Lowry: The fashionable pope

  • Sunday, September 27, 2015 7:14pm
  • Opinion

Pope Francis has enjoyed a high-spirited welcome in the United States. The infectiously likable pope kissed babies along his parade route in Washington, D.C., and performed a soaringly beautiful mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine there.

He is an endearingly charismatic figure, but judging by his highly anticipated speech before a joint session of Congress, not exactly an orator.

His wording was stilted. The pope talked about entering “into dialogue” — with workers, with the elderly, with young people — and said he wanted “to do so through the historical memory of your people.” The most memorable line of the entire address was the concluding “God bless America!” — an obligatory sentiment that gains much more heft coming from the bishop of Rome. The pope’s speech didn’t fit into any ideological pigeonhole, although his statements of opposition to abortion and gay marriage were so brief and oblique, they were easily missed. The pontiff put much more emphasis on issues that fit his image as a pope whom progressives can do business with.

The Catholic Church’s traditional discomfort with modernity has cachet at this moment in American politics, especially when it is wrapped in the fashionable causes of income inequality and climate change. In this sense, Pope Francis is (inadvertently) a genius marketer by taking crackpot attitudes about economic development and getting them a respectful hearing.

The pope’s anti-capitalist broadsides have helped make him the adorable mascot of the left, which enthusiastically defends infanticide, pitilessly scorns traditional sexual morality and heedlessly tramples on the conscience rights of people with the wrong social views, but holds up the vicar of Christ as confirmation of the economics of Bernie Sanders and the climate alarmism of Al Gore.

Before Congress, Francis often spoke in generalities that are impossible to disagree with. Who doesn’t believe in treating immigrants as people? Who doesn’t want to fight poverty and hunger? Who doesn’t hope to end armed conflict? And so on.

The questions are usually ones of means, rather than ends, and of practicalities. The pope says we should respond to immigrants humanely and justly. OK. The United States welcomes more than a million legal immigrants here annually, and they are treated so humanely and justly that tens of millions more would be happy to come. But the United States doesn’t have an open-ended obligation to import foreigners without reference to the interests of the people already living here.

The pope avoided his more outlandish effusions on the economy. He acknowledged that fighting poverty requires creating wealth, yet he doesn’t really understand what that entails. He endorsed business that “sees the creation of jobs as an essential service to the common good.” But no one starts a business as an act of charity. The point is to make a profit, and jobs — and all sorts of other goods and services — are the happy byproduct.

A charming image of his arrival was U.S. bishops using their iPhones to take pictures when he arrived for a service at St. Matthew’s in Washington. The wonder of the impersonal, market economy is that Steve Jobs presumably never thought his device would be a way for the Catholic hierarchy in America to capture a pope’s historic visit — and he didn’t have to.

The pope naturally made a plea to Congress for our “common home,” the planet. He quoted passages from his green encyclical that are a series of airy abstractions. “We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology,” he said. Whatever that means, it sounds more like the work of coercive power rather than freedom. He gestured toward a vaguely top-down vision of economic development that he presumably believes will readjust the global temperature over time, but it was elliptical to the point of meaninglessness.

The pope is a holy and humble man who has much to teach us, just not about the contemporary causes with which he is most associated.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com

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