Pope Francis and God’s Mysterious Ways

Pope Francis and God’s Mysterious Ways

As you may have heard, Pope Francis is in a bit of hot water for, apparently, using a slur for gay men while discussing conditions in Catholic seminaries.  This is a big deal for the mainstream press, mostly because they thought Francis was their guy and that they didn’t have to worry about him being a “bigot” like, you know, all the rest of those Catholics.  And yet…

Francis was quoted by Italian media as using the Italian term “frociaggine”, roughly translating as “faggotness” or “faggotry”, in a closed-door May 20 meeting with Italian bishops.

The Vatican issued an apology, but after that, other Italian reports attributed more gay slurs to the pope, as well as chauvinist language associating women with gossip, in a separate meeting with Roman priests.

Friends of the pontiff and top Vatican watchers insist that what has possibly been the biggest PR disaster of his 11-year papacy should not obscure his record as a reforming, LGBT-friendly pope.

However, some say the 87-year-old’s gaffe fits into a pattern of papal missteps that undermine his authority and raise questions about his convictions and the reform path he has in mind for the Church.

The key to understanding why this is a “PR” disaster is right there in the last paragraph.  The Pope’s “missteps” could “raise questions about his convictions and the reform path he has in mind for the Church.”  We can’t have that, obviously.  The “reform path” is what matters about this papacy.  It’s what separates the Argentine Jesuit from his predecessors, the German Grand Inquisitor and the Polish Communist-hater.  It – along with his love for trees, granola, and Volkswagen microbuses – is what makes Francis so great, so different from all the rest of those hateful “right-wing” mackerel snappers.

To be clear, I have no interest in defending the Pope for his indelicate language.  Been there.  Done that.  One of my greatest beefs with Pope Francis is his inability to say what he really means, to communicate clearly and effectively.  Vatican communications pros have spent virtually the entirety of his papacy cleaning up the messes he’s made by speaking before thinking.  I have always believed – and continue to believe – that his heart is in the right place but that he really, really (really) needs a minder with him at all times to tell him to shut his mouth or, at the very least, to pick his words more carefully.

All of that said, the media’s focus here is both self-serving and distracting.  Indeed, the real “disaster” stemming from something the Pope recently said has been all but buried by this more salacious indelicacy.  The Pope’s language about seminaries and those who attend them is, in the grand scheme of things, entirely inconsequential.  It affects nothing other than some people’s perception of the Pope – a perception that was largely incorrect in the first place.  By contrast, what Francis said to Norah O’Donnell in his “60 Minutes” interview a few weeks prior to the current controversy is both significant and worth revisiting.

Unfortunately, when I write “what Francis said to Norah O’Donnell,” I’m probably not being specific enough.  Pope Francis said a great many things to Norah O’Donnell that are troubling.  And perhaps, one day, someone will address all of them.  For now, though, I want to focus on something the Pope said near the end of the interview about the nature of man.  “People are fundamentally good,” he intoned.  “We are all fundamentally good. Yes, there are some rogues and sinners, but the heart itself is good.”

This isn’t exactly wrong, but it’s close enough to require some clarification.

According to the Church, man is created in the image of God, which means that man is, “fundamentally” good, just as Francis says.  Indeed, I have long noted in these pages that this is precisely what distinguishes Western Civilization from all other civilizations in human history, the belief that all men are created in the image of God, that all men are, therefore, equal and valuable in God’s eyes, and as a result, that all men should be treated equally before the law.

However, Francis goes on to say that “some” people are rogues and sinners, which is mistaken.  ALL people are rogues and sinners.  ALL people are “fallen.”  This is the old story about the man, the woman, the snake, and the apple.  ALL people have upon them the stain of Original Sin.  Even if one only believes in Original Sin as a metaphor, ALL people have free will and ALL people freely choose to forsake the image of God for their own glory.

The problem with what Francis says here is that it discounts both the power of evil and man’s inherent weakness.  He discounts the need for the story of Redemption, the story of Jesus’s life, passion, and death.  He discounts the validity of Christianity altogether.  The Church teaches that Jesus came to save ALL men, not just “some” who are rogues and sinners.  Francis contradicts this openly.

The good news here is that it doesn’t appear that Francis intended to make a theological statement here.  If he did, then he clearly believes himself to be the leader of a superfluous and fraudulent institution.

The bad news is that he nevertheless believes what he said, which means that he was making a different kind of statement, a statement about man’s place in the world (rather than man’s place in Creation), in short, a political statement.  I spent a great deal of time early on in Francis’s papacy arguing that the people who called him a “liberal” or an “anti-conservative” were mistaken, that they were applying political terms to issues and pronouncements that were religious in nature and therefore defied political labels.  It turns out, I was the one who was wrong.  Francis is a political person and his statements almost always reflect that.

Obviously, Pope Francis is not the first person to discount the power of evil or to gloss over man’s fallen nature.  This is, in fact, a key component of Leftism, of the effort that began with the Enlightenment to shift the blame for man’s failures from his inherent weaknesses to the flawed nature of the institutions he had created.  Most notably, Jean-Jacques Rousseau objected to Original Sin, insisting that the very concept was invented to keep man oppressed, silenced and miserable under society’s proverbial thumb.  “Everything is good as it comes from the hands of the creator,” he wrote in the opening pages of Emile, but “everything degenerates in the hands of man.”

Rousseau and his followers saw society’s institutions as the real threat to man’s freedom and happiness.  If man is good by nature, yet he behaves poorly under the direction and guidance of specific institutions, then the institutions must be corrupt.  They are clearly the cause of the aberrant behavior and must, therefore, be reformed – as thoroughly and as frequently as necessary to enable man to live as he should in a collective society.  As the historian Paul Johnson noted in his Intellectuals, to Rousseau, society or “culture” was an “evolving, artificial construct….”  But it nevertheless “dictated man’s behaviour,” meaning that “you could improve, indeed totally transform, his behaviour by changing the culture and the competitive forces, which produced it….”  In short, according to Rousseau, one can change the world by successfully changing its institutions.

This is the foundational concept of Leftism, the foundational principle that necessitates man’s rebellion against imperfect institutions and encourages his quest for temporal perfection, for earthly utopia.

To reiterate, Francis undoubtedly did not mean to make a theological statement here.  He is too focused on temporal matters, if you ask me, but he’s hardly a heretical millenarian.  It is simply the case that he is so thoroughly steeped in these political ideas that he can’t help himself.  A tiger cannot change his stripes, after all, and neither can a Latin American/Peronista Jesuit.  He is who he is – which, frankly, is a good argument for why he should never have been elected to the papacy.

Of course, God moves in mysterious ways, as William Cowper reminds us.  We can only trust that there’s a point to all of this.  In the meantime, trust that man is good, but remember that he is also fallen.

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
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Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.