When Catholic prelates and popes make idiots of themselves or engage in misconduct, Catholics are inclined to respond to Protestants who are scandalized by saying that the presence of fools and scoundrels in high ecclesiastical offices only goes to show that the Catholic church is the one true church. How could it have survived and flourished otherwise?
Not everyone is persuaded by this argument, but everyone must concede that fools and scoundrels sometimes find their way to high ecclesiastical office — and in this particular, our time does not differ from other times.
In the last few decades, the Roman Catholic Church has been fortunate in those whom it has elected to the Papacy. John Paul II was a great man — perhaps the greatest student of philosophy to have ever occupied the chair of Peter. If you doubt my claim, read his encyclicals. Many a Protestant minister, despite sectarian proclivities, has devoted considerable time to this task.
Benedict XV was also a great man — perhaps the finest theologian to have ever occupied the chair of Peter. Reading his encyclicals is also worth your time, whether you are a Catholic or not.
No one of any intelligence is ever, however, going to call Pope Francis a great man. He puts me in mind of the figures described by Socrates in Plato’s Apology. They had three things in common, Socrates discovered. They were experts in one sphere, they supposed that this made them experts in all other fields as well, and they were utterly oblivious to their ignorance.
Francis is a student of theology — not an especially astute student, but he knows a thing or two. What makes him a very great fool is that he is not a student of economics, climate science, or national security, and that this defect does not in any way discourage him from pontificating (I use the word advisedly) on these subjects and making a great display of his ignorance.
Early in his pontificate, he issued an encyclical that touched at some length on economic matters, and in his denunciation of commercial society he gave us a taste of the economic populism that has so bedeviled Argentina now for nearly a century. It was widely recognized as an embarrassment, and it is an indication of Francis’ arrogance that he is still peddling the bromides that have for so long crippled economic growth in Latin America. There is a reason why the cardinals of the Catholic Church never before elected a Jesuit to the Papacy.
Time and again, Francis has pontificated on anthropogenic global warming — treating a question as closed that, many distinguished scientists believe, is very much open. As an expert on the subject, Pope Francis has no standing whatsoever. He is not even a knowledgeable layman.
On the question of immigration, Francis is arguably even more of a fool. Time and again, he has made statements intimating that no political community has a right to control its own borders and exclude outsiders and that it is a moral obligation that it take in every last refugee on the planet. Missing from his understanding is the fact that political communities — whether states or stateless societies — come into existence to provide for the security of their members and that their security requires the careful policing of borders. A mass influx of foreigners can be as dangerous an invasion as a military attack, and in the age of terrorism it tends to be inseparable from military attacks. The moral posturing of Francis and of his bishops on this subject is a disgrace.
All of this is doubly a disgrace because the Catholic Church teaches that prudential questions lie beyond the purview of prelates. Vatican II was quite specific on this subject, instructing the clergy not to meddle in spheres that lay outside the teaching of religious doctrine and morals. This sphere, Vatican II insisted, was reserved for ordinary citizens and for those expert on the questions in dispute. The Church is authorized to lay out the general considerations that statesmen must attend to but not to dictate or even promote policy in spheres where prudence must govern.
Francis’ response to Donald Trump’s decision to cancel Barack Obama’s initiative Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is a case in point. The latter did so in large part because it was his judgment that the President did not have the authority under the Constitution or immigration law to do what he did, and he was surely correct in that judgment. Barack Obama himself acknowledged as much. In effect, as Thomas Farnan has argued cogently in his weekly column on Observer.com, the Pope, followed slavishly by the American bishops, has condemned the President for insisting on the rule of law.
Francis’ response to Trump’s action was, however, especially disgraceful — for he went on to do something that no Pontiff should ever do. He intimated that, in canceling DACA, Trump proved that he was not really pro-life. He pretended to be able to see into the man’s soul.
What makes this worse is that not a single American bishop took the Pope to task for this. But some pro-life American Catholic laymen did — including, according to LifeSiteNews.com, Michael Hichborn, founder and president of the Lepanto Institute. “If Pope Francis is so concerned with the commitment of others to the defense of preborn children, he should consider his own words and actions, as well,” he said. In support of this claim, he pointed out a certain tension between the Pope’s treatment of Trump and Obama:
“One has to ask why Pope Francis, who was silent about President Obama’s full support of the abortion industry, is questioning President Trump’s commitment to the pro-life cause,” Hichborn wondered. “Since ‘the family is the cradle of life and you must defend its unity,’ as Pope Francis says, perhaps he will now clarify that permitting sacrilegious confessions and Communions to divorced and ‘remarried’ Catholics is a direct assault on the unity of the family.”
Hichborn doesn’t stop there. “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 is collaborating with population control enthusiast Jeffrey Sachs. He gutted the Pontifical Academy for Life and actually appointed a pro-abortion theologian to the academy.”
Of course, Hichborn is more outspoken than most. But he is by no means alone. As the article at LifeSiteNews.com makes clear, virtually every pro-life leader in the United States has come to the President’s defense. What is dismaying is the fact that not a single bishop has spoken up. The current crop is as silent about the Pope’s propensity to speak when he should be quiet as their predecessors were about the misconduct of pederast priests a generation ago. This Pope deserves a stern rebuke, and there is no one of courage in the hierarchy.
What makes all of this especially bad is that the misconduct of Pope Francis is scandalous in the old sense of the word. He has subordinated preaching the faith to his own political agenda. Insofar as he causes individuals to identify the Catholic Church as a partisan political actor, he brings the church itself into contempt. Is there no one in the Catholic hierarchy courageous enough to tell him this to his face?