On the Pope and Politics

I recieved an email this week from a man who would like to become Catholic, but finds his politics getting in the way. He identifies as a political conservative. He perceives Pope Francis to be a political liberal. The Pope’s recent words about capitalism and the environment give him pause. They are a stumbling block. What should he do?

The problem is not a new one. Friends of mine who are political liberals responded vitriolically to what they perceived as the conservatism of John Paul II and Pope Benedict.  In fact, Popes throughout the centuries have exerted great political influence (wittingly and unwittingly), and it is not always easy even in hindsight to evaluate that influence. In the case of my correspondent, this has provoked a real crisis of conscience.

Some simplistic responses to this problem are clearly inadquate.  The “easy” way is to dismiss the pope, to write off what he says as “poor prudential judgment,” constantly to qualify him, to talk about what “he really means,” to point out that he’s not speaking ex cathedra, or otherwise mitigate his point of view.  This response fails to take seriously that we owe the Pope a religious submission even when he is not teaching dogma. He is the vicar of Christ, raised up by God to teach the faith and to relate that faith to the the concrete demands of human life.

There is another error that is perhaps more dangerous. We can fully embrace what we think he is saying, or what we’d like him to be saying, by assimilating it completely to our own political ideology. We can enlist the Pope as politcal partisan in the service of our agenda. In some ways this error is worse than the first, since we don’t even allow ourselves to hear what the pope says before accepting or rejecting it. We are so enclosed within our ideological worldview that we have lost the ability even to hear competing voices.

Third error is the most pernicious. We dont’ like what the pope is saying, and so we reject the authority of the Church altogether. The political or ideological agenda is our real authority. We are only interested in the Church to the extent that it furthers that agenda.  Do not think that this danger applies only to “the other guy.” There are ideologues across the political spectrum who would sacrifice their souls for the sake of “the agenda.”

Fortunately, the popes themselves have told us how to address this problem. In the encyclical Solicitudo rei socialis, St. John Paul II explained that Catholic social teaching does not fall along the continuum of existing political discourse.  The Church is not left or right. She is not capitalist or socialist. Nor is she halfway between the two. Rather, social doctrine is in the genre of moral theology.  The Church is in the business of pointing out the moral demands of the just society, not in dictating the political program necessary to get there.

This is something Pope Francis himself has said over and over. On his recent trip to Latin America he remarked,

 It is not so easy to define the content of change – in other words, a social program which can embody this project of fraternity and justice which we are seeking. So don’t expect a recipe from this Pope. Neither the Pope nor the Church have a monopoly on the interpretation of social reality or the proposal of solutions to contemporary issues. I dare say that no recipe exists. History is made by each generation as it follows in the footsteps of those preceding it, as it seeks its own path and respects the values which God has placed in the human heart.

Sometimes, of course, the Pope does speak immediately to  matters of public policy. John Paul II, for instance, was a vocal critic of U.S. War policy in the middle east. But even then, it is still a mistake to assimilate the Pope fully ino one political camp. The Pope has very different reasons for weighing into contemporary debate.  Ultimately, the Popes remind us that we are made in the image of God. We possess a dignity that transcends partisans poltics. Politics may be unavoidable, but the Church calls us to submit our ideologies to that trasncedent dignity.  Following St. Paul, we “take every thought captive in obedience to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5)

It’s very easy to dismiss the Pope when we don’t like what he says. It’s even easier to press him into the service of our personal political program. It’s much harder to lay down our agenda and listen attentively. But in the final analysis, I have to try and listen. “Whoever has ears,” the Lord said, “out to hear.” (Matthew 13:9)

14 thoughts on “On the Pope and Politics

  1. Ron - April 15, 2016

    I worry for you, because it appears that your political philosophy has trumped your religion. You seem to read scripture with a particular set of lenses that are not informed by the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. I worry for our country that we are becoming very nationalistic, reminiscent of Germany in the early 19th century. May God have mercy on us all.

    take care

  2. Ron - March 18, 2016

    R.C. thanks for the reply. I reject your premise. In my opinion, your whole argument, in the end, is basically another justification for a small government that turns a blind eye on our need to take care of the environment, the needy, or regulate the corporate greed that is killing our economy. I am not sure if you have read Evangelii Gaudium or not, but play close attention, especially to the paragraphs leading up to and including paragraphs 52-75. If you have read it ,please re-read it and then get back to me if you still think the same way. I would be interested, in light of the admonitions found in the Gospels, how you come to your conclusions.

