This post concerns a couple of thoughts on Pope Francis’s most recent interview, on the plane back from his recent trip to the Philippines.
There are 5 takeaway points that will be critical to understanding everything written about him in the future, some of this has been pointed out before, but it is helpful to point out how this interview confirms them. The full text of the interview can be read at this link.
1) This is not a Pope who is simply a liberal in the theological sense, and there is no chance he is going to change any doctrines. The litmus test of course is his defense of one of the most detested teachings of the Catholic Church, which of course is the treatment regarding contraception. He was asked directly if the teaching was not directly responsible for poverty by causing excess population. He made several interesting points: First that the problem in many nations appears to be the reverse, that there are too few people to sustain the population and the drop in population is causing great strain on the social programs designed to support the elderly. He also noted that in many poor countries the child is still seen as a gift from God, this being a good thing, and then in that context he balanced it by saying this did not mean that Catholics must “reproduce like rabbits” and that the Church recognizes that individuals can and should bring children into the world responsibly using the methods that the Church recognizes as moral (that is periodic continence). The media as per their habit, have latched onto the “breed like rabbits comment”. Although the language is very colorful, it is in fact just another way of saying the same thing. Catholics are called to generous but also responsible parenthood, and that one can achieve this goals without contraception. That the media has latched onto the “breed like rabbits” comment and is relatively ignoring the rest is proof of point number (2).
2) The media will selectively report everything that the Pope says to make him sound more liberal than he is, ( but I stand by my earlier comments that the Pope lends himself to this approach because of our nest point number (3)
3) The Pope does not speak English, and tends to answer many questions without a lot of forethought. He has admitted that his English is poor and also frequently notes in answers to questions “he has not thought about that… and then like the friendly man he is, gives an off the cuff answer. This is not such a bad thing, except for the fact that it allows people to use the Pope to advance a political agenda, since he is often less than precise in many of his comments. Its not so much that he does not “mean what he said” as so many Catholic conservatives try to explain. He meant them, but often expresses himself poorly or says things extemporaneously when he clearly has not considered the implications or impact. Perhaps he does not even appreciate how they sound when translated into English. It is perhaps why he recently had to walk back comments that drew a lot of angst regarding the Jihadist killings in Paris of the journalists working for the satirical magazine “Charley Hebdo”. ( Note the Pope’s point that gratuitous attacks on religious fanatics might be imprudent because they will give the fanatics a pretext for violence is pretty defensible, especially when considered in the context of the overall desire to not just relentlessly satirize and mock religions that many people find meaningful. Charlie Hebdo has been a magazine that also kicks Christians around pretty good. None of this justifies the Jihadist murder spree in Paris of course. In fact it was imprudent of the Pope to make his point on the tails of the actual murders. I think this tendency to say unwise things has been a source of problems in this papacy; it might be that the Pope is beginning to catch on to his. We can only pray.
4) The Pope views things through the lens of his experience as a man of the developing world. His answers to a couple of questions point this out. When the Pope discussed poverty he mentions the “villas miserias” of Buenos Aires. Quite simply there really is nothing comparable to this is the United States. In the “villas” the poor live in shanty towns with homes made of cardboard refuse and without plumbing, sewage or electricity. In the United States it would be as if there was 500,000 homeless people gathered in one place. ( for a complete description see this article here , or take a look at this photo:
In addition when he speaks heavily of “corruption” no doubt he is thinking of the experience in Argentina which is famous for its political corruption, In fact a German based NGO “Transparency International” ranks it as one of the most corrupt countries on the face of the planet. ( See a full discussion in this article or in this one . ) In Argentina “the free market” does not exist, rather what passes for capitalism is a mix of heavily regulated economy, which is navigated by giving officials bribes.
Finally he is very sensitive to first world countries using their power to manipulate the culture of countries in the developing world, and when he is thinking of manipulating their culture he means undermining their belief in what we would consider traditional moral teachings. He discussed the power of rich cultures to make foreign aid contingent on adopting the programs and policies of these rich nation’s liberal elites. He called this ideological colonization, and called out trying to teach children “gender theory”, Neo Malthusian theories. In fact he cited a Conservative Catholics favorite dystopian novel ( Msgr. Hugh Benson’s “Lord of the World”) as a novel that would explain “ideological colonization”. A review of the novel can be read here.The key point is the novel about the end of the world features an Anti-Christ figure that harbors all of the anti-life and secular views of the cultural left.
At the end of the day then Pope Francis harbors the anti-capitalism animus of someone who sees capitalism as a synonymous with the corrupt statist crony capitalism of Argentina, and probably views all the organs of the state (its prison system etc) through the same lens. On the other hand someone who is saying we should read “Lord of the World” is hardly the Catholic liberal the left would like. So what to make of some of the goofier left wing statements he has made or how he let Cardinal Kasper run rampant at the Synod? Good questions… part of the answer might involve (3) above, and part of it might be his governing style… time will tell.
5) He is deeply concerned that the developing world is not paying much attention to the plight of the third world. He has a point here. We are all kind of complacent that places like “villas miserias” exist. As Christians we should not be, these places should outrage us. (In fact lots of things should outrage us that do not, Jihadists executing Christians in the Middle East, not to mention everyone they deem insufficiently Muslim, over a million abortions a year in the United States, a child slave trade in places like Thailand). His point is irrefutable. Some of his practical suggestions are perhaps sometimes off as to how to fix some of these things, but that we should care to fix them there is no question.In fact most of the time he is not offering specific programs, but saying someone should pay attention.
So we should always interpret commentary on what the Pope has said via the characteristics as described above, and it would be interesting if the rest of the Catholic press did as well. If he is understood in the context of who he is, some of what occurs in this papacy will be more coherent and frankly less disturbing. In the meantime let’s ask for the prayers of his predecessors for him and his papacy. God knows the world can ill a confused or weakened Vicar of Christ
St John Paul II and St Pius X pray for Pope Francis and the rest of us.