Not all politics are created equal

Congrats to Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig on her new gig at the vertically integrated new media company the New Republic. Her latest is a complaint that, while conservatives admired Pope St. John Paul II’s strong anti-communism, they don’t like it when Pope Francis says political things:

In any analysis of a public figure, partisan interests will influence one’s opinion, and there isn’t anything particularly productive about pointing out that conservatives tend to forgive in conservative leaders what they don’t in liberals. A more helpful question is this: Why has Pope Francis addressed political issues, such as climate change, inequality, poverty, and overpopulation? Is it evidence of abject partisan interest, or a covert dedication to communism, Marxism, or some other insidious ideology?

Or is it just that we now presume that “politics” belongs outside the Church’s purviewdespite the Church’s historical record of considering and intervening in political affairs? To me, this appears to be the distortion at hand.

This is partly because the notion that “politics” can be neatly separated from daily life is a new one.

I agree with most of this; it’s impossible, and definitely foolhardy, for a pope to be completely nonpolitical. When Pope Francis denounces trickle-down economics it doesn’t bother me (in fact I think he’s basically right).

Though I take Michael’s point that Francis’ description of contraceptives as a kind of “ideological colonization” seems like an oddly political way of putting the issue, it’s also an uncomfortable truth for both left and right that the United States is the world’s foremost exporter of secular liberal values. No doubt, there are some who would see this as an anti-American worldview, but it’s also true, and important. The West’s development plan includes gay rights and abortion, not some 21st century version of the British East India Company. There’s a case this sort of thing is better left unremarked-upon, but that seems untenable for some of the reasons Bruenig describes.

Most individual choices, down to the things we buy, are political today. Whether or not that politicization is good, Bruenig contends it at least means religious leaders have to stop coming up with sophistical reasons for opposing socialism and just support the state redistribution of goods:

A stateless response to poverty has not been part of Christian tradition for some time, and to address poverty without implicating politics at this point in history would be nearly impossible.

Didn’t you know Dorothy Day was a Democrat?

Bruenig concludes:

… To expect Pope Francis to remain apolitical or to avoid politics is, therefore, to expect silence or awkward retreat on issues integral to Christian life, and to impose the modern notion of a “political sphere” upon an institution that has never really bought into such demarcations. Appreciate his conclusions or not, Pope Francis’s willingness to address politics makes his witness all the more authentic, and, yes, traditional.

“Authenticity” as a concept is at least as shaky as that of a “political sphere.” And while I’d hate to get in the way of an opportunity to call out the hypocrisy of American conservatives, Bruenig is being cagey about at least two things. First, the relative importance of things popes say. Fr. Hunwicke wrote on this last week:

Is it OK for us ordinary Cardinals, Bishops, Priests, Deacons, and Laics to say publicly, with regard to a non-Magisterial and non-formal papal statement, “Goodness me, what twaddle Bar Jona/Borgia/Lambertini/Pacelli/Ratzinger/Bergoglio did talk this morning”? If you reply to me “No; because of the deep respect and deference owed to the Vicar of Christ”, then I have to say that, by bringing in his status, you seem to me to be smuggling the Magisterium back into the equation. If you suggest to me that it would be OK to talk thus frankly about the non-Magisterial and non-formal utterances of a previous Pontiff but not about those of this one (like all those bishops and journalists who kept moderately quiet during the last pontificate but do not refrain now from public sneers at Benedict XVI), I would have to ask you why the death or resignation of a Roman Pontiff means that the respect and deference due to a Vicar of Christ is no longer due to him.

Second, Bruenig’s piece is nearly devoid of specific examples of how Pope Francis has involved himself in politics. Not all politics are created equal. Maybe she can explain what purpose it serves to hand the population control crowd a cudgel that says, “Even Pope Francis agrees…”

It doesn’t follow from the rather pedantic observation that almost everything is political that it’s good for Pope Francis to be as political as possible. On a prudential level, he has limited political capital that should be spent wisely. The papacy drew a hard political line against Henry VIII that led to hundreds of years of persecution of English Catholics. It seems absurd to speculate whether Pope Clement VII was being “authentic” or “traditional.”


  1. I recently stumbled on this blog and have been really enjoying it so far, but I think you’re being a bit too nice to Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig.

    Bruenig’s entire schtick is as follows:

    1. Make wild claims with virtually no supporting evidence. Example:

    “A stateless response to poverty has not been part of Christian tradition for some time, and to address poverty without implicating politics at this point in history would be nearly impossible.”

    There is no ‘Christian tradition’ because there are wildly divergent sects of Christianity. The Catholic tradition differs a great deal from Copts or Southern Baptists. If Bruenig is going to say something this ludicrous, she could at least provide supporting evidence, which, in true Bruenig form, she doesn’t bother to do. I also don’t recall Christ advocating a welfare state, so I’m not sure how Bruenig can claim that this is part of any Christian tradition.

    2. Claim that you can only be a Christian if you are some form of socialist. She basically declares that anyone who opposes her political views cannot be a true Christian. This is particularly egregious given that ESB is a borderline Communist. There is an article on her website where she bizarrely declares that all money above the level necessary to live should be taken from people and redistributed. Here is an actual quote: “If the state is here to recognize and protect property rights, then the state must recognize that the excess of the wealthy quite literally is the property of the poor, and act accordingly. Just as the state would work to retrieve a stolen article, it must retrieve the hoarded wealth being stolen from the poor, and deliver it to them.” I’d love for someone to explain how this is any different than the policy of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, or a Christianized version of the Communist Manifesto.

    Given Bruenig’s total intellectual dishonesty and her tendency to basically bully and sneer at anyone who diverges from the ESB Orthodoxy, I don’t know that her articles should really be given this kind of serious intellectual treatment. She put vastly less thought into her article than you did in debating it.


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