The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on March 20, 2013
Catholics have a Pope. Should the rest of us care?

Soon after the white smoke rose from the roof of the Sistine Chapel, a Vatican official announced to the huge crowd gathered outside that “Habemus Papam!”—“We have a Pope!” Then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, came out as well on the famous balcony and spoke to the crowd in fluent Italian (his parents were immigrants to Argentina from Italy). He is now Pope Francis. Catholics have a Pope. Should the rest of us care? I think the answer is yes.

To say that one should care in no way means that one admires the pomp and circumstance of the Conclave, or that one is convinced by the theological rationale on which the institution of the Papacy is based. As for myself, my reaction on both counts is prototypically Lutheran: Despite a certain appeal of an ancient ceremony being performed in the twenty-first century, defiantly in the face of an arrogant secularity (how does one say chutzpah in Latin?), the pomp is essentially off-putting. Then there is the so-called Petrine Commission (Matthew 16), in which Jesus is supposed to have appointed the Apostle Peter as his Vicar on Earth and in succession all subsequent bishops of Rome: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” What I know of New Testament scholarship suggests that Jesus ever having spoken these words is thunderously improbable. (Of course there is a fantasy provoked by the Conclave in the mind of any American citizen at this time of Washington gridlock—Gail Collins, among others, mentioned it in her column in the New York Times: Would it not be great if we could lock up President Obama and the leaders of the two parties, and not let them out without their having produced the fiscal “grand bargain”? No such luck.)

There is the obvious reason to care: the enormous size and global expanse of the Roman Catholic Church. It matters what happens in the headquarters of this, the first multinational corporation (although it is clear that the control of Rome over its global subsidiaries is less than total). It is obviously significant that Francis is the first Latin American Pope and the first Jesuit one. The first fact shows a recognition that the demographic center of Christianity has shifted from Europe and North America to the developing societies of the Global South. Though in this case one may point out that Argentina (along with Chile and Uruguay) is part of the Southern Cone, which is the most European region of Latin America—there were few African slaves in those countries, and the Indians were mostly massacred. I’m less clear about the significance of the Jesuit connection. The Jesuits started out as the intellectual shock troops of the Counter-Reformation, but in recent years the order produced quite a few progressive dissidents. This is why Rome preferred relying on more reliably conservative organizations like Opus Dei. Is this a mark of reconciliation between Rome and the Jesuits, or a ratification of the control by the former over the latter?

Both progressive and conservative commentators thus far agree that Francis is unlikely to effect large changes in the Church. He is seventy-six years old, hardly an age of revolutionary reformers. One may speculate that the cardinals who elected him wanted a steady hand on the steering wheel, no daring experiments, perhaps a tighter grip on the machinery of the Curia (his administrative experience has been limited to Argentina, and it cannot be predicted as of now how he will be able to find his way among the arcane intrigues and conspiracies of the Vatican). Certainly none of the changes desired by progressive Catholics are in the offing. Francis is known as a theological and moral conservative. He also has the reputation of a humble man (constantly mentioned is his use of public transportation), and as someone with a great concern for the poor and marginalized (at one point he ceremonially washed and kissed the feet of HIV-infected individuals). His choice of Papal name is clearly meant to evoke the memory of Francis of Assisi, who embraced lepers and shunned the splendors of Rome.

If one looks at the Roman Catholic Church from the outside, there are many things to admire. This is, I think, the only Christian community which has created a distinctive culture extending across many national borders—in art, music, literature, philosophy. There are other Christian centers that had cultural as well as religious effusions—Constantinople, Moscow, Canterbury, maybe Geneva or the Lutheran centers of learning in Germany—but none to be compared with Rome. In other words, Roman Catholicism is not only a religion but a civilization, one closely related to the history of the West. There is also a distinctive Catholic piety, which has by and large resisted the rejection of the supernatural that has eviscerated much of mainline Protestantism. One does not have to be a Christian believer to understand that the heart of the Gospel (whether true or not) is the belief that God’s coming into the world in Jesus Christ has inaugurated a tectonic shift in the reality of the cosmos. In other words, the heart of the Gospel is not a new moral code, a therapeutic spirituality, or any political agenda. Such secularizing projects have turned up within Catholicism, but they were kept within bounds (not least because Rome would make sure of this). Catholicism retained a robust supernaturalism that resisted the translation of the Gospel into tepid moralism, psychotherapy or politics. Some years ago I had a conversation with a colleague, who could presumably be described as a liberal Catholic. I went through a long list of Catholic beliefs and moral principles, from Papal infallibility to contraception, asking her whether she agreed with them. She kept saying no. I then asked her why she was still a Catholic. She thought for a moment—this was not a pat response—then said, “Because there is still mystery there.” Yes, exactly.

