Pope Benedict XVI is not a(n American) conservative

Pope Benedict’s XVI announcement of Monday, detailing his decision to abdicate the Seat of Peter and step down as pope, triggered the expected maelstrom of ill-informed, knee-jerk media reactions. The majority of these pieces couldn’t help but point out the many perceived flaws of Benedict’s papacy, charges that ranged from failing to make the Church “relevant” in modern times to the truly damnable offense of just not being as charismatic a pope as Bl. John Paul II had been.

Just as wide-spread as the barely disguised Benedict bashing was the tendency of members of the media to label the pope as “very conservative.” Coming from the American media, this was a label that struck me as curious. In calling Benedict a conservative, the media was attempting to position Pope Benedict and his views on the American political spectrum, placing him firmly on the side of  the GOP and casting him as at odds with anything and everything related to the Democrats. Whenever the label “conservative” appeared next to Benedict’s name, it was almost immediately followed with a list of his traditional positions on matters of human sexuality as some sort of substantiation of the claim.

Of course, if you’ve bothered to read why this blog exists, you can easily ascertain how I feel about cramming the political and social philosophy of the Catholic Church and its pontiff on the American political spectrum: it can’t be done. This is a reality captured by the fact that Pope Benedict, though certainly a social conservative, espoused positions that were greatly at odds with what passes for “conservatism” in American politics. In the combox of a Vox Nova article, the always astute Julia Smucker phrased this observation in the following way:

My next thought was to get annoyed by the Reuters article highlighting his “conservative doctrine” in a rather superficial way. “Benedict stepped up the Church’s opposition to gay marriage, underscored the Church’s resistance to a female priesthood and to embryonic stem cell research.” Yeah, and he also stepped up the church’s commitment to environmental conservationism and opposition to unbridled laissez-faire capitalism, but that doesn’t fit the nice little caricature, does it? (Come to think of it, those things could fit fine within a more robust, classic, maybe European kind of conservatism, but this is lost on American politics.)

Members of the media took the easy way out. Rather than attempt to explain with any nuance the positions of Pope Benedict, they resorted to a characterization that is simply incapable of describing the pope’s social and political philosophy with any coherence. How many “conservatives” in America could we identify who are openly critical of the unfetterdly free market and speak prominently of decreasing the consumption and exploitation of the natural world (not to mention oppose the death penalty, were against the war in Iraq from the start, and advocate for some level of heightened gun control)? As Ms. Smucker points out, if Benedict is a conservative, it’s not the American conception of the word that works.

But the media isn’t the only group guilty of clinging on to stunted political preconceptions when it came to evaluating the pope’s political stances. By and large, most American Catholics–both those on the “left” and those on the “right”– have come up short in this regard as well. This is the argument advanced by Michael Sean Winters, an argument that I believe hits the nail on the head. And although it comes from the den of heterodoxy that is the National Catholic Reporter, I have no qualms with linking to and reposting part of such an exceptionally insightful article. Here are Winter’s most important paragraphs:

This concern for unity was evidenced in other aspects of his teachings. In his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, he was clear that the social justice teachings of the church and the teachings about sexual morality flowed from a single source and, in his mind, were irrevocably bound together. As I mentioned in my article at The New Republic yesterday, the fact that the pope was as devoted to social justice issues as he was to issues of sexual morality has been somewhat opaque in the U.S. because so many of his loudest supporters in the U.S. tended not to mention his commitment to social justice or minimized the radicalness of the demands he made in that regard. Catholic neo-cons dismissed his call for a conversion of Western lifestyles, his commitment to environmental protection, his denunciation of “unregulated financial capitalism” as a threat to world peace, his abiding lament at growing income inequality, and because these neo-con voices claimed to be authoritative and because the mainstream media does not know any better, Benedict’s rigorous critique of modern consumer, capitalist culture was underplayed. Whenever he spoke against gay marriage, however, the headlines of a reactionary pope could be found everywhere.

