Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Giving the pope the benefit of the doubt

First off: I'm still here! I didn't intentionally give up blogging for Lent. I've just been sick and sort of missed the first two weeks of Lent this year.

Now that I'm on the mend, though, I wanted to comment on some recent events, such as that time when a pope made an off-the-cuff comment that seemed to apply that he was in favor of something that the Church strongly opposes, and the Catholic blogosphere rushed to his defense and cleared up the controversy...oh, my mistake. That wasn't recent; that was when an off-the-cuff quote from Pope Benedict XVI got taken out of context by the media who spun it as the pope's approval of condom use in some circumstances, when it was, of course, (as Fr. Z said in the link above) nothing of the sort.

Funnily enough, nobody called it "popesplaining" or whatever the term of the day is back then; it was obvious that Pope Benedict XVI had been taken out of context and misunderstood, and the Catholic blogosphere didn't go nuts trying to prove that, no, really, BXVI was trying to approve of condoms in a sneaky or stealthy way because he was really a modernist or something. Instead, as I recall, the whole incident was taken as yet more proof that the media really does not get anything about religion right, and is always breathlessly reporting "news" which turns out to be nothing of the sort, especially when it comes to traditional faiths that still hold the line against the approved and trendy modern forms of sin.

When I read the transcript of Pope Francis' recent plane interview I noticed a few things right away. First, despite the news articles, the reporter never said the word "contraception." Instead, the reporter asked whether the Church would condone avoiding pregnancies as a "lesser evil" than abortion. One can almost sense a kind of frustration in the pope's answer as he explains, as popes have been deliberately and carefully explaining for decades now, that abortion can't ever be put into a "lesser evil" sort of construct in the first place--for what could be more evil than depriving an innocent human being of his or her life? What I see when I read that answer is a pope doing his best--for the umpteen millionth time--to make it absolutely, positively, abundantly clear that abortion isn't some sort of "Catholic sin," like eating meat on purpose on a Lenten Friday or failing to attend Mass on a Holy Day of Obligation without a valid reason to miss it. Rather, abortion is a crime against humanity that can never be condoned regardless of the circumstances.

True, His Holiness goes on to say that avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. I wish he had taken the opportunity to speak about how the means used are what is important, and to remind those worried about Zika or anything else that the Church permits NFP or other natural methods of spacing births to married couples; I also wish that he'd left the sort of off-topic example of what nuns might or might not theoretically have been permitted in cases where rape was a grave risk alone--but I think that was more of a "theoretical moral theology misfire" than any deliberate or intentional message, especially when you consider that Pope Francis, like every other recent pope, has made it quite clear that the Church's teachings against contraception are here to stay.

The thing is that it is not hard at all to put the pope's answer in the most charitable light possible, just like most of us did with Benedict XVI when the media was screaming in all caps the totally improbable news that "Pope gives Church's blessing to condoms for gay sex workers!!" and similarly ludicrous spins on what he actually did say. The question then becomes: why are so many Catholics apparently so willing to see every off-the-cuff remark of Pope Francis' as proof positive that he's a secret stealth modernist heretic anti-Pope out to undermine the True Church and usher in the New World Order, the Antichrist, and the Apocalypse?

There are several answers to this, ranging from our American fondness for conspiracy theories to the scars inflicted during forty years of unremitting liturgical war (and as much as I appreciate good liturgy, we have reached the point where yelling, "But they started it!" is no longer an effective strategy) that have left us unwilling to trust anyone who sort of reminds us of Father Nicefellow who was nice to everybody except people who wanted to pray the rosary in public or actually liked statues, and that sort of thing (though I hasten to point out that Pope Francis has a deep devotion to the rosary himself, and I wouldn't think he minds statues particularly either--he just sort of talks like Father Nicefellow on occasion).  And all of that is part of it.

But I think there's something else at work here, and it shows up when Pope Francis says other things, such as this:
Thank God he said I was a politician because Aristotle defined the human person as 'animal politicus.' At least I am a human person. As to whether I am a pawn, well, maybe, I don't know. I'll leave that up to your judgment and that of the people. And then, a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel. As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.
When it comes to taking a pro-immigrant stance, Pope Francis' words here are really mild. He says that someone who is only interested in building walls and not bridges isn't acting like a Christian. But from that mild statement I have heard Catholics and other Christians insisting that the pope opposes border security and wants America to allow every illegal immigrant who can make it across our borders to move in and take our hard-earned stuff and import terrorists and take away our jobs and our Social Security and our money and our things that we've earned all by ourselves by our hard work and we shouldn't have to hand our money and goods over to lazy no-good immigrants or homeless people or welfare recipients or...

