interesting times

Pope Francis Isn’t Catholicism’s Trump

Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

How does anyone remain a Christian in our current modern moment? The moral implosion of American Evangelicalism in the cult of Trump, the rise of casual anti-Christian bigotry in popular culture, the continuing sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, the emergence of a movement for Christian cultural retrenchment in the church (Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option), the revolution in gay rights in the West, and the slow slide of church attendance and religious observance seem to have conspired to bring the matter to a head. And in this fevered and often ill-tempered debate, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by much of Ross Douthat’s new book lambasting Pope Francis as a small-minded heretic.

It has all the usual Douthat reasonableness of tone, even a careful, almost Obama-like elaboration of two opposing ideas of the church in the wake of Vatican II, leading to a satisfyingly moderate synthesis. There is also his affecting and oh-so-recognizable account of his own conversion to Catholicism, and the usual flashes of dry wit and winsome wisdom. And I certainly understand his fear that in the perilous shoals of liquid modernity, the ship of the Catholic Magisterium (the authoritative teaching of the church) could run aground. I also understand his grief at what was lost as the church revamped itself in the 1960s and 1970s — the liturgy, the enchantment, the unquestioned papal authority, the reverence, the silences and the darknesses, now wiped away into too many banal ceremonies, in churches lit as if they were a branch of Target. For Ross, as for me, the church in the 1970s seemed to be abandoning the sacred and the sublime for the mundane and the modern.

And I appreciate deeply his view of the church as an eternal antidote to presentness: “Catholic Christianity really is a time machine: You can step into those worlds, the worlds of the Catholic past, find your footing and realize you are not somewhere altogether alien; that the past is another country but also somehow yours.” It remains this for me as well; even when my unbelief overwhelms my belief, and perhaps especially then, the rituals and liturgy that Christians have recited for millennia ground me, reorient me, and sustain me. And when crisis strikes or fear penetrates or grief upends me, it is there that I will go. That this is unchanging is important; vital even. If the rock crumbles beneath you, it is no rock.

And yet no Catholic has been immune from the pressures of his or her age, and ours has not been easy. Modernity is a comforting drug: its materialism so endemic it is hard to see outside of it; its dispelling of mystery relentless; and its technological sirens, ubiquitous pleasures, and denial of death are almost designed to undermine the kind of faith that was once so effortlessly enchanted, so girded by fear of mortality, and so intuitively obedient toward a veiled authority. The modern West has proven an even more insidious enemy to the faith than Communism was, because it has not so much attempted to suppress and outlaw Catholicism as it has brilliantly seduced and diverted it. The challenge to rediscover a spirituality that isn’t merely escapism, to reimagine eternal truths in new cultural language, and to provide a counterbalance to nihilism, depression, or drift is a real and pressing one.

I can’t imagine that Ross disagrees with a lot of this, but where I have to differ with him is in his view that Pope Francis is somehow making all this much worse — that he is, through intemperance and recklessness, risking outright schism in the church in a way that hasn’t happened for centuries. By Douthat’s account, Francis is to the church what Donald Trump is to American democracy. He’s an existential threat.

How on earth could that be? For Ross, so much seems to come down to the Pope’s willingness to contemplate allowing divorced and remarried Catholics who want to be a part of the church to receive Communion: “If a rule rooted in Jesus’ own words, confirmed by dogmatic definitions and explicitly reconfirmed by the previous two popes, linked to Reformation-era martyrdom and bound up with three of the seven sacraments could be so easily rewritten … well, what rule or teaching could not?” Jesus’ refusal to countenance any kind of divorce in Mark’s Gospel is, to Ross, a foundational doctrine. Remove that and you raise the possibility that every other doctrine can be altered, suddenly, from above. Francis’s merely airing these questions — as well as the place of homosexuals in the church — represents to him a look into the abyss of doctrinal chaos. The fact that nothing has changed in official church teaching at all is scant comfort. The elaborate, intricate edifice of Catholicism, built and repaired for two millennia, unchanging and authoritative, is endangered. To Ross, Francis’s actions threaten to send the church drifting into a kind of lame “moral therapeutic deism” that has plagued the mainline Protestant denominations — or, more likely, precipitate full-on schism.

