“If you continue talking like this, sooner or later I will begin to pray again and return to the Catholic Church.”
That’s what Raul Castro confessed to having said to Pope Francis during their May 10 private meeting at the Vatican.
The comment underscored a dramatic rapprochement between the two men, which some will point to as evidence that the Argentine pope is politically naive — or worse, that he’s really a communist. But to do so would be to commit as big a mistake as those that see him as a liberal.
In fact, Francis’ politics are more complex than that.
That was clearly evident during an April 30 gathering with young members of an Italian Catholic movement when he encouraged them to be politically active, but without creating a Catholic party. Quoting Paul VI, he said politics was one of the highest forms of charity. And in doing so he defended the art of politics in a largely post-political world where market forces dominate and the very word politics is almost invariably linked to stalemate and inability to deliver, if not with self-interest and corruption.
This was just another example of how Francis has distinguished himself from his immediate predecessors in relation to the world of politics.
First of all, the very idea of a pope encouraging Catholics to be active in politics is new, or at least it’s a return to an era in the Church that was not dominated by Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI. In that period the magisterium’s overriding attitude toward politics was typical of a theology according to which politics had become the most dangerous of human activities, the most distant from the neo-monastic mentality.
The cataloguing of “non-negotiable values” (an expression first coined in a doctrinal note that that Cardinal Ratzinger signed in 2002 as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) contributed to keeping Catholics distant from politics rather than influencing the quality of their political engagement.
Now Francis has challenged this way of thinking, especially in the English-speaking world where the theology of radical orthodoxy, particularly active in academic circles, advocates that Catholics almost retreat from public life. These radical orthodox Catholics see politics as a field of human activity irredeemably contaminated by forces that seek to enslave believers to the power of government. In this mindset, government is seen as an idol, a substitute for religion.
Pope Francis sees the present situation very differently from these prophets of doom. He rejects the anti-political mindset typical of radical orthodoxy (in academic circles) and of many other Catholics (especially among the younger generation) on the basis that we all are “political animals” (to quote Aristotle) that long to live together. This not only reveals his cultural upbringing — much more 20th-century modern than 21st-century post modern — but also of his ecclesiology. He speaks the language of 20th-century Catholic social thought (common good, politics as a service, politics as the specific vocation of some saints) for a 21st-century globalized world.
The pope’s words are difficult for those that embrace a neo-sectarian version of Catholicism made up entirely of intentional communities and of closed-gate elites in a culture that seeks to substantially limit the legitimate power of the state and its government.
They are also unsettling to those European Catholics still attached to the idea of having Catholic politicians in a Catholic party. Pope Francis has disavowed this and, in doing so, he has caused great discomfort among those Italian Catholics, for example, that admired Paul VI for his staunch support of their post-World War II party of Italian Catholics, the Christian Democrats (Democrazia Cristiana).
In his April 30th speech to the young people, Francis praised the great heroes of European Catholic parties between the Second World War and the 1990s, such as Alcide De Gasperi in Italy and Robert Schumann in France. But he also paid tribute to Fr. Bartolomeo Sorge, an Italian Jesuit who questioned the legitimacy of demanding that Catholics vote only for Catholic politicians. For his stance, Italy’s bishops and the Vatican at the time of John Paul II branded Fr. Sorge a persona non grata. But he had clearly seen, long before others, the demise of the corrupt Democrazia Cristiana party that would come in the 1980s. And many Italians were elated that Pope Francis acknowledged him.
But others continue to wrestle with the Francis’ ideas about politics, especially how they are very much focused on the poor, the marginalized, and the existential peripheries of our world.
The Vatican of the pope “from the end of the world” is just a few steps from the cabinet of Italy’s young prime minister, Matteo Renzi, who does not come “from the end of the world” — he is the former mayor of Florence. But Renzi is no less a stranger as Francis to the old elite of Italian politics, especially to the Catholic political elite.
Renzi is a Catholic that takes pride in ignoring not only the savoir faire of Italian politics in dealing with the Vatican and the Italian bishops, but also the typical issues that have always been close to the heart of Italian Catholics. This is not just the idea of the supremacy of secular politics vis-a-vis the Church hierarchy. It is also a matter of political priorities.
Catholic social doctrine (support for the family, welfare and the poor, immigration) is conspicuously absent from his government’s agenda. Even though many in Renzi’s cabinet are Catholic, they keep their Catholicism as private as possible.
Many Italians applaud this.
But the Vatican and a portion of Italian Catholics are clearly unhappy with a leftist Catholic politician that comfortably discards many of the issues typical of the political culture of the left and Italian Catholicism. Left-leaning Italians (Catholic and non-Catholic) quip that their real political leader is Pope Francis. And this is not entirely a joke.
The pope’s political culture is at the heart of his pontificate’s relationship to the globalized world. In this regard, it will be interesting to see the reaction he draws from American political pundits when he visits the United States next September and, even before that, when he releases his encyclical on the environment next month.
We have already seen reactions to the political culture of the Jesuit from Argentina that became pope.
They include three different kinds of opposition to Francis. First, there’s an institutional opposition made up of those who are part of the ecclesiastical status quo and do not like how he is reforming the way the Church works and behaves.
Then there is a theological opposition formed by people that believe the Second Vatican Council was a mistake or, at least, that things went terribly wrong in the post-Vatican II period.
And finally, there is a political opposition, a group critical of Francis for not understanding that Catholicism should be politically conservative.
In the end, Francis’ politics encompass both the expression of his theological culture and his views on the role of the status quo, both in the Church and in our world.