Pope Francis has caused quite a stir in the mainstream media and in many American Catholic circles, first with the interview he gave after World Youth Day, then with the release of his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, and most recently by being named Time magazine’s Person of the Year. There has been quite a bit of fuss and consternation over whether the new pope means to create rupture between himself and his predecessors, and about how we ought to fit him into our contemporary understanding of what the papacy is.

It is not enough to point out (as many have been inclined to do) the fact that Pope Francis’ statements, whether regarding the pursuit and accumulation of wealth or the status of queer persons within the Church, are deeply consonant with a century’s worth of Catholic social teaching or millennia of doctrine. For American observers, to emphasize that Pope Francis is no different on these issues than Bishop Emeritus of Rome Benedict XVI or Blessed John Paul II does nothing to treat the underlying disease. There is a critical mistake that pervades the American understanding of the scriptural, theological, and philosophical underpinnings of the Catholic worldview that tends to lead us into considerable error as we approach it. 

In most of the early reactions to Pope Francis’ papacy, one finds the severely confused notion that Catholic social teaching is readily reducible to American political categories, American conundrums, American parties, or American positions—that somehow, there is an easy one-to-one mapping between, say, Ronald Reagan and John Paul the Great, or between Pope Francis and Lyndon Johnson.

This is the only way to explain how totally unremarkable statements like Pope Francis’ famous “Who am I to judge?” quip aboard Shepherd One can be viewed as a sea-change in Vatican policy regarding queer persons, when really it is a simple restatement of long-held Catholic doctrines. For better or for worse, Benedict XVI’s image in the minds of the editors of the New York Times and their ilk was that of a stodgy, cantankerous old moralist who girded himself in luxury and issued retrograde, hateful proclamations designed to denigrate the historically oppressed. This, of course, is the same narrative that the New York Times and other venerable institutions apply to their American interlocutors who advocate for certain unpopular positions on social issues.

This is also the only way to explain how totally unremarkable statements like Pope Francis’ famous “condemnation” of “trickle-down” economics in his recent Evangelii Gaudium can be viewed as a sea-change in Vatican policy regarding global capitalism and the poor, when really it is a simple restatement of long-held Catholic teaching as well. For better or for worse, Pope Francis’ image in the eyes of the editors at Fox News and their type is becoming that of a Marxist who favors the worldwide dismantling of free trade and fair competition, so as to impose corrosive totalitarian-collectivist state-run institutions designed to shackle our best and the brightest to the yoke of oppression. This, of course, is the same narrative that Rush Limbaugh and other like-minded commentators apply to their American interlocutors who disagree with them on the role and scope of government, and on the desired degree of market freedom and taxation.

The problem is that these categories are totally inapplicable—if not wholly alien—to the majesty that is the corpus of Catholic social teaching. To impose these categories onto Catholic social thought, as most commentators do, is to shear its various conclusions from what gives them life. They may look pretty, for a time, but like roses in a vase, they quickly become dust.

For Catholic theoretical anthropology springs from a much more intellectually robust and compellingly beautiful account of the human person than those dominating the discourse today, whether those rival accounts stem from postwar libertarian individualism, from John Dewey-inflected early twentieth century progressivism, or from the liberal Enlightenment. It is therefore unsurprising that our society’s political categories—no matter how Christian our land may be or may have been—would find themselves inadequate in their appraisal of Catholic social teaching’s conclusions.

This inadequacy is masked, of course, by a great superficial consonance between various strands of Catholic social teaching and American thought. To illustrate this, let’s consider St. Thomas Aquinas’ account of property. The Common Doctor argues for the prudential necessity of private property, while allowing for the fact that, under the natural law, all goods are in themselves common goods. For St. Thomas, private property is not in itself opposed to the natural law, but neither is it a part of the natural law. As such, the right to private property in his thought is qualified by the conclusion that the truly needy are right to take whatever it is they happen to need from those who have plenty; if we are to speak of theft in this instance, it is more proper to regard the Scrooge as the thief, rather than the Jean Valjean. This is a far cry from the absolutized way that John Locke or the American tradition typically understands the right to private property, and St. Thomas’ understanding is not the one we regularly invoke in our political discourse.