The Catholic left, unfortunately, let the Catholic right define the narrative of Benedict’s reign. They, too, neglected the significance of his social teachings to focus on anything he said about sex or gender. More importantly, they failed to really wrestle with his challenge, to see all the issues the church addresses as bound together. Take this morning’s Washington Post. There, George Weigel is quoted as saying, “If you don’t sell full-throttle Catholicism, people are not going to buy it. Everyone knows the whole package is more compelling and interesting than some sort of Catholic hors d’oeuvres that leave you hungry.” This from the man who advised using red and gold pens to mark up Caritas in Veritate, ignoring the parts Weigel thought were not really from the pope’s hand. This from the man who can cite one paragraph, and one paragraph only, from John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus but never once has evidenced his compliance with, nor appreciation for, the call to a conversion of Western lifestyles contained in that same encyclical, nor its restatement of the church’s commitment to the rights of workers, nor those sections that question the very ethical and anthropological foundations of capitalism. I agree with Weigel about the need for “full-throttle Catholicism,” though I find his use of the verb “sell” telling. I just wish Weigel and other Catholic neo-cons actually engaged the full breadth of the church’s teachings instead of trying to distort and minimize those teachings about economic and social justice they disdain.

In Winter’s estimation, Pope Benedict’s message, and indeed, “full-throttle Catholicism” itself, has been distorted by the dangerous tendency of American Catholics to filter Church teachings through partisan paradigms. Headlines such as “Benedict opposes gay marriage” were used by right-wing Catholics as evidence that the pope’s political ideas must be identical to Reagan’s, a cause they celebrated, while the same type of headlines were grounds for left-wing Catholics to arrive at the same conclusion, but with different sentiments. In short, both sides focused on one area of Benedict’s teachings, sexual morality, and pigeonholed him accordingly.

The result is that right-wing Catholics will continue to live under the delusion that everything they believe about capitalism and economics is endorsed by the Vatican, while liberal Catholics will continue peddling the pathetic narrative that the Church hierarchy doesn’t care about social and economic justice. Both assumptions are wrong, and both highlight the futility of viewing all things political through the distortions of the American political spectrum. Pope Benedict XIV is not a conservative and he is not a liberal. He is a Catholic, and it’d be fantastic if more American Catholics could discard their partisan perspectives and embrace the fullness of Catholic political thought.

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14 comments

  1. Julia Smucker · · Reply

    Reblogged this on Vox Nova and commented:
    Excellent observations from JL Liedl on why attempts to pigeonhole the pope onto an American political spectrum fall short.

  2. Julia Smucker · · Reply

    Hey, thanks for the nod! And thanks even more for this excellent analysis, which I have just reblogged on Vox Nova.

  3. My pleasure, Julia. I have great respect for what you have to say! Hope things are well in Johnnieville!

  4. “(Come to think of it, those things could fit fine within a more robust, classic, maybe European kind of conservatism, but this is lost on American politics.)”

    ## Could that be because Europe is regarded as an abode of heathens & apostates ? Neither side of the Pond seems really to understand the other.

    1. Kerberos,

      Haha, I’m assuming that comment was made in jest? I certainly think that some admirable qualities can be found in European nation states.

      But as for the distinction between an American conservative and a European conservative, the consensus seems to be that European conservatives were those who opposed the entirety of Enlightenment liberalism (the big, philosophical concept) from the beginning, while American conservatives are those who seek to “conserve” the liberalism that was found in America at the Founding. I’m going to work on a Terminology section that will hopefully articulate some of this, as it is really confusing when usages mix.

  5. Mark Petrik · · Reply

    Congratulations on a well-written and well-argued piece, Mr. Liedl! You point out forcefully and correctly that to equivocate on the word “conservative” when used in entirely different contexts is simply nonsense. I would add that it is equally silly to equate “social justice” and “socialism”, (an error of which the Catholic bishops have sometimes been guilty), or to equate environmentalism with nature worship…an error to which Catholics seem less prone than are political liberals in the western world as a whole. My point…and I think yours…is that it is important to define terms in discussions or the conversation devolves into two monologues talking past each other rather than a true dialogue with some hope of persuasion or synthesis occurring.

    1. Thank you kindly, Dr. Petrik. Your perspective is well-received!

  6. Your perspective is interesting. In my opinion your attitude about the good he (Benedict) has done should outway the wrong he has done is unreasonable. In my opinion, this was the type of thinking that got us into the clergy sexual abuse scandal. Instead of conservative than let’s use the word orthodox.does that really make a difference. We all can play the semantic game.