It seems to me that the much-vaunted Catholic social teaching is more ambiguous. There is indeed an impressive list of Papal encyclicals dealing with issues of modern societies—Rerum novarum by Leo XIII (1891), Quadrogesimo anno by Pius XI (1931), Centesimus annus by John Paul II (1991). They contain some useful ideas, such as solidarity and subsidiarity, respectively proposing that society should recognize the interests of all classes, and that government should stay as close as possible to ordinary people’s lives. One becomes a little less enthusiastic about these documents when one recalls that the first two were used to legitimate the “corporate state” of authoritarian Fascism in the 1930s and Christian Democracy in the 1950s. The third encyclical made an important contribution by accepting the “market economy”, but then distinguished it from “capitalism”—“market economy”/good, “capitalism”/not good. This is a spurious distinction, not helpful in thinking about economic policies. But there is one very important fact that is not ambiguous at all: Since the Second Vatican Council the Roman Catholic Church has steadfastly advocated human rights and democracy, providing both with a decidedly theological legitimation. As the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington (not a Catholic) pointed out, this has made the Church an important factor in the “third wave of democracy”, in Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Philippines. I would add to this list of moral achievements the (rather late) opposition to the death penalty—in my view, a crucial test for any civilized society.

When Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI, I was asked what I thought of this. I replied (not really facetiously) that I was pleased: Given his history, Benedict would be busy giving a hard time to progressives within the Church (which was bad news for Catholic progressives, but of no real interests to outsiders), and thus would have little time to do mischief to the larger society (such as supporting populist policies that would inhibit economic growth and be bad for the poor). Benedict’s agenda turned out to be more theological and pastoral (the “new evangelism”), but he did not falsify my political prediction. Pope Francis, by the early accounts, seems less theologically punitive than his predecessor, but is equally conservative on basic issues of faith and morals—such as Papal infallibility, ordination of women, priestly celibacy, homosexuality, even contraception. He has said some negative things about “capitalism”, but has shown no sympathy for so-called Liberation Theology.

I would say that the most important question will be what Pope Francis will say or do about the “preferential option for the poor”. This phrase was first used by Pedro Arupe, the then head of the Society of Jesus, in a 1968 letter to Latin American Jesuits. It was proclaimed in the same year as a fundamental Catholic principle by the conference of Latin American bishops in Medellin, Colombia. Its core meaning is quite simple and hardly controversial for a Christian social ethic: That a central moral test for any society is how it treats its poor and marginal members. The question of course then becomes: just what is good for the poor?  The “preferential option for the poor” became the battle cry of the Catholic Left, in Latin America and beyond. Gustavo Gutierrez —A Theology of Liberation (1971)—placed the concept within a neo-Marxist analysis of modern society: Poverty is the result of capitalism, and the answer is class struggle leading to socialism. This analysis and the ensuing revolutionary agenda became the core message of Liberation Theology. It had wide influence, especially in Latin America. Rome did not like it from the beginning. Rome reaffirmed the basic moral imperative implied by the phrase, but it rejected the method of class struggle and generally the reduction of the Gospel to a political agenda.

There are two ways of understanding the “preferential option for the poor”—one linked to the neo-Marxist analysis, one not so linked. Thus far Rome has followed the latter understanding. I have no doubt how one must come out if the fate of the poor is one’s major concern: There are all kinds of welfare-state measures that are possible to mitigate the effects of poverty, but economic growth is the precondition of any promising policy of moving people out of poverty into a decent level of material life. Equally important: Populist redistribution, let alone socialism, will not lift people out of poverty—indeed, in arresting economic growth, populism and socialism are the preconditions for making poverty permanent. Put simply, the “preferential option for the poor” results in a preference for a capitalist economy focused on growth, since only this type of economy has shown a capacity to lead to dramatic improvements in the condition of the poor. Obviously there are broad areas of disagreement on the relative importance of the state and of market forces in making the transition out of poverty as humane as possible. But the “preferential option for capitalism” must be the basic guide for policy. Rome has spoken quite intelligently on these matters before. However, Rome sometimes changes its mind. The financial crisis in Europe and the US has given Leftist ideas and movements a new appeal. This has been particularly the case in Latin America, where “neo-liberalism”, a synonym for capitalism, is still a dirty word in much political discourse (not least in Argentina).

How, if at all, will Pope Francis deal with this problem? Catholics and non-Catholics have an interest in this issue.