Surely the left-leaning readers have at this point concluded that what St. Thomas has really done is to demand Catholic support for social programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. After all, if the needy truly do have a right to possess that which they need, why not establish governmental programs to combat the avarice of the wicked rich? Yet St. Thomas does no such thing. We cannot immediately understand these strands of thought to imply that large, centralized bureaucracies ought to be created to succor the need of the poor from the excess of the wealthy, backed by the police power of the state; there are plenty of good arguments from the Catholic tradition against such interventions. Catholic thought simply does not sit well within contemporary American archetypes; as such, it is intellectually irresponsible to continue to apply them to the way Catholics think.

How can this confusion exist, given that we have so many Catholic writers and public intellectuals who have lived and worked in this country for decades and then some?

It strikes me that few Catholics today are willing to forcefully stand for Catholic thought on its own terms in this country, instead of allowing it to be filtered through the lens of party allegiance. That is, public figures seem generally unwilling to place their Catholicism first and their party allegiance second. That is how we have become stuck with the perception that the Catholic Church is merely the Republican Party at prayer; that is how we have become trapped in a public discourse in which it is even conceivable that somebody with Nancy Pelosi’s views can possibly be called “Catholic.”[1]

Instead of engaging with Pope Francis or Pope Benedict XVI or any of their predecessors in a way designed to teach and explain where we Catholics come from intellectually, it seems that most commentators overwhelmingly use papal words to self-justify and propagandize in favor of their preferred political party. Among prominent Catholic public intellectuals, I have seen Evangelii Gaudium annotated solely for its commentary on marriage and the rights of the unborn, with no mention of anything that might upset certain political allies on the right. I have seen it used to springboard an apologetic for contemporary Republican Party policies. I have seen it used to assert that Pope Francis simply does not know anything about economics.

It reminds of nothing so much as when another famous Catholic public intellectual suggested taking a red pen to certain sections of Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate, to mark out those sections that harmonize less well with his worldview than might be found proper. I will not equivocate here between Catholic positions on economic matters and the mass-slaughter of the unborn—the dissembling and posturing of Joe Biden during the Vice Presidential debate with Paul Ryan still rankles. Still, the omissions and attitudes of these commentators do make it difficult to sell the notion that Catholics ought to religiously submit their intellect and will to Church teachings in all cases, and not just in those instances in which Church teaching happens to accord with that of one’s favorite politician.

Obviously, this phenomenon is not entirely the fault of the Catholic commentators in question; it is undeniable that the overwhelming majority of the media organizations in our country portray issues and are portrayed themselves solely in terms of political allegiance. The essayist or columnist is never “Catholic” in the eyes of society; he or she is always “conservative” or “liberal.” I do not mean to question the personal devotion or standing in the Church of various Catholic commentators that found the pope’s comments to be unsettling; as far as I know, they are all good, faithful Catholics whose positions are within the boundaries set by Catholic social teaching. The problem that I am identifying is that their primary mode of apologia appears to my untrained eyes to be on behalf of party, rather than on behalf of the Church, which seems to be defended only secondarily.

The tragedy is that only in the fullness of Catholic social teaching can its beauty be seen, and only then might it have a transformational effect on our political discourse. Very few Americans understand that the radical compassion and love for the needy, the weak, and the underprivileged so wonderfully displayed by Papa Bergoglio is intimately bound up with the Catholic positions on marriage, on life issues, and so on. Proper Catholic argumentation on these subjects unfailingly springs from the desire to demonstrate authentic love for the disadvantaged among us, including the folks that are apparently our enemies. I cannot make the same claim regarding the motivations and analytical viewpoints of the political parties in our country.

Some have argued that recent American confusions regarding Catholic ideas are merely a product of Pope Francis speaking conversationally and inexactly. Something, after all, must be motivating Time magazine to allege that the Holy Father, of all people, has rejected Catholic doctrine.

