Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Political Ideology and Religious Doctrine: Pope Francis and His American Critics

Political ideology and religious doctrine are distinct, yet confusion can justifiably exist because ideology can seep into doctrine or be claimed to be such when it is not. This interlarding of political ideology into religious doctrine, or theology, is perhaps best demonstrated in Christian liberation theology, which includes political (e.g., justice) and economic (e.g., equality of income or wealth) prescriptions in the future Kingdom of God manifest on Earth. Generally speaking, political (and economic) ideology can legitimately be viewed as being human, all too human, and thus as fundamentally distinct from religious revelation and even doctrine (though even these may be influenced and even distorted on our end by the taint of human nature). Put another way, the source of revelation and even doctrine comes from “above,” whereas political (and economic) ideology are human artifacts. Therefore to infuse such artifacts into religious doctrine risks polluting it such that the religious or spiritual auspices are impaired. David Hume suggests in his Natural History of Religion that the human mind cannot long hold onto the divine idea manifesting purely as simplicity, so we attach other ideas—anthropomorphic ones—to our conceptions of the divine. Such ideas are of human traits or characteristics, hence “from below.” Sadly, we rarely recognize this human activity; rather, we take God to have such characteristics.[1] The criticism of Pope Francis by “ultraconservative” American Catholics, including some notable clergy, illustrates just how problematic the admixture of political ideology and religious doctrine can be.
“Faced with sustained opposition from Catholic conservatives in the United States who accuse him of driving traditionalists to break with the church, Pope Francis said on [September 9, 2019] that he hopes it doesn’t come to that, but isn’t afraid of it either.”[2] He said he was praying that there would not be any schisms, but he was not afraid. With the priorities of his papacy including “reaching out to the poor, advocating justice for migrants and other marginalized people and protecting the environment from capitalism run amok,” the pope had “alienated some conservatives—especially in the United States—who [were saying that he was] promoting an anti-American, anticapitalist agenda and drifting from the core teachings of the Church.”[3] Interestingly, both the papal priorities and the criticism contain both doctrine and ideology. Regarding the priorities, reaching out to the marginalized resonates with Jesus’ preaching and example, whereas protecting the environment from harmful economic externalities fits squarely with a political ideology. If religious doctrine is indeed distinct from the domain of political ideology, the pope had gone overstepped from his basis in the distinctly religious domain. Yet so too had his critics who criticized not just the pope’s handling of religious doctrine—especially the doctrines on marriage and homosexuality—but also his “anti-American, anticapitalist agenda.” The pope “lamented that politicized ideology had seeped into doctrine and driven some of the critiques in the American church and beyond.”[4] I wonder if the pope included his own doctrine! The plank is always bigger in the other person’s eye than one’s own.
Even so, the pope’s pastoral care of divorced and gay Catholics was part of his effort to emulate Jesus with regard to the marginalized; it was thus doctrinal rather than part of the pro-gay political agenda. In fact, the pope also emulated Jesus in helping enemies—a Commandment rarely seen in operation even in the religion of love founded by Jesus. In the interview on September 9, 2019, the pope “suggested that some of his most ardent critics were working out their own problems by lashing out. ‘We have to be gentle, gentle with the people tempted by these attacks, by these things,’ he said. ‘Because they are going through problems and we should accompany them with gentleness.”[5] This pastoral care extended even to enemies lies at the core of Jesus’ preaching and example—far more important than getting into the Kingdom of God than any immigration position or economic ideology. Francis’s critics in the American clergy could have responded by stepping into the religious domain by offering pastoral care to the pope. Instead, Cardinal Raymond Burke criticized the pope’s “emphasis on inclusiveness” for confusing Catholics on doctrine.[6] Carlo Vigano, a bishop, went so far as to blame Pope Francis for the child sex-abuse scandal because of the pope’s pastoral care of gays, even though the sainted Pope John Paul II ignored the problem and his fellow conservative Pope Benedict actually was part of the scandal.[7]
It is admittedly tempting to anthropomorphise religion by including political ideology; holding onto the idea of God as transcending what we can think of and perceive (and feel) is difficult.[8] It is easy, in other words, to craft the Kingdom of God on Earth as distinctly like they ways of our world, rather than turning those ways upside-down as in caring for a detractor or even enemy (without giving in). Both Pope Francis and his American detractors have treated political ideology and religious doctrine as if they were closely related and in the religious domain where the Church has a nativist legitimacy. I submit, therefore, that both sides would have done better by first willowing down the papal priorities and content of the criticism to religious doctrine. Besides realizing that the papacy sets the Church’s priorities, the critics could have followed their pope by emulating Jesus too.   

[1] Pseudo-Dionysus, or St. Denis, of the 6th century argued that because God transcends the limits of human cognition and perception, characteristics of this world, including human attributes, do not go far enough.
[2] Jason Horowitz, “Pope Francis: ‘I Pray There Are No Schisms,” The New York Times, September 10, 2019.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] As archbishop of Munich, that pope urged in a letter (published by the New York Times) that a pedophile priest be transferred to another parish (where he would work as a youth minister!) because the taint of defrocking that priest would harm the reputation of the universal Church. American conservative Catholic clergy and laity were silent in response. One volunteer at a Catholic church in Illinois told me she thought the newspaper had fabricated the letter.
[8] I suggest in Spiritual Leadership in Business that focusing on religious experience that transcends is something that we can hold onto, although the requisite intensity of concentration delimits the amount of time per session.