The steady drumbeat of criticisms aimed at Pope Francis from the conservative American commentariat continue to accumulate. Following George Will’s scurrilous column of last week, Rich Lowry of America’s main conservative journal, National Review, similarly weighed in to condemn the pope’s poor grasp of economics, echoing a set of now well-worn talking points that lead one to suspect that a memo has gone out to leading conservatives in order to launch a coordinated attack.

The pope has not departed from longstanding Catholic teaching on the immorality of an economic system grounded in greed and self-interest, a position established  in 1891 with Pope Leo XIII’s first social encyclical, De Rerum Novarum.  This teaching has been echoed and developed by subsequent popes including Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who also extended the analysis to include concern and care for the environment (See Thomas Storck’s What Authority Does Catholic Social Teaching Have?.)

Without departing from this long tradition of Catholic Social teaching, Pope Francis has made economic injustice and concerns with environmental degradation a point of signal emphasis, calling on faithful and non-Catholics alike to connect the tenets of their faith to the decisions they make about consumption, waste, and, ultimately, how those decisions translate into political choices.

Francis’s call has unhinged conservatives who have grown accustomed to assuming that the pope is just a Republican in a white robe. The reaction has most deeply revealed that Catholic and social conservative support was desirable so long as those Catholics believed that the only real relevant political issue that should be considered when voting was whether or not a politician was pro-life. Conservative Catholics needed to be as selective in their Catholicism as liberal Catholics. For years, conservative Catholics had believed that it was liberal Catholics who behaved as if they were consuming their religion in a cafeteria, selecting only the dishes they preferred. It turns out that most of the conservative faithful were gorging at different parts of the smorgasbord.  

If the desperation of the conservative commentariat is any indication, they are deeply afraid that Francis may unsettle the seating plan at the dining hall. At the moment, the mainstream conservative commentariat is trying feverishly to drive a wedge between “conservative” Catholics and their pope, explaining why Catholics don’t need to heed the Pope’s economic and environmental statements, and should only pay attention to his pronouncements on abortion, same-sex marriage, and religious liberty.  

Of course, should they succeed in creating a wedge, at the same time they will not mention that conservative Catholics can continue to expect little to no actual delivery upon Republican promises made in these areas. Republicans will promise to appoint conservative justices (even though we end up with the likes of  Anthony Kennedy and Richard Posner) who we are told will take care of social conservative concerns in exchange for our votes, while promoting an economic system contrary to Catholic Social Teaching, a system that deepens inequality and mercilessly extracts from and degrades the natural world.

How it will be

But we should notice that a small salvo has been launched telling Catholics how it will be, should conservative Catholics fail to accept the mainstream conservative commentariat’s delegitimizing of the pope. Should Catholics ever start to think, act, and vote as Catholics — demanding a fundamental political realignment — expect the “mainstream” to start to murmur and eventually talk a lot like Ann Coulter, who launched a set of revealing anti-Catholic statements on her Twitter account yesterday.

In essence, Coulter stated that Catholics in America became acceptable to real Americans only when they became more American than Catholic, more adherents of liberalism than Catholicism. The Pope, she implied, was simply Catholic, and to follow him would entail that such Catholics could no longer be considered patriotic Americans. “I’m an American, and this is why our founders (not “immigrants”) distrusted Catholics and wouldn’t make them citizens,” was followed by “Catholics were not accepted until they became more AMERICAN Catholic less ROMAN Catholic.”

Given the extraordinary success of the “Americanization” of Catholics — to the point that most American Catholics  have separated into two separate political tribes, each identifying first and primarily with their Party to the point of embracing the libertarian commitments of each, whether sexual or economic  — I don’t expect that it will come to this. But it would be a sign of tremendous health of a renewed Catholicism were the Ann Coulters of the world really begin to have something to worry about.