This points to the deepest rot in our political discourse and moral imaginations. It is difficult for Rome to make itself clear to American audiences until we have Americans self-aware and self-critical enough to engage with it on its own terms. As individuals, we Americans are apt to find the locus of moral judgment and rightness solely in ourselves, instead of finding the humility to look outward for other kinds of wisdom. Consequently, whoever speaks wisely is distorted and mangled so as to not upset or challenge the individual—or political party—who might fall under criticism. (Pope Francis, therefore, may have rejected Time magazine’s interpretation of Catholic doctrine under previous popes, but it would be ludicrous to suggest that he has broken with Catholic tradition in any meaningful way.) This moral self-centeredness, this focus on self-justification rather than self-reflection, infects every corner of our moral sensibilities.

The underlying problem for Pope Francis and the Catholic magisterium is that the Catholic Church obviously has much to criticize about all sectors of American life and thought, while Americans are themselves uniquely unsuited to responding well to criticism. It would be downright shocking for any subset of a society as selfish and consumerist and individualistic as ours is to get off scot-free in a properly Christian analysis. Suicides in Shenzhen subsidize our iPods; speculative avarice and predation crash our financial markets and create global economic slowdowns; our single highest domestic cause of death is the state-sanctioned massacre of unborn innocents; all natural social obligations must subjugate themselves to the unrelenting ideology of the Individual; animals live in torment so that I may enjoy pork chops whenever I like; a song condoning rape spends three months at the top of the Billboard charts and nobody bats an eye; our elderly are neglected in “homes” to the point that they beg for assisted suicide; the high liturgy of our civil religion interrupts a spectacular blood-sport with advertisements stoking the fires of consumerist need and a vaguely pornographic halftime show; decadent hedonism is today’s American way and American Dream. The list of indictments stretches for miles. (I would protest our way of life further, but my Netflix queue is long and I have fifteen new Candy Crush levels to play.)

And yet, if one dares to criticize how any American conducts himself, the response is nearly uniformly to deny the claims, to self-justify, and to attack the character of the critic. After all, who are you to judge?

That Pope Francis manages to preach his critiques of the modern Western way of life in a spirit of Christlike joy and compassion is itself a minor miracle. His attitude reflects the ultimate truth that what the Catholic Church is in the business of doing with its social teaching is to proclaim a particularly vivid, compelling, intellectually rigorous, and genuinely beautiful account of what the human person is and what is good for the human person to pursue. We Catholics must approach this account with humility and grace, and discard whatever cultural and intellectual presuppositions do not concord with this beauty and rigor. This holds doubly for American Catholics, raised as we are in a society simultaneously so worthy of condemnation and so deaf to valid criticism.

This is the rule that I try to follow: If I feel that the Holy Father is criticizing something I hold dear, perhaps I should examine exactly why it is that I value that so highly, instead of leaping immediately to a passionate critique of the Holy Father’s words. If, on the contrary, I feel that the Holy Father is endorsing a particular political conviction of mine, I should be immediately skeptical of my comfortable interpretation, and careful that what I want to believe to be true is actually fully justified under Catholic thought.

And when I do find good reason to disagree with what a pope or a cardinal is saying—and I grant that there are plenty of cases where this holds—, I should do so in a tone and attitude of utter respect and admiration for the intellectual work done by the Church and Her bishops.

As Americans, humility, charity, and curiosity do not define our default mode of intellectual engagement. We tend to put ourselves first, and then our political allegiances, and only then, perhaps, whatever outside wisdom to which we might adhere. That, after all, is how we come to see Christ primarily through red-or-blue-tinted glasses. But I cannot see how that way can possibly be properly Christian. As Catholics, we must commit ourselves first to Christ and His Church, clear-eyed and reverently, and trust that they will not lead us astray.

[1] We have a name for those who disagree with the Church’s bishops on fundamental matters of doctrine, and it is not “Catholic.” The party-Church distortion appears once more: “You can affirm man-made climate change or favor an increase in taxes and still vote for Paul Ryan, so of course you can dispute key matters of Catholic doctrine and remain Catholic!” But Catholicism isn’t like that: you simply cannot favor the mass-murder of innocents and continue to use our name as a label for yourself. This is a good resource.