opt the Pope for its lefty agenda, and how much really is organic.  Much of the criticism of Pope Francis comes from people who assume he’s doing the latter.

It’s the same problem as when rabbis talk about politics from the pulpit, making the Reform rabbinate the marketing arm of the Democratic Party.  Tradtional Judaism, which is to say, actual Jewish thought grounded in sources and Jewish law, is anything but socialist and redistributionist, anything but passive in the face of existential threats.

The fact that it, too, doesn’t fit neatly into contemporary party politics doesn’t meant that it doesn’t have something to say about contemporary controversies, or provide a framework that can inform the Jewish point of view on those subjects.  It’s why the work being done by the Tikvah Fund, which works in the other, proper direction, is so admirable.

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