    Certainly you cannot dismiss a LGBT Catholic position that finds him to be homophobic. Also, in my opinion, to dismiss this as not being viewed as evil in our midst is to make LGBT people lesser children of God; something I think the policies of Benedict XVI does.

    Has Benedict XVI done good things of course he has, but that should not blind you to the evil he has enabled in the Church.

    I recognize you as a person of good will, and I believe that people of good will coming together to reason can do make a difference. But from where I sit Benedict XVI is not a person of good, or should my opinion be dismissed not based reasonableness, but rather because I am Gay.

    1. 1. When the word conservative is used by the American media without qualification, I think it invariably implies alignment with the GOP, or at least placement along the right of the American political spectrum. This is sloppy, and it fails to convey B16’s, as well as the Church’s, thought on political/social issues in a helpful way. My entire point is that “the language of the spectrum” cannot, by nature, be useful in defining Catholic social thought in any coherent way. So yes, orthodox is perhaps a better descriptor.

      2. I’m not going to allow this thread to turn into a debate about homosexuality and the Church’s teachings therein. That’s not what this post addresses so I’d prefer if we stay on topic. I will say, however, that I disagree with the characterization that reinforcing a traditional view of marriage and the consistent view of the Church with regards to homosexual actions makes one a homophobe, and to assert so is to deprive the word of any useful meaning.

  7. Thank you for your response.

    I agree with your first paragraph. Had the first paragraph been your complete post I would not have an issue. I find it difficult to understand that you can promote your position on homosexuality within the Church in this discussion, and I am to be silenced.

    I find your second paragraph unhelpful. .

    The issue of homophobia in the Church is clear and present reality. As is sexism, racism, and ageism.

    You have understanding of what conservative means, as do I. To say the Popes position on cultural issues does not reflect a political position with either the right or the left in my opinion is unreasonable.

    1. I didn’t mean to censor, and that was admittedly low of me to say “no” and then proceed to sneak my opinion in.

      Re: “conservative.” If you divide the pope’s body of teaching in an unorganic and unhelpful way, then sure, you can say his position regarding issues like marriage and abortion is “conservative.” But then you could also say that his positions regarding the death penalty and sustainability and war, etc are “liberal,” at least on the American spectrum. So is he a conservative liberal or a liberal conservative? As the Catholic understanding of the political nature of man differs radically from the founding philosophy of America and thus the American spectrum, my point is that it’s unhelpful to make these characterizations to begin with. Apples to oranges.

      Re: homophobia existing in the Church, if by that you mean that some members of the Church, laity and clergy, unjustly and uncharitably despise and demean homosexuals, then I can agree, to a point. If, however, you’re asserting that Church teaching regarding homosexual action is “homophobic” then I again assert that you are misusing the word. Either that, or I don’t think the word has much consequence.

      Briefly, in your estimation, how could the Church purge itself of its homophobic-ness?

  8. Thank you.

    I think I understand your opinion a little more now. Its kind of like the conversation that is going about marriage. People use that word in both a legal and religious way.Religious issues don’t speak to the legal issue and visa versa.

    As to homophobia. The best thing that can be done is to actively listen to each other with chairty, that would apply to more than homophobia.

    The US Conference of Catholic Bishops are seen in the public square as aligned with the GOP and that is so easly transferred to the Pope. In my opinion, the Papal image is tarnised inside and outside of the Church so people will people and only speak from their personal reference points. Perhaps the future Pope needs a better tool kit when it comes to communication.

    While we might disagree I don’t doubt your good will.

    1. That the USCCB is perceived to be aligned with the GOP is perhaps a failure, as you put it, of communication. But I also attribute it to the American media’s need to contextualize everything in terms of the spectrum.

      I appreciate your comment. Disagreement is no grounds for dismissing someone’s good will. I don’t doubt yours either.

  9. I appreciate this article, agree with much of it and value all of it. However, to quibble, to Julia’s assertion that “he also stepped up the church’s commitment to …opposition to unbridled laissez-faire capitalism”, I don’t see it. On ocassion, he restated the Church’s historic teaching but it seems a topic he commented on much less frequently than his six immediate predecessors.

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