How Liberals Trick Republicans into Ceding the Moral High Ground.
The Church over the Abyss
The substitution of radical social politics for doctrine spells doom for millions of Catholic faithful.
In a recent interview with the Neapolitan newspaper Il Mattino, Pope Francis offered an expansive prescription for the human race. “Planetary injustice,” centered around climate change and Third World debt, must be the focus of the Church, he explained, adding that politics is the “highest form of charity.” Saying that “everything is connected,” the Pope sounded like he was channeling the latest New Age woo-woo philosophy—which in a sense, he is.
The Catholic church was once the greatest conservative institution in the West, and not in any narrow sense of the term. In her self-understanding she was the guardian of the apostolic inheritance, the natural moral law, and an understanding of conscience and right reason that had nothing to do with debilitating rationalism or an enervating moral subjectivism.
The Church did not hesitate to speak of timeless truths. She fiercely resisted the replacement of the perennial distinction between right and wrong, good and evil, with the pernicious distinction between Progress and Reaction. She was wary of what Eric Voegelin called “modernity without restraint” and was the greatest institutional embodiment in the Western world of a wisdom that was at once classical and Christian. She criticized soulless individualism and more rapacious forms of capitalism while rejecting every form of collectivism.
In the year 1937, Pope Pius XI issued two memorable encyclicals, Divini Redemptoris (Divine Redeemer) and Mitt Brennender Sorge (With Burning Sorrow), taking powerful aim at atheistic Communism and National Socialist racialism and anti-Semitism, respectively. In these documents, the Church defended the dignity of man and the need to care for the least among us without succumbing to revolutionary delusions of any kind. At her best, she was a true friend of ordered liberty, reminding modern men and women that liberty is shorn of purpose if it refuses to acknowledge an order of truth and justice above the human will.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), inaugurated by Pope John XXIII, aimed to let fresh air into the Church without “kneeling before the world,” in the memorable formulation of the French neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain. But by 1966 Maritain saw reasons for alarm. The turn to worship in the vernacular was accompanied by liturgical experimentation devoid of a true appreciation of beauty and holiness. The dialogue with the modern world soon turned into a rout, with trendy clerics and theologians associating moral conscience with a barely concealed relativism. Catholic progressives endorsed “the contraceptive mentality,” as Pope Paul VI called it, and capitulated to a modern sexual ethos that had more to do with hedonism and self-expression than self-restraint and fidelity to the family and the laws of God.
Ominously, the cardinals and bishops at the Second Vatican Council refused to renew the condemnation of Communism despite the efforts of some bishops and cardinals. Soon, misplaced Catholic/Communist dialogue gave way to Catholic progressivism and liberation theology that uncritically adopted Marxist forms of “social analysis.” These currents confused liberty and human dignity with support for violence and revolutionary politics, and identified the poor with the “proletariat” in a specifically Marxist sense. On the diplomatic front, the Church pursued Ostpolitik with Communist regimes in East-Central Europe, accepting the semi-permanence of Marxist dictatorships and abandoning stalwart anti-totalitarian churchmen such as Cardinal Mindszenty of Hungary. In certain Catholic circles, social justice was identified with socialism, while the defense of private property (open to all) and subsidiarity, a social ethic of decentralization and personal responsibility, were neglected if not outright abandoned. Confusion reigned supreme.
A restoration came under the pontificates of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Neither pope was remotely reactionary and both upheld the true teachings of Vatican II. But they were legitimately wary of the so-called “spirit of Vatican II” which severed the council from its proper continuity with creedal teaching and previous councils. In the tradition of Cardinal Newman, these pontiffs rejected the identification of moral conscience with moral subjectivism. They opposed what Pope Benedict XVI famously called the “dictatorship of relativism” and upheld moral absolutes. They vigorously opposed abortion, sexual promiscuity, and the temptation of progressive Christians to eliminate “sin” (except for “social sin” where “unjust” social structures were blamed for every evil in the world) as a central concept of the moral life and the Christian understanding of right and wrong.
On the political front, the Polish Pope John Paul II renewed the Church’s condemnation of Communist totalitarianism and ferociously opposed the ideological Lie. In Poland, in 1979 and afterwards, he gave Catholics, and all people, of good will, the hope that the Communist scourge would pass and that the human spirit, rooted in truth and liberty, would win the day, as indeed happened in 1989. When he travelled to Cuba in 1998, Pope John Paul II prudently but firmly denounced dictatorship and vigorously defended religious liberty, denied to the Cuban people since Castro came to power on January 1, 1959. For his part, in his 2006 Regensburg Address, Pope Benedict XVI opposed the reduction of the Christian religion to a “humanitarian moral message” and forcefully challenged Islam to reject the identification of religion with violence. Meanwhile, Catholic progressives and liberationists scoffed at this return to thoughtful orthodoxy and moral good sense, waiting for a “progressive” pope to somehow ascent to the See of Peter. That would come with the election of José Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis in 2013. He had one mission, and one mission alone: to “change the Church” in the words of Ross Douthat, and to change it permanently and irrevocably. He certainly has not slacked in that determination.
