Time constraints are not allowing me to dedicate as much time to this topic now as I would like, but it bears reminding some circles that casting a critical, even doubtful, eye on some of the occasional marks of our current Pontiff, Pope Francis, is not tantamount to a radical rejection of either his pontificate or the many instances in which he faithfully upholds the Catholic Church’s teachings on, inter alia, the devil, sin, just war, society, and economics. In fact, as Rorate Caeli noted not long ago, Francis and traditional Catholics, i.e., those traditional Catholics who faithfully adhere to Catholic Social Teaching (CST), are substantially united on economic matters. The problem, however, is that some traditionalists, like their (somewhat estranged) neo-Catholic and liberal Catholic brethren, fall into the trap of assuming that Francis is saying something radically new when he condemns usury or reminds world leaders that “the goal of politics and economics is to serve humanity.” Such claims rest on woeful ignorance of CST, particularly its modern formulation which, in large part, began with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum.
One problem which is starting to present itself is that Catholics dedicated to what can generally be called “illiberal Catholicism” seem split over the Pope’s words, but they needn’t — at least not as far as economic matters are concerned. Where there may be more authentic uneasiness is with respect to what Francis may, or may not, have said regarding Communion for married-and-divorced Catholics; the liturgy and those attached to the vetus ordo; ecumenical relations with non-Catholics and non-Christians; and a host of other ecclesial issues. Some traditional Catholics who, rightfully, keep a firm eye on the Church’s pre-Vatican II magisterium, may also question whether or not the Pope goes far enough with some of his socio-economic pronouncements. It is one thing to condemn signifiant swathes of the current global economic ordo as thoroughly unchristian; but would Francis also speak of the social rights of Christ the King and the restoration of Christian civilization? There seems to be something inadequate about railing against pervasive economic abuses without pointing toward the root source of such abuse: the abandonment of Christian political principles which are geared toward the common good. And so when it comes to Catholicism and politics, I don’t see traditional Catholics claiming that his words are wrong, only that they are, thus far, incomplete.
To note that incompleteness is not akin to disloyalty. For reasons which I will not explore here, it has become the common fact of post-Conciliar Catholicism that CST is taught in a rather lopsided manner. It’s not that the pre-Conciliar social magisterium has fluttered away; Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI took an axe to that lie at the outside of his pontificate. Rather, it’s that the Church’s focus for the past 50 years has been centered on economics and poverty — two critically important topics that deserve serious attention from the Church, but perhaps not all of its attention. What seems to be missing from the contemporary Catholic analysis is a robust sense of how liberalism — political, religious, and economic — has eroded the traditional bases of society and plunged much of the world into the darkness of relativism, consumerism, and indifferentism. The pursuit of truth has given way to marveling over facts and “can” almost invariably trumps “ought.”
Today, unfortunately, some Catholics who are favorably disposed toward Pope Francis’s economic teachings appear to endorse an “all or nothing” approach when it comes to his pontificate. That’s a dangerous, and dubious, game to play. Just because a faithful Catholic is uncomfortable with the Pope playing fast-and-loose with liturgical tradition (and rubrics!) when he washes the feet of a woman and a Muslim man on Maundy Thursday doesn’t mean he rejects Francis’s right to call for concrete policies that will benefit the poor. A more troubling variant of the “all or nothing” mindset runs like this: If Pope Francis is correct — and continuous with tradition — on his economic teachings, that must mean he is correct — or at least prudent — with respect to his words of praise concerning, for example, Cardinal Walter Kasper’s disturbing plan to divorce praxis from doctrine with respect to the Eucharist for those who have remarried outside of the Church. Such “thinking” borders on fideism and has no place in an authentically Catholic outlook.