Why conservatives are going nuclear on Pope Francis

The right is lashing out at the pope on the eve of his first visit to the U.S.

Pope Francis in Cuba

Remember when American conservatives swooned over papal pronouncements, combed through encyclicals for arguments to help them wage the culture war, and saw pontiffs as allies in the geopolitical fight for democratic capitalism and against communist totalitarianism?

Yeah, me too. It wasn't that long ago. But boy does it feel like an eternity.

The right's discontent with Pope Francis has been waxing for a while.

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Serious concerns were first raised by conservatives anxious that the pope might ease restrictions barring divorced Catholics from receiving the sacrament of communion. These worries crested during the Synod of Bishops on the Family last fall but then quieted down.

A different set of objections bubbled over in the months leading up to the release of Pope Francis' first encyclical, Laudato Si', with several conservative Catholic writers raising preemptive, sometimes strident, objections to what they feared would be a leftist-environmentalist tract. (Once the encyclical itself was released, the initial response among conservatives who don't host nationally syndicated radio programs was critical but restrained and respectful.)

But over the past week or so, as American Catholics have prepared for Francis' first visit to the United States, the criticism has risen to a rolling boil, with some of it spilling over into outright hostility and disdain.

Some of it is a product of renewed anxiety about exactly what the pontiff plans to do about annulment and communion for the divorced — concerns that have spiked again because the Vatican recently announced changes to canon law that make it easier, faster, and cheaper for Catholics to get their marriages pronounced null and void. This significant act of liberalization would always have troubled conservatives. But the fact that it was announced a month ahead of the concluding session of the Synod on the Family, which meets during the month of October in Vatican City, has raised greater concerns. Might the pope be laying the groundwork for an even more radical break from Catholic teaching and tradition?

But expressions of foreboding about pending change within the church are nothing compared to what's now being said about the pope on more explicitly political topics.

As if unleashing all the pent-up fury they've been repressing since the release of Laudato Si', leading conservatives are now taking direct aim at Francis' statements on economics and the environment. These topics are close to the core of the Republican Party platform, the pope has demonstrated that he rejects the way the American conservative movement thinks about them, and that is simply unacceptable.

According to the Rev. Robert A. Sirico, head of the (libertarian-Catholic) Acton Institute, Francis is making a mistake in talking so provocatively about the injustice of markets and the immorality of unregulated capitalism. As Sirico put it in remarks quoted by The Washington Post,

Pope Francis is not an economist... He just doesn't understand economics very well... The church doesn't profess to be an economic think tank. If that's allowed to persist, it in effect dilutes the church's brand. [The Washington Post]

That's an interesting line of argument, implying that the pope lacks authority to speak on topics about which he has no direct experience or specialized knowledge. I wonder if Sirico would apply the same criteria to the church's pronouncements on sex, marriage, and family, waving them away on the grounds that an organization run exclusively by celibate bachelors lacks the requisite knowledge to speak on those subjects with binding authority.

But regardless, Sirico at least expresses respect and concern for the institution of the church and its "brand." The same cannot be said for Paul Gosar, the Republican congressman from Arizona who recently announced that he would be boycotting the pope's upcoming speech to Congress.

The reason this self-described "proud Catholic" is refusing to attend the pope's historic address? Because it's likely to focus on climate change. As far as Gosar is concerned, the climate "has been changing since first created in Genesis," and Francis' "climate change talk has adopted all the socialist talking points…and is being presented to guilt people into leftist policies." Gosar then provides a list of topics on which he'd be happy to listen to the Bishop of Rome — including "violent Islam" or "persecuted Christians in the Middle East." But the environment? If the pope plans to spend most of his time talking about the "fool's errand" of addressing climate change, "then I will not attend."

But not even this statement, thoroughly dismissive as it is, can compare with George F. Will's rabid attack on the pope. Unlike Gosar, Will doesn't speak as a Catholic. Still, there's something surprising about Will's unbridled animus and complete lack of deference to and respect for the head of the Roman Catholic Church. The column is written in a tone usually reserved for tyrants and traitors.

Once again, the provocation is climate change. Will informs us that on this subject Pope Francis is guilty of "fact-free flamboyance," trails "clouds of sanctimony," embraces "demonstrably false and deeply reactionary" ideas that would "devastate the poor on whose behalf he purports to speak," and offers "implausible" prescriptions and "shrill" social diagnoses.

And that's just the headline and opening paragraph! The nuclear bombardment continues all the way through before building to a thunderous denunciation. Pope Francis, Will proclaims in his closing paragraph,

stands against modernity, rationality, science and, ultimately, the spontaneous creativity of open societies in which people and their desires are not problems but precious resources. Americans cannot simultaneously honor him and celebrate their nation's premises. [The Washington Post]

Why does it matter that Will thinks the pope is the enemy of all good things, and an anti-American to boot? Isn't it just the latest example of the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist's ongoing effort to transform himself into Rush Limbaugh with a bowtie and an alliteration fetish?

It matters because of what it shows us about the way ideological fixations have corrupted the conservative outlook, which once treated political passions with suspicion and took its stand with institutions and traditions older than the latest partisan fads.

As is obvious from my own column about Laudato Si', I agree with a good bit of Will's critique of the encyclical. Yet Will chooses to express that critique in a way that evinces not the slightest deference to a man who leads a 2,000-year-old institution and is trying to bring its ancient traditions into conversation with modernity and its distinctive problems. He shows not even the least bit of willingness to learn from the pope's arguments, to wrestle with his theologically and scripturally informed criticism of what he believes to be the moral vacuum at the heart of the contemporary capitalist order. It's just slash and burn from start to finish.

Does anyone doubt for a second that if Francis' message were more ideologically congenial (and politically useful) to him, Will would praise the pope's holiness and appeal to it in deprecating his critics? But Francis isn't congenial or useful to the American conservative movement, so instead he must be condemned, boycotted, and assailed.

For today's conservative movement, politics has become the first thing, the last thing, and everything in between. No wonder it's lost all patience for the politically inconvenient pontiff.

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