Where to start? First off, as Paul Baumann observes in Commonweal, the church has been, er, let us say, flexible about this rule for aeons, starting with the Gospels themselves. Yes, the Gospel of Mark has Jesus barring any divorce, period; but the Gospel of Matthew adds a caveat — with Jesus saying you can divorce if your partner commits adultery. So not quite as definitive. For centuries, moreover, there was no Catholic sacrament for marriage — it was entirely a secular thing, acknowledged by the church. The Orthodox churches — not just the Protestants — have long allowed for divorce. Catholicism itself, especially in America, hands out annulments that operate as de facto divorces like confetti. And in most parishes, priests do not police the communion line to ensure that any particular sinner is excluded for any specific sin (for which I remain extremely grateful). Indeed if the formal rules strictly applied, and communion was never allowed except after a full confession, virtually no Catholic in America would be participating in the Eucharist at all.

Jesus offers an extreme moral demand in Mark — but it’s of a piece with Jesus’ extremism overall. For example, the commandment that in order to receive salvation, you need to give up all your wealth seems even more stringent than the total ban on divorce. And imagine enforcing that! Equally, the proposition that if you even observe a woman with lust in your heart, you have committed adultery is also somewhat, well, extreme (and would lead, if we follow Matthew, to universal grounds for divorce at almost any time). And all that Francis has actually proposed is that the church reach out to people where they are, rather than where they ought to be, and give a little in practice.

We’re talking here about caring for people whose marriages have failed and who want to come back to the church and its sacraments. That’s all. We’re not talking about a formal end to the existing doctrine against divorce. We’re not talking about a second marriage in church. We’re talking about pastoral adaptation to an individual’s position and sincerity in wishing to be reconciled with God. We’re talking about not rejecting people looking to follow Christ. And that means gay people as well, people who, despite so many pressures among their peers, despite widespread cultural taboos on being Christian and gay, insist on coming to the Lord’s table.

This stringency on sexual morality — combined with flexibility on so much else — is part of what has rendered the church toxic for so many, especially given its own recent, horrifying sexual standards. When you barely bat an eye at the rape of children and come down hard on someone who left a toxic marriage, you run the risk, to say the least, of seeming somewhat lacking in moral integrity. And what this worldview unwittingly does is draw attention away from the broader, far more central tenets of the faith: the truly foundational commandments to love one another, to forgive one another, to defend human dignity, to advance the Kingdom. In the broader context of secularizing modernity, of the widening vista of loneliness and despair, of the attenuation of community and charity, of environmental vandalism, of the false idols of celebrity and money, of the throwaway culture that treats unborn human life as so much industrial waste, of the cruelty and heartlessness of late-stage capitalism … is it really worth creating a schism over a pastoral attempt to include those beached by a bad or toxic marriage?

Francis is not a vandal within the church, as Ross suggests. It seems to me he retains a perspective of the broader world and its current ills that is far wider and calmer and saner than those who obsess over internecine church warfare. He has single-handedly unwound some of the deepest prejudices in the West against Catholicism, and revealed again the Christian commitment to charity and mercy and hope, just by being the way he is. And this is by far the most effective way of spreading the good news: by showing the world how serene and open and unafraid someone can be when close to Christ. Look at this story from just the other day: A young boy who had just lost his father asked Francis if his dad, who did not believe in God, was now in heaven. The Pope responded, hugging him closely: “Do you think that God would leave him far from him? Say it loudly, with courage,” he said to the crowd of children. And they chanted, “No!” Is this theologically perfect? Nope. Is it Christian? Of course.

In that sense, Francis is a living Gospel, an untier of knots. Now, of course, by emphasizing mercy and compassion over theology and doctrine, serious questions arise, and Douthat is civil and pertinent in addressing them. To what extent do we engage the currents of our age and to what extent do we resist them? Is a modern Christianity even possible without the enchantment, mortality, fear, and ignorance of the past? And what we do with the fact that neither Benedict’s retrenchment nor Francis’s outreach seems successful in stopping the slow slide of institutional and cultural decline, and the emptying of the pews, especially among the young?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, and they often leave me with a sense of spiritual drought and cultural pessimism. Part of me wants the simple certainties and mysteries of the past; part of me is profoundly grateful that the world has indelibly changed. Reimagining what faith can be in the context of modernity will not be easy. But exactly the wrong tack to take, it seems to me, is an ever-more intense and bitter internal fight over the legacy of the last 50 years in the Catholic Church.

