Who's Really at War With Pope Francis?

By Andrew M. Haines
January 23, 2015

David Mills recently responded to a claim by The Week's Damon Linker that the GOP's "war with Pope Francis has finally started." Linker's case, says Mills, relies on evidence too thin to be convincing, namely a handful of articles in First Things and elsewhere that depict Francis as specifically at odds with conservative political principles. Mills suggests that the writers in question "are not the simple shills for the Republican party that Linker claims they are." He emphasizes the practical difficulties of political and public life, and adds that in the case of Robert George especially a more genuine, pastoral motive is likely at play.

I admit, it's hard to look past an ever more robust palisade being constructed around what appear to be ideological commitments at odds with Francis's speech. I also greatly respect Mr. Mills's insights and experience, and believe that in the present case his judgments are more informed than mine ever could be. This doesn't diminish the legitimate concern, though, that many of us have with the tone of the prevailing conversation.

Incidentally, the latest Francis snafu lends clarity to what I believe is a more nuanced pathology than mere Republican shill-ism.

Enter "breeding like rabbits." Outrage at this soundbite was severe and swift, and as usual little attention was given to learning the pope's actual words. Familiar voices stirred the pot from the beginning, most notably this piece by Matthew Schmitz at First Things that leveraged an irresponsible presentation of Francis's words to draw the conclusion that Francis's speech is irresponsible. Schmitz leads off: "Catholics should not be like rabbits, Pope Francis stated in a recent papal interview." But the transcript bespeaks an entirely different interpretation: "Some think that—excuse the language—that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits. No." A decidedly different meaning than if the pope had made a positive proscription.

Misrepresentation is not surprising. What's more interesting, here and elsewhere, is what tends to follow from it. In this case, the pope's carelessness is said to directly undermine a more nuanced and courageous teaching on family life as evinced by, among others, Dame Enid Lyons, a mid-twentieth century Australian politician. "I fear," Schmitz concludes, "that as a result of Pope Francis’ comment, and counter to his intention, an old anti-Catholic slur—the one against which Catholic women like Enid Lyons have fought for decades—is about to be revived with a new vigor. If so, one lesson will be that there must be responsibility in how we speak as well as in how we love."

The net sum is that Francis's loose speech makes enfleshed public witness to Catholic orthodoxy nonviable. This is utterly preposterous. If there's any merit to further discussing the "rabbit" debacle it lies not with defending false representations of historical fact, but with assessing certain deep-seated opinions that precipitated the pope's real comments. For example, the Holy Father's (actual) remark that a mother of seven was "tempting" God by having an eighth cesarean section deserves reflection—and perhaps correction—but either in accord with the "responsibility" we seek to protect.

In fact, I think, it is a general disregard for applied responsibility that points to something other than simple partisan politics as the genesis of so much discontent toward Francis displayed by the right. A more reasonable conclusion, following Mr. Mills's logic, is that politically conservative Catholics—who are Republicans but who don't wish to conflate their partisan identity with their Catholicism—have long been accustomed to holding higher intellectual ground than their political adversaries. Defeating the ideology of anti-Catholic libertinism has quite often amounted to simply parroting the Catechism, which presents powerful objective truths to undermine secular maxims. Because of this, responsibility was easily feigned; Pope Benedict XVI was beloved as the curator of the profoundness of faithful orthodoxy, but even he was not immune from criticism by an ideology that spawned from a consistent, rote repetition of talking points. In other words, Benedict was popularly beloved as a teacher of the faith, but only really so far as the faith was circumscribed by prevailing conservative doctrine.

Even some conservative Christians outside the GOP establishment—and perhaps at odds with it—have found great relief in maintaining the Catholic intellectual high ground. It's possible to defend the family while also poking holes in deficient reasoning about markets and the nature of personal freedoms. Yet it's just as likely that such an anti-partisan identity could spawn an ideology as equally volatile as one produced by circumscription.

The "war with Pope Francis" is not one launched by the GOP, but rather by those whose fascination with intellectual purity remains unchecked. If you're not dominated by "doctrine," you're probably not at war with the pope. Those of us who find ourselves at times yearning for more clarity on matters of Church teaching owe it to those we wish to persuade to restrain such desire from consuming our dispositions and words. From what I can tell, Cardinal Burke is a fine example of the latter, and perhaps—unwittingly for those most offended by his ouster—one of the most effective witnesses of what's required to defuse current tensions.

Andrew M. Haines is editor and founder of Ethika Politika, and co-founder and chief operating officer at Fiat Insight.