Nobody thinks that illegal immigration is the same thing as legal immigration, and nobody I know of thinks we have to have completely open borders with no laws whatsoever--not even the Church, who in asking for greater compassion for those already here is not demanding a repeal of all laws governing lawful immigration. But there's a troubling attitude behind much of the outrage against Pope Francis' words regarding a border wall, an attitude that is part pride, part greed and part fear--and the main aspect of the fear is that illegal immigrants are all out to take away our material goods, coupled with a prideful belief that we earned those goods totally by the sweat of our brows and not, perhaps, because we were born into a prosperous nation at a time in history when it was possible to earn a decent living and "get ahead," so to speak, none of which is really our own doing at all.

A sad thing, to me, is that this attitude of pride and greed and fear often comes from some of the same Catholics who fully accept the Church's teaching against contraception and who would never dream of using artificial birth control. They can't seem to see that the same combination of pride mixed with greed and fear is often responsible for other Catholics rejecting Church teaching against birth control and using it. For those Catholic couples, the unplanned child is like the illegal immigrant: a hostile stranger who is coming among them to take away not only their material goods but also that prideful belief that we have full control over our own earthly lives. Fear of that stranger/child causes contracepting Catholics to put up their own walls, built of latex or chemicals; and fear of that child can even lead to abortion when despite the wall of "protection" the child is discovered living in the womb.

Catholics can, and should, debate the best ways to go forward when it comes to illegal immigration (and bearing in mind that some people are injured or killed just trying to get here, which is something we ought not to take lightly). But we ought to go forward in light of Christian principles, and to remember that the Lord we follow said that we ought to love our neighbor (and He didn't restrict that love based on geography). If our objection to illegal immigrants is based on a prideful sense that we have earned everything we have plus a greed to keep all of our blessings for ourselves and a fear that the immigrant will join the widow and the orphan and the poor and the homeless as people we ought to be concerned about and be willing to help even with our material blessings, then we aren't, as the pope said, being Christian about them at all.

I honestly think that at least part of the reason so many don't want to give Pope Francis the same benefit of the doubt that many did automatically give to Pope Benedict XVI is because it would be a lot easier on us if we could believe that Pope Francis was a modernist or a heretic or an anti-Pope or some such thing--because if he were any of those, we could ignore him when he reminds us that it's not Catholic to see our brothers and sisters as leeches or bloodsuckers or threats to our (material) security just because they happen to be in need, or in this country illegally, or out of work, or living on the street. We Americans are awfully inclined to forget that God alone gives us what we have, and that seeing ourselves as the authors of our own destinies and the absolute rulers of our own tiny material kingdoms is a form of idolatry, of a kind that the pope's namesake especially rejected when St. Francis threw off his material goods for the sake of the true kingdom.


Paul said...

Thank you. I haven't ready many posts on your blog for a while, but I've liked many of your posts over the years. This post is just further confirmation that you are one of the steadiest bloggers writing. Charity, assuming the best possible explanation or understanding of what someone else says or their actions. In this case, it is very easy to see Pope Francis never uses the word contraception and he certainly never clearly says "contraception can be allowed in ___ circumstances." He does seem to say something that alludes to a small crack opening the door, but even that depends heavily on putting thoughts and ideas that he didn't actually say, rather assuming what he meant by mentioning the apocryphal African nuns situation.

LarryD said...

Well said, Red.

And then there's this: Exclusive Inside Look At The Last Papal In-flight Interview

David Wanat said...

Only discovered this blog because someone shared this article on FB. I like your analysis of the situation. Good article.

Red Cardigan said...

Larry, I loved your post! So funny and so true.

David, thank you!

Siarlys Jenkins said...

One thing about condoms for gay sex workers... it certainly does not interfere with the natural process of conception.

Erin once again shows the world what intelligent piety and obedience looks like -- whether I agree with her on this, that, or t'other, or not.

Cojuanco said...