  • Anthony

    Catholics have a Pope, should the rest of us care? In my opinion, yes as tied to two signal reasons: “the enormous size and global expanse of the Roman Catholic Church and Roman Catholicism is not only a religion but a civilization….” Social and political philosophy as one of its tenets aims to harmonize the development of each individual with the maintenance of a social state; Roman Catholicism has operated within that sphere for hundreds of millions so the rest of us global denizens should care.

  • Gary Novak

    Will Francis buy into the spurious distinction between the (good) market economy and (bad) capitalism? Or will he recognize that a true preferential option for the poor comes down to a preferential option for capitalism? As an elderly, theologically conservative pontiff, he is not likely to change much on the doctrinal front, so Berger sees the Franciscan response to the poor as where the action will be. It’s a convincing analysis.

    Let’s hope Francis’s preparation for the job includes more than washing the feet of the sick and taking a bus. He has the courage to kiss lepers; will he have the courage to kiss capitalists?

  • Tom

    If I may (and I say this with some degree of trepidation and ignorance), might the difference between market economy and capitalism (at least for those who make the distinction, of which I’m not one) be that the former is about free exchange of goods and services, while the latter is about the steady agglomeration of larger amounts of money into fewer and fewer hands?

  • Peter

    A great analysis from Mr Berger. Always interesting, he excels this time. The views of thoughtful non-Catholics are of great help to those of us in the faith.

    The distinction between capitalism and the free market is apt, and I hope Mr Berger will not be alone in developing the discussion. It is long overdue.

  • Gary Novak

    Lots of folks like Tom are concerned about what Marx called the concentration and centralization of capital: successful firms getting bigger and taking over the firms that don’t immiserate their proletarians fast enough. The natural outcome of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer is monopoly capitalism and the effective end of democracy. Here’s how Albert Einstein put it in his 1949 essay entitled “Why Socialism?”:

    “Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. [The fat cats bribe the politicians and control the media and education.]”

    Like Marx, Einstein made no distinction between a free market economy and capitalism. It would dig its own grave by creating a mass of impoverished and alienated workers who, brought together in factories, would organize, raise their consciousness, and smash the bosses. The capitalist system would then be replaced by the social ownership and control of the means of production (socialism).

    Here’s Einstein again (sounding a lot like Obama):

    “It is ‘society’ which provides man with food, clothing, a home, the tools of work, language; his life is made possible through the labor and the accomplishments of the many millions past and present who are all hidden behind the small word ‘society.’” (Or, in other words, “You didn’t build that.”) Marx and Einstein would say that the desire to have a free market economy without the evils of capitalism cannot be realized. The bad stuff is caused by the free market system itself. But although he bought the main Marxist storyline, Einstein wrote when Stalin was still in power. So he ended his piece with a warning: “A planned economy as such may be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual.” He recognized that socialist bureaucracy can be worse than capitalism. Leftists, of course, claim (like Herbert Marcuse) that “Soviet Marxism” isn’t real Marxism.

    But it is less frequently pointed out that “crony capitalism” isn’t real capitalism. Fat cat capitalists do, indeed, seek “corporate welfare,” but in so doing they are subverting competitive (real) capitalism. The motto of the Wall Street Journal is “free markets and free people,” and you will not find sharper criticism of crony capitalism than on its editorial pages. But those who believe that “society” produces wealth are perfectly happy, in the name of the social control of the means of production, to dictate bailouts for “systemically important” banks or brokerage firms, to invest public money in solar energy and bullet trains, to punish bondholders to benefit unionized proletarians, etc. And when the government-picked winners turn out to be losers—well, we live in a capitalist system, so it’s the fault of greedy capitalists. I’m not suggesting (nor is Berger) that laissez faire capitalism (turbo-capitalism, if you prefer) will produce the best of all possible worlds. And when a capitalist economy begins to fail the central test of a Christian social ethic—how it treats its poor and marginal members—it is time to legislate and regulate. Berger’s point, however, is that as a matter of empirical fact, capitalism passes that central test far better than socialism, which he describes as a “precondition for making poverty permanent.”

    So, let’s not hunt around for an anti-capitalist free market system or a “market socialism.” Let’s recognize that ideal-typical capitalism beats ideal-typical socialism (and unicorn market socialism) on that criterion readers of this post often mention: Berger’s calculus of pain.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Peter Berger has made an all-important distinction about Capitalism in his other writings: Capitalism is the only economic system that has left the indigenous social culture in place instead of having to eradicate it to accomplish its economic ends. This might be the defining distinction between Capitalism and a market economy that is sought by above commenters.

