American Chauvinism & Pope Francis

If you’re a hardline fiscal conservative who for some reason doesn’t just want to call Pope Francis a superstitious hack for his commentary on poverty and inequality, what do you do? Increasingly, you call him out for being from Argentina.

Here’s Paul Ryan doing just that:

Ryan said he did not consider Francis a Marxist, as talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh alleged. Ryan said Francis grew up under the Peronist movement in Argentina, where the state took a leading role in the economy.

“The guy is from Argentina, they haven’t had real capitalism in Argentina,” Ryan said. “They have crony capitalism in Argentina. They don’t have a true free enterprise system.”

And not to be outdone, Home Depot founder Ken Langone:

Langone further said that, in the future, he hopes Pope Francis will “celebrate a positive point of view rather than focusing on the negative.” He does worry, though, because of “the vast difference between the Pope’s experience in Argentina and how we are in America. There is no nation on earth that is so forthcoming, so giving.”

To set the record straight, Francis has lived in Argentina, Chile, Ireland, and Germany. He’s also a pretty educated person, so I’m not so suspicious of his ability to adopt a broad frame when reasoning out issues of doctrine.

But I’m surprised to see Paul Ryan has reversed his position on abortion here, adopting the “men should stay out of women’s bodies” approach so commonly associated with the pro-choice movement. How do we know Paul Ryan has done this? Well, it only follows: if you need personal experience with a thing to develop a worthwhile theological point of view on that thing, then he has conceded fully to the objection that men lack the experience necessary to propose informed positions on issues that uniquely concern women, like abortion.

But of course, here we get to the kernel of thing: the defense Paul Ryan and Langone have decided to take up looks like plain old American chauvinism (America is unique on the world stage, American capitalism is above reproach, other countries are sorry imitations of the greatness of the USA) it’s actually a lot more insidious than that. The attempt they’re making is actually just to dislocate the theology from Francis’ ongoing discussion of poverty and inequality, and to frame him as a fumbling political figure instead. But Francis doesn’t need firsthand knowledge of each country’s iteration of capitalism to make the statements he’s made, which are deeply and purely theological. Take it from him:

“It is not the task of the Pope to offer a detailed and complete analysis of contemporary reality, but I do exhort all the communities to an “ever watchful scrutiny of the signs of the times.” This is in fact a grave responsibility, since certain present realities, unless effectively dealt with, are capable of setting off processes of dehumanization which would then be hard to reverse. We need to distinguish clearly what might be a fruit of the kingdom from what runs counter to God’s plan…In this Exhortation I claim only to consider briefly, and from a pastoral perspective, certain factors which can restrain or weaken the impulse of missionary renewal in the Church, either because they threaten the life and dignity of God’s people or because they affect those who are directly involved in the Church’s institutions and in her work of evangelization.”

From pp. 44 of Evangelii Gaudium. In other words, it’s not the Pope’s job to give each country a personalized diagnosis of social and political ills, but rather to alert the global community to impulses at work in the world at large which threaten the mission of the church. In this case, Francis identifies the following impulse as particularly threatening:

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

To sum up his concerns:

1.) People who are interested in making money defend the absolute sanctity of markets and resist on principle government intervention in them, and in distributions of wealth.

2.) Despite having in many places relatively free markets, there are still poor people.

3.) People who defend free market ideologies tend to further the notion that poverty relief is someone else’s job, though there’s never any serious recommendation about whose job, and there’s no accountability for actually doing it. (You’ll recognize this as the ‘voluntary charity should relieve poverty’ approach that Ryan favors, which is amazing in its total disregard for whether or not anyone actually does anything, and contains absolutely no method for assuring that they do.)

4.) This is an issue because it compromises fellowship between people by perpetuating the wedge of inequality, and because it compromises the lives of poor people. The former is a spiritual ill that separates the members of what should be the corporate Body of Christ, the latter is a problem because people cannot be witnessed to when their lives are either ruined or seriously threatened.

This ultimate conclusion is totally theological, but if you don’t like it, don’t worry: you can uproot it from its theological impact by claiming the speaker is really just expressing deep-seated misunderstanding brought on by their specific economic/national background. That way, you can convince yourself and others that these very basic theological claims are in fact highly contextualized in location and do not, therefore, apply to you or your relationship with God.

And this is the Ryan/Langone approach: “none of this applies to us, because it’s basically poor politics, not theology.” Nice move, guys, hope you’re willing to stick with it when it threatens to dissolve all of the theology you do like.