We can live with some ambiguity for a while. The church will go on. And there are so many ways in which modernity is making us miserable, so many flaws in the pseudo-religions now occupying the spiritual space (and, yes, “wokeness” is as much a pseudo-religion as the Prosperity Gospel) that I suspect in the not-so-distant future, more and more people will look around and rediscover the Christian inheritance that is still theirs if they want it, and still, in my mind, culturally vital if we are to sustain liberal democracy in America. I am not optimistic about this in my lifetime; but I do have hope. It is integral to being a Christian to have hope.

Yes, some of us are looking for a new, doubtless very different Saint Benedict. And some of us are praying for a new, doubtless less familiar Saint Francis. I suspect we will all be surprised by something or someone else, in due course, just as we have been surprised by Francis. When I ask my mother about these things, she responds with the words of her own mother, who, along with generations of Catholic women, long kept this show on the road: “Our Lord will not abandon his church, Andrew. He promised us. Just remember that.” And every so often, I do.

Tackling Injustice at Google

The full text and documents of James Damore’s class-action lawsuit against Google make for fascinating reading. Throughout, the company’s policies are close to indistinguishable from those of many elite colleges, and indeed of more and more of corporate America (including many media companies). It is, of course, a great idea for Google to include as many people as possible from as many diverse experiences and backgrounds as possible — in order to recruit the very best employees.

But the “social justice” movement is about much more than that. It’s about replacing and subverting what it regards as “white male dominant” culture. And how does Google define “white male dominant culture”? According to a Google HR department handout, cited by Damore, some of the nefarious qualities “[v]alued by U.S. white/male dominant culture” include: perfectionism, individual achievement, objectivity, meritocracy, and a “colorblind racial frame.” And it is important to push back against all of them.

I’d note a couple of things:

First, the stereotyping. Google has listed a bunch of human traits — many of which are actually integral to any liberal society and could be adopted by anyone of any race and gender — and associated them entirely (and pejoratively) with one race and one gender. They may not mean to, but they’re implying that women, for example, are not “objective”; that African-Americans are not perfectionists; that Latinos have no place for meritocracy; that gay people could never be “front of the room, persuasive,” as opposed to “listening and raising up different voices.” If you heard those things on an alt-right website, you’d be appalled. At Google HR, they’re supposed to be liberating.

Google then provides qualities that are “invisibilized” by white male culture: collective achievement; sustainability; “holding systems accountable for equitable outcomes” (in contrast to meritocracy); being narrative-driven, rather than numbers-driven, and so on. This too implies that a white cis straight man is not, by virtue of his race and gender, given to valuing long-term or collective achievement, or “seeking connections between contexts,” or seeing the value of subjectivity at times. And notice that what was once called racial tolerance is now called an unacceptably white “colorblind racial frame.” What we have here are mass generalizations about races and genders, and a belief in resisting one set of dominant cultural norms in favor of another. This is an invitation to racial and gendered conflict, and when you read the accounts in the Damore suit, the bitterness and anger and resentment overfloweth.

Second, an individual seeking to be hired or promoted at Google cannot, it seems, be seen simply as an individual. His race and gender and sexual orientation are integral to the hiring and promotion process. A “Hiring Innovation Manager” posted on an internal board a quote from a widely cited text for the social justice movement: “When you hire a non-marginalized person, you are not just supporting an applicant you like, you are rewarding a person who has been rewarded his entire life. You are justifying the system that makes him look good.” She went on to quote the following: “There is no objectivity. There is no meritocracy. Fight for justice. Fight even yourself.”

Now imagine for a second what it must be like to be someone at Google who works hard, believes in meritocracy, believes race is irrelevant to performance, and who aims for objectivity. Whatever race or gender that person is, Google is an uncomfortable place for him and her, one saturated with racial obsessiveness and condescension. Here’s another internal post written by someone on a promotions committee: “2/4 committee members were women: Yay! 4/4 committee members were white: Boo! 12/15 candidates were white men. Boo!” Can you imagine these statements if the race and gender were switched? It is one thing to encourage diverse promotion. It’s another for someone on a promotion committee to “boo” employees entirely because of their race and gender.