    In his book Pyramids of Sacrifice (1974) Berger proposed the following two theses:

    Thesis One: “Capitalist ideology, as based on the myth of growth, must be debunked.” By this I believe Berger meant to refer to where capitalism imposes severe human costs, such as when crony capitalism of the U.S. mortgage meltdown wiped out many low and working class families by foreclosures and over-mortgaged properties in order to further government goals for affordable housing. What Berger apparently may have meant by “growth” is where government manufactures economic bubbles that wipe out families and cultures.

    Thesis Two: “Socialist ideology, as based on the myth of revolution, must be debunked.” Berger here is referring to socialist revolutions that were based on terrorism, genocide, and murder. But it can also mean the “soft” socialist revolutions in the U.S. where the costs have greatly exceeded the benefits; to wit the U.S. Mortgage Bubble crafted by politicians in order to cover a massive loss of jobs over a decade. The Mortgage Bubble not only wiped out families it decimated municipal, state and school district budgets, gave false confidence to public pension funds that they could generate unrealistic returns, and inflated health care costs beyond reach of the poor.

    This leads to Berger’s “Postulate of Ignorance” — Most political decisions must be made on the basis of inadequate knowledge. Put differently: most politicians and social engineers don’t know what they are doing.

    For an excellent updated version of Berger’s Ignorance Postulate, I would refer readers to Charles F. Manski’s “Public Policy in an Uncertain World” (2013) where he discusses the “incredible certitude” of politicians and planners that their policies and programs will work as planned (although Manski doesn’t mention or cite Berger).

  • Tom

    @Gary Novak: I should have been clearer on why I do not make the distinction–I am a fan of both, and think that the one cannot be divorced from the other. Going further, I think that most inequalities come from government, well or ill-intentioned, mucking around with the system.
    However, what I am saying is that those who seek to make the distinction have legitimate concerns, as you have said–and that the way to allay their fears is what you have said.

  • Gary Novak

    In “The Capitalist Revolution” (1986), Berger notes that “there is a built-in ‘contradiction’ between the market and bureaucracy as sociopolitical forces, and no socialist society appears capable of resolving this contradiction” (188). And he adds, “Early in this book the decision was made to define capitalism (and, conversely, socialism) in terms of the dominance of market forces rather than of the private ownership of the means of production” (189). But that turns out not to have been a particularly critical decision because: “There can be no effective market economy without private ownership of the means of production” (190).

    Berger is not discovering an elective affinity between free markets and capitalism; he is defining capitalism in terms of free markets. And his criticism of the third encyclical is not based on his supporting both free markets and capitalism while the church only supports the former but on the church’s spurious distinction between the two—a distinction which is “not helpful in thinking about economic policies.”

    So, while I’m glad to hear that Tom is not tempted to embrace political intervention in free markets, I do find it odd that he would he would say that he is a fan of “both” markets and capitalism. And I’m not sure what to make of Lusvardi’s speculation that Berger’s appreciation of capitalism’s leaving indigenous culture in place “might be the defining distinction between Capitalism and a market economy that is sought by above commenters.” This commenter is trying to dissuade other commenters from seeking such a spurious distinction. And why does the Peter of post #4 say that the distinction between capitalism and the free market is apt? It’s not apt; it’s spurious.

    I don’t mean to quibble over terminology. Lusvardi’s understanding of the Mortgage Bubble clearly indicates an immunity to any “soft” socialist modifications of capitalism. Even when he (mistakenly, I think) suggests that in “Pyramids of Sacrifice” (1974) Berger may have meant by “growth” the government manufacture of economic bubbles (instead of real capitalist growth which doesn’t trickle down), Lusvardi is embracing (and giving Berger credit for embracing in 1974) the virtues of capitalism. In “The Capitalist Revolution,” Berger notes that when he wrote “Pyramids of Sacrifice” he “tried very hard to be evenhanded as between capitalist and socialist models of development” (12). But since then, “The experience of East Asia makes it difficult to remain evenhanded as between capitalist and socialist development models” (12). Capitalism wins, and Berger changed. In 1974 he took seriously the hypothesis that real capitalist growth, not just phony crony capitalist growth, might flunk the calculus of pain test. He now regards that hypothesis as falsified.

    Setting aside matters of chronology and terminology, I think Berger and his readers here are pretty much on the same wavelength. No one here is defending “market socialism.” But it’s not clear that Francis is as enlightened as we are! A spurious distinction might lead him to kiss a liberation theologian.

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  • R.C.

