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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Infallible: The Pope or the President

In case you missed it, Pope Francis has ramped up his criticism of President Trump in the last week.   

First, when asked about climate change deniers in the face of the storms and fires taking place around the world, he turned to Scripture: “A phrase from the Old Testament comes to mind: ‘man is stupid, a stubborn, blind man.”   He referred those confused about the issue to scientists, who “speak very clearly.” 

Second, he denounced the decision to end the DACA program, questioning the President’s pro-life and family bona fides: “I hope they will rethink it … [Trump] presents himself as pro-life, and if he is a good pro-lifer, he understands that the family is the cradle of life and its unity must be protected.”  With that said, he promised “to study the law well.” 

Of course, this is not the first time the Pope has challenged our President or his policies.  But what struck me most this time was the vitriolic rhetoric from some quarters of Catholic leadership—taking Trump’s side.   Much of this backlash accused the Pope of being a hypocrite; here’s a small sample.  Michael Hichborn of the Lepanto Institute:

Pope Francis has caused great confusion and concern for Catholics since he took office. He called Emma Bonino, an Italian abortionist, one of Italy’s ‘lost greats.’  He suggested that contraception might be justifiable in light of the Zika outbreak.  He has hosted population control enthusiasts in the Vatican. … He gutted the Pontifical Academy for Life and actually appointed a pro-abortion theologian to the academy.

That’s right—the Pope is causing “great confusion.”  I thought the point was, that if the Pope said it, there was no confusion.  Question settled.  Case closed.    Now this is admittedly not quite a fair Catholic sample; the Lepanto Institute is dedicated to defending Catholicism from threats “from without as well as within,” including from so-called “traitors.”   But they are not the only American Catholic organizations who have taken up for Trumpism, or who have remained silent. 

But all this raises the larger issue, for me, of how folks deal with conflicting moral and political identities in our current climate.  For those with strong moral convictions, this should presumably be fairly straightforward.   But, I have to say, it doesn’t seem like it has been in recent years.  

Again, abortion is probably an unfair issue to draw larger conclusions from (but, then again, can't the Pope be right about DACA, notwithstanding anything he's done on abortion?).  In any case, I have to say I get the sinking feeling these days that, for more and more Americans, moral identity IS political identity.  And that unfortunate conflation seems true on both ends of the political spectrum.  I probably don’t have to point out that when moral rightness becomes nothing more than party platform, one has abdicated the right, indeed the duty, of self-governance.  That is a steep price, to say the least.

Posted by Ian Bartrum on September 13, 2017 at 05:19 PM | Permalink


Ian -- you wrote, "then again, can't the Pope be right about DACA, notwithstanding anything he's done on abortion?" Certainly, he can! Indeed, as he would tell you, his views about these matters come from the same place. As he has said often, both the "grave" wrong of abortion and unreasonable inhospitality to vulnerable immigrants are pro-life issues. R

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Sep 16, 2017 3:23:35 PM

Is the author of the original post truly ignorant of the fact that Pope Francis has, indeed, generated tremendous confusion among Catholic faithful? Using "the Lepanto Institute" as a strawman misleadingly marginalizes situation. A fairer example of this confusion would be the open questions posed by a number of cardinals regarding some of the Pope's more incomprehensible statements. See http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/full-text-of-dubia-cardinals-letter-asking-pope-for-an-audience-15105/. Political identify is not only conflated with moral identify nowadays, but with how many folks read, interpret, and present even the simplest of facts.

Posted by: James | Sep 15, 2017 8:27:35 PM

I find that Justice Jackson's view on infallibility tends to remove all of the confusion for me.

Posted by: R. M. | Sep 14, 2017 1:45:25 PM

I'm not sure but "The Profit" looks like a typo.

Anyway, the main post said "if the Pope said it, there was no confusion" ... but as spelled out in comments, just because he says something, it isn't the end. There can be debate over many things he said. IOW, some "confusion."

As to commitment to family, there is a dispute over what that means. Some, e.g., think that in certain instances it is proper to have an abortion for the long term good of one's family. Others find the idea reprehensible. So, just saying such and such is "pro-family" doesn't by itself solve anything.

Posted by: Joe | Sep 14, 2017 10:50:49 AM

"Islamic doctrine does not consider every utterance of the Koran to be infallible. Only when speaking ex Sharia. I think it is, in general, in poor taste to criticize other people's lack of fealty to their religion's beliefs, but if you are going to, you should probably make sure you know what you're talking about."

True, just because a Muslim accepts women's rights, Jewish rights, gay rights, etc. doesn't mean they've rejected Mohammad. Perhaps they actually have a deeper understanding of The Profit--seeing as how it's a religion of peace and peace only comes through equal rights.

Posted by: Abu | Sep 14, 2017 1:05:54 AM

I'm sorry to have confused folks thus far. I don't really care about the particulars of the infallibility doctrine, and I'm certainly not questioning anyone's fealty on that basis. I am sorry that what I intended as an aside came out looking like the point.

What I am questioning is why people who--for example--are deeply committed to children and families on the one hand, suddenly lash out at the Pope when he criticizes the President's commitment to those same things. Whatever your take on abortion, I wouldn't think keeping families together would be a confusing good.

I just thought the conflict between Pope and President put the larger point in a nice frame. I'm sorry for misrepresenting Catholic doctrine on infallibility, and to the extent I did that, thanks for the upbraiding. I'm certainly not sorry to question folks fealty--nor do I care if "biff" thinks it is in "poor taste"--when those folks happily trot out that same faith as justification for destructive and dehumanizing policies.

Posted by: Ian Bartrum | Sep 13, 2017 8:25:10 PM

I rather thought there was some ex cathedra limitation on the infallibility doctrine, but as is probably apparent, I'm Jewish, so I wasn't sure. It's pretty obvious, though, that the infallibility doctrine has no application to papal statements about whether someone is one of Italy's "lost greats," or whether something "might" be justifiable in certain situations.

Anyway, however much deference the Pope gets on statements of that kind, I entirely understand how it could be confusing for official Catholic church doctrine to categorically proscribe contraception and abortion on the one hand, and for the leader of the Catholic church to waffle on the justifiability of contraception in special circumstances and say nice things about abortionists on the other. I can hardly see expressions of that confusion, whatever the context, as emblematic of a calamitous state of affairs where "moral identity IS political identity," as if the only reason a Catholic could voice confusion about the Pope saying flattering things about abortionists and sending mixed messages about contraception is a desire to carry water for Trump. Rather, to the extent Catholics *do* take the Pope seriously, comments of that kind can only be very confusing! Of course, if he announced ex cathedra that contraceptives could be used to avoid spreading fatal viruses, that wouldn't be confusing, though it would be surprising given that one would have thought Catholic doctrine had rather different ideas about how to avoid spreading sexually communicable diseases. But to tell some journalists that the use of contraceptives in such situations "is not an absolute evil," poses a nice conflict between the fifth and sixth commandments, and is possibly a "lesser evil" vis-a-vis virus-induced death,** against the backdrop of official encyclicals that don't contain these ambiguities, is certainly confusing. So yes, this was a rather dodgy post, at least in its particulars; the trend you broadly describe may well be real.

** http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/full-text-of-pope-francis-in-flight-interview-from-mexico-to-rome-85821/

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Sep 13, 2017 7:52:24 PM

Catholic doctrine does not consider every utterance of the Pope to be infallible. Only when speaking ex cathedra. I think it is, in general, in poor taste to criticize other people's lack of fealty to their religion's beliefs, but if you are going to, you should probably make sure you know what you're talking about.

Posted by: biff | Sep 13, 2017 6:53:04 PM

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