As I argued in my 2018 book, The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity, Pope Francis habitually elides the Christian religion with ill-considered social activism and a humanitarian moral and political message. In his 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti, the Argentinian pope gives an interpretation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan that is strictly speaking humanitarian, ignoring the multiple ways in which human beings are beset by sin and need the grace of God to love their neighbors, not to mention their enemies. His is a theology without the visible presence of original sin. It is largely preoccupied with denouncing “unjust social structures.” Francis regularly invokes the need for mercy but almost always without the necessary accompanying appeal to repentance and the metanoia of the soul. Mercy thus risks becoming moral sloth and relativism. The present pope is also obsessed with climate change. But he tends to approach the subject ideologically and is oblivious to the pagan earth worship (and secularized apocalypticism) that informs mainstream environmentalism.
Moreover, Pope Francis has purged the John Paul II Institute in Rome of all theologians and philosophers who remain faithful to the anti-relativism of his two great predecessors. While the pope occasionally takes aim at abortion on demand and gender theory, he incoherently (if semi-regularly) praises the activities of pro-LGBTQ+ ideologues in the Church such as Father James Martin. The head of both the gutted John Paul II Institute and of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, works to “reform” (i.e. interpret out of existence) Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, condemning artificial birth control and defending a culture of life. The same Paglia recently told an Italian journalist that a 1978 law decriminalizing abortion in Italy was a “pillar” of Italian life and should not be opposed by Catholics.
Francis’s episcopal appointments scrupulously avoid any defender of orthodoxy, the moral law, or the Magisterium of the Church. Pillars of vibrant orthodoxy such as Archbishops Chaput and Gomez have been passed over for the College of Cardinals while those who oppose Catholic moral teaching (like McElroy in San Diego) have been given red hats. It is disturbing that all of Francis’s American appointments to the College of Cardinals have been acolytes of Cardinal McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, DC and a pervert, liar, and abuser par excellence. For the age-old Church, development of doctrine has always meant the deepening and clarification of unchanging truths. But Francis and his acolytes historicize Christian doctrine, convinced that the Holy Spirit can annul, change, and even abolish the unchanging moral law. The Holy Spirit, it seems, is perfectly in accord with the Zeitgeist, with “advanced” opinion on ethics, politics, and sexual morality. None of this is remotely Catholic.
Politically, Francis has been a disaster. He has interpreted Catholic social teaching in a partial and summary way that is at once statist, centralist, humanitarian, and globalist. He unilaterally identifies Catholic teaching with pacifism, even if he has no authority to do so. He is at heart a Peronist, indulgent to (left-wing) populism and oblivious to the role that the free market can play in encouraging individual initiative and producing the goods that prevent the poor from sinking into destitution. The pope’s opposition to the death penalty is far more “humanitarian” than Christian in character and inspiration. His aide and ally, the Argentinian Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences, praised Communist China in 2018 as an “extraordinary” polity, the one that is “best” at “implementing the social doctrine of the Church.” This is an odd way to characterize a terribly heavy-handed regime, still officially Marxist, and authoritarian to the core, that viciously persecutes Francis’s and Sánchez’s co-religionists. In contemporary China, there is no political liberty, little respect for human dignity, and no genuine religious liberty. If that is Catholic social thought, who needs it? Sánchez’s judgments on these matters are stunningly perverse.
The Catholic Church is under renewed assault from the thuggish and Marxoid authoritarian regime of Daniel Ortega, the once and now again leader of Nicaragua. Clergy and ordinary believers are harassed and persecuted, missionaries have been expelled from the country, freedom of speech and press have eliminated, and a courageous bishop has recently been arrested. Francis’s long silence has now given way to a call for “dialogue.” But as Bishop Silvio Báez, the auxiliary bishop of Managua has stated, there can be no “dialogue” without freedom and with a tyrant’s hands squeezing the throats of the Nicaraguan people. This from the same pope who pronounced in his 2014 encyclical “The Joy of the Gospel” that “authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Quran are opposed to every form of violence.” Surely, the Church should encourage and pursue dialogue with moderate Muslims. But to adopt politically correct bromides in doing so is unbecoming and morally and intellectually corrupting.
Today, papalotry is not an option for faithful Catholics. To fundamentally “change the Church,” as Francis surely intends, is to undermine her authority and her very raison d’être. The Catholic faith is not the religion of humanity, and the Holy Spirit is not an agent of the Historical Process, no matter what some Catholic progressives think. As with the Arian crisis of the fourth century, when most bishops succumbed to heresy, the task of Catholics is to defend the truth unalloyed. We owe the papal office filial respect. But no pope is an oriental potentate. His “private judgment” cannot take precedence over the moral law, the apostolic inheritance, and the unchanging teachings of the Church. Today, alas, unthinking papalotry reinforces theological and moral subversion. Self-deception of this kind only lead to the abyss. At this critical moment, Catholics have an obligation to see things clearly.