    One complaint only, re: scholarship on Matthew: A bit out-of-date.

    I think it’s fair to say that the consensus did on this topic as the consensus usually does on such topics: It finds a new (and excitingly contra-traditional) spin on authorship or reliability; the scholarly world swoons and all other views are briefly scorned for failing to be cutting-edge…and then, after those proposing the hypothesis have published and gotten tenure and things settle down a bit, the consensus begins to look more like a fad and breaks apart in embarrassment.

    Matthew 16 is strongly Semitic in character. It obviously references the same presuppositions about the governance structures of the Davidic dynasty as the passage in Isaiah 22 regarding Eliakim son of Hilkiah…and of course Jesus’ title to that dynasty is a major concern of the author of Matthew. That chapter 16 parallels chapter 18 — a fact some used as an argument against it — is actually an observation which argues equally well for its authenticity. (Otherwise one is arguing…what? That the same author never repeats himself? Never uses similar phrasing twice?)

    And the use of “petros”/”petra” makes sense as an unfortunately clumsy (but grammatically required) Greek translation of the word kepha in Aramaic. In Aramaic, it would make sense for Jesus to say, “You are Rock, and on this rock I will build My Church.” The pun is lost, or at least looks rather less clever, in Greek: “You are Rock, and on this Rockina I will build My Church.” For of course in Greek the word “petra” is feminine, but one isn’t allowed to use a feminine word as a name for a big burly fisherman (if you want said fisherman for a friend).

    At any rate, that’s only one reason to think the saying was originally in Aramaic. Another is the parallelism: Peter calls Jesus “the Christ” and also “son of the Living God.” A title, and a sonship. Jesus’s response is a mirror-image: “You are the Rock, Simon bar-Jonah (Simon, son of Jonah).” This is probably the sly language use of a man who grew up hearing the Psalms, with their constant use of parallelism. Are we detecting here the real “voice” of Jesus the Nazarene, peeking at us through the layers of translation and redaction?

    Now, there are other bits in Matthew which may show the work of a later redactor who was more familiar with Greek than with Hebrew/Aramaic. But in the case of Matthew 16, we would have to suppose…what? A still-later redactor who was more familiar with Hebrew/Aramaic than Greek? Not likely.

    There are many possible explanations for any given textual analysis of an ancient document, of course. But if some contemporary explanation of composition exists which fits the textual evidence perfectly well, and no alternative rumour exists, then why not adopt the contemporary explanation? And here, we have one:

    In the case of Matthew’s gospel, the contemporary explanation was that it was originally composed in Aramaic (“in the tongue of the Jews”) but not widely disseminated, that it was later translated into the Greek form we’re familiar with today.

    Now scholars in our day are comfortable stating that, if this is so, the later translation into Greek probably added verbiage, and perhaps even details, which were not originally included in the lost Aramaic MS. Why? Because of the near word-for-word sharing of some passages between Matthew, Mark, and Luke, of course.

    That there was some form of cross-pollination is agreed on all sides. And in that era, “translators” were not primarily concerned with trying to preserve the “voice of the original author” as authentically as possible. No, they were trying to get the same events adequately described in the target language. (Those bastards! Didn’t they think ahead to the confusion this would produce for 21st century textual scholars?! I kid, I kid.)

    So if the translator (obviously a Christian) was already familiar (as a Christian would be) with the wording of one or more of the other synoptic gospels, or perhaps with the verbal preaching upon which the other synoptics were based, then he’d see no reason to do the work of translating Matthew in a clumsy word-for-word way — Aramaic-to-Greek dictionary in hand, so-to-speak — when he already was familiar with a nicely-worded Greek description of the same event. Once he knew what Matthew was saying, why not render it in Greek in the same way that he was already accustomed to hearing the story conveyed in Greek, whenever he met with other Christians?

    All this is to say that there’s no real reason to regard Matthew 16 as a spurious late addition by some over-zealous apologist for viewing Peter as the Messianic Kingdom’s chief steward. That was a fad, that fad has receded for perfectly good reasons; it may come back again in a few decades after the fashion of “skinny jeans” and broom-skirts, or it may not; but the sounder long-term view is that Matthew 16′s content came from an earlier and Aramaic-speaking “voice” compared to some of the passages that are direct-copied to/from Mark or Luke…and as such it produces an awkward Greek translation which reveals the underlying Semitic voice.

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  • Shootist

    I was raised a Methodist. I went to Catholic high school. I do not practice any religion or mythology. But I’ve always thought of the Catholic Pope, as the World’s Pope.

    But that’s just me.