Well, Erin, there's also the fear among some Anglophone Catholics that Latinos, because they vote Democratic, will upon naturalization or when growing up vote for pro-abort politicians. How do we respond to that rationale for restricting immigration?

Sponsa Christi said...

Great post! You put into words a lot of what is going on in my own mind with all of this. I'm posting a link on my facebook page as well.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Cojuanco, what about the possibility that because Latinos, since they vote Democratic, will start to insist on pro-life Democratic nominees, because they are Catholic? Of course that could result in liberals demanding strict border controls... There are so many possibilities when you mix and match like this.

Svar said...

Jenkins, are you still pushing that George Dubya "natural conservatives" spiel?

It is perfectly natural for a country to not be inundated with foreigners and their alien ways and besides Mexico is as Catholic as America, which is to say, barely. Plutarcho Calles won out in the end. We are country that is deeply divided and you think that it is best to Balkanize this country even further?

And even if, "let's flood America with more Catholics" is the Pope's goal, then why the push for Muslim "Syrian" "refugees" in Europe? All that led to was nothing but non-stop murders and rapes like the Cologne Sex Attacks. Is it really surprising that a group of people who have been torturing, raping, and murdering our Christian brethren in the ME are doing the exact same thing to the "unveiled whores" in Europe?

Either way, it's time to read more Pat Buchanan and less neoconesque drivel. We have a country the same way you have a home. The moment you are willing to open up your home to everyone is the moment I'll know that you're serious about "charity". The country is a public common good, it's not yours to give away since it belongs to all of us as a whole.

Regarding issues like immigration which aren't moral issues, rend unto Caesar that which is Caesar's.

Elizabeth said...

Erin, you are so right about the way the media grabs hold of anything the Pope says and twists it to their own agenda.

A good friend of mine, a lifelong supporter of Planned Parenthood who cannot believe that PP offers classes in NFP (they refer to it as fertility awareness) without some kind of specific grant aimed at undermining everything contraception is about, told how much she likes this Pope. She took his statement to be a toe in the door for the RCC to approve of artificial contraception. When I told her that is not what he said, she brushed it off and said that it was good enough for her.

She is a "fact-based" progressive? Now, I'm all for contraception and generally a progressive, with the caveat that many of the most active ones make me break out in hives from the arrogance that emanates off them, but I cannot stand a stupid argument.

How will we understand each other if we don't even try to understand each other? Oy.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Svar, I'm not pushing anything. I'm pointing out that there are lots of possibilities, and many ways of assigning meaning to the same set of facts, particularly if you have a meaning you are fervently devoted to and see an opportunity to attach same.

So what are you pushing?

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Erin, I just wanted to let you know that over at Rod Dreher's blog I just nominated you as Bernie Sanders's running mate. I admit, I did so with the thought that no vice-president could overturn Roe v. Wade. But, I would like a counter-weight that would tone things WAY DOWN on the social liberal politically correct issues. Bernie is more about working class economic issues, so a conservative who combined a genuine compassion for the poor with a solid work ethic could be just the thing to temper the Sanders administration. Besides, you'd probably fill the vacuum that is the vice-presidency with vigorous advocacy for high speed rail. I proposed years ago that all the able-bodied unemployed could be put to work building high speed rail, and a good chunk of the welfare budget could be put into paying their wages. Those not employed on the railroad could be employed in model child care centers in close proximity to the work sites. Finally, if the price of your acceptance was moving the needle from "viability" to 20 weeks, and requiring written documentation of any threat to the life or health of the mother... that's all good as far as I'm concerned. Of course I know that if nominated you will not run, if elected you will not serve, you have no desire for a career in politics... but there is nobody IN politics who would serve the same function. So nominating you was at least a useful illustration. Not that Bernie is likely to ask me.

Red Cardigan said...

Siarlys, that's terribly sweet of you. Though I can't imagine running for any public office, I would love to vote for a candidate who cared about things like public transportation, raising the minimum wage, making on-demand scheduling illegal for companies with more than 60 part-time employees--things like that. :)

Svar said...

Sorry, Siarly, I had forgotten to check back for a response. I'm pushing a cohesive common culture and a sense of national unity. For looking after the backbone of this country, the American working man and for looking after our countrymen instead of opening our borders and these shores to foreigners whose interests might (and mostly likely will) be inimical to ours.