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.