What you see here, I suspect, is the effect of the ideology now spreading far beyond left-liberal campuses to the entire corporate world. Crude and negative generalizations about individuals because of their race and gender are becoming quite commonplace – if they are white or cis or male and straight. But because those individuals, regardless of their own history, are the alleged beneficiaries of “structural racism,” this is — according to the ideology — perfectly fine. In fact, judging someone on the basis of their race is vital and moral if we are to overcome these oppressive power-structures. Equally, any system that relies on so-called “objective” criteria for evaluating success with no respect for race is itself racist, because such criteria — like workplace credentials, college or grad school grades or qualifications — are embedded in these white power structures.

Where on earth will this lead us? When you can identify the enemy by sight because of the color of their skin or their gender, fighting against a system quickly becomes a fight against individuals, whether that is the intent or not. That’s why it is going to be very interesting to see the gory details of Harvard’s admissions process in the current lawsuits — both private and from the Justice Department — in defense of individual Asian-American applicants, allegedly rejected because they are of the wrong race. How explicitly racist has Harvard’s social justice-based admissions process become? When it is a zero-sum game, and you believe “objective” criteria are themselves racist, and your imperative is in part subverting current power-structures: just how crudely discriminatory do you become when it comes to actual, live human beings?

Damore’s suit against Google is eye-opening. The suit against Harvard promises even more.

Paul Ryan’s Fiscal Legacy

I read all the invariably scathing reviews of the career of Paul Ryan, but I’d belatedly like to add one more. Ryan and his fellow Republicans have one fundamental legacy: the bankrupting of the United States. Their reckless, opportunistic, unceasing attacks on government revenues since 2000 have only been matched by the staggering spending excesses under Bush and Trump. It’s very fashionable these days to poo-poo fiscal conservatives, and some of this criticism was entirely merited when it came to increasing the debt to tackle the Great Recession. But slashing taxes and boosting spending during times of growth — as in the 1980s, 2001, and 2018 — is never a good idea. To do it now, when our debt is already stratospheric, is insane.

As the Washington Post explains:

In February, Congress passed a $1.3 trillion spending bill that shredded caps erected in 2010. It also waived the debt limit for the 15th time in the past 10 years. In December, Republicans overrode unanimous Democratic opposition to pass a tax cut projected to add more than $1 trillion in deficit spending, as the GOP used a shell budget resolution and waived the federal law meant to prevent cuts like this from ever taking place. During the debate, they torpedoed a provision that would have triggered an automatic tax increase if rosy economic growth projections did not materialize.

This means that interest on the debt is now scheduled to dwarf all defense spending before too long. It renders the U.S. close to helpless when the next downturn comes; and because the bulk of the tax cuts go to the extremely wealthy, it makes our economic and social inequality even worse than it already is. The GOP has also handed the next generation the worst inheritance in U.S. history. It will be a miracle if they all don’t become full-on socialists when they grow up (and most of them seem well on their way).

Conservatism doesn’t have to be this way. Look at Britain, knocked sideways by the same financial crisis, and now, because of painful fiscal discipline under the last two Tory governments, on the verge of ending the deficit altogether. This is not to exonerate the fiscal stewardship of the Tories entirely; it is merely to illustrate the vandalism of the GOP’s.

Ryan cannot even point to the political success of his ransacking of the country’s Treasury. As my colleague Eric Levitz has noted, the latest polling shows just over a quarter of the country believes the tax cuts are a good thing, while 36 percent disagree and “53 percent foresee a negative impact from ‘higher deficits and disproportionate benefits for the wealthy and big corporations.’” And, of course, they’re right.

The hope is that this recent appalling attack on this country’s fiscal viability will be the last. You can almost feel the reckoning coming, as so many of those who passed this abomination are retiring early, and others look increasingly precarious. The opportunity this November is not just to check this country’s slide into reality-show authoritarianism, but to destroy Ryan’s fiscal insanity for good and all.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: Pope Francis Isn’t Catholicism’s Trump