    Pax et Bonum,

  3. Adam - December 5, 2015

    You know I actually read justice Kennedy’s decision and honestly it involves back flipping and Hindu metaphysics it is just so out there

  4. Antonio - December 2, 2015

    Hello Dr. Anders,

    The Church is in the business of saving soul. That is the Church’s first and foremost duty in the name of God and Jesus. When the second world war occerred Pope Pius XII stayed within it’s doctrine and dogma for the savlation of souls. Not to protect a politcal agenda.
    Acts 3:6
    But Peter said: Silver and gold I have none; but what I have, I give thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, arise, and walk.

    Social justice is a beautiful thing but Jesus didn’t exactly practiced that here on earth.
    To make a statement that we are going to get rid of hungry worldwide is a grandiose statement. God will also have the Last Word!
    Matthew 26:11
    For the poor you have always with you: but me you have not always.

    We don’t want to suffer and we shouldn’t but suffering is what this world is about. Satan is the prince of this world and therefore has dominion over it. God just has him on check is all. Does Pope Francis have a liberal agenda? I’m not sure, he does not speak clearly and firmly.

  5. Scottchi66@gmail.com - November 28, 2015

    If John 6 is taken literally in relation to the Eucharist then if one does not partake they would not have any life in them. Why doesn’t the catholic church teach that? If it’s all true then there should be no salvation outside of the catholic church

    1. Ron - December 8, 2015

      There is a an ordinary and an extraordinary way to participate in the sacraments. The thief on the cross is a good example of an extraordinary participation in the sacraments. There is a baptism of desire, there is a spiritual communion. God in His great mercy has made it possible for our separated brothers and sisters to participate in the life of the church. If you want the fullness of the faith, I invite you to look into the Catholic faith. Our church was founded by Jesus. The deposit of faith left by Jesus and the Apostles is as pure today as it was then. Like the mustard seed in the parable, it has grown into a great tree that provides a home for the whole world.

  6. Ron McBride - November 2, 2015

    Hi Eric,
    I agree with your comments and I curious as to what exactly your theological differences are. I grew up Protestant and came into the Catholic Church on Easter of 1984. At one point in my early years I was very anti-Catholic until I read Catholic writers, read the Early Fathers and looked into the history. I soon found my prejudices were for the most part, misconceptions about what Catholics really believe. I would be willing to explore those with you

    God Bless

  7. Eric - September 17, 2015

    Dr. Anders–

    I am in the opposite boat. I tend to side with the Vatican politically, but could never join the church due to theological differences.

    If I lived in Europe, I’d likely be a member of the Christian Democrats, the traditionally Catholic party. I tend to believe our priests and pastors should seldom if ever support an established party. It takes a nose for money and a tolerance for the manipulation of the truth to remain in power. Here in the US we get to choose the lesser of two abominations.

    Though I do not believe there is a recipe “to get there” for every time, place, and situation. There are timeless values and strategies from which we must not waver.

    You are correct, as far as I can see. Our religious should ever strive to show us a still more perfect way.

  8. Charles V. DiGiovanna - September 15, 2015

    “The Church is in the business of pointing out the moral demands of the just society, not in dictating the political program necessary to get there.”
    Agreed. Unfortunately, Pope Francis has called upon political entities to legislate morality and that is simply inappropriate. Jesus’ Render unto Caesar etc. clearly distinguishes his command to love one another as one to be fulfilled by each of us, not by governments. Suggesting that government intervention is needed to regulate when, where or how we show our love for one another diminishes from our obligations to seek righteousness in the way He instructed us in the last four of the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount, particularly the fifth as defined in the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy.

    1. Ron McBride - November 2, 2015

      Hi Charles,
      can you tell me why it is inappropriate to exhort our political leaders to do the right thing? Government is ordained by God to the good of the people. Political leaders need bold men of faith to keep pointing out the way of righteousness.


      1. R.C. - March 17, 2016


        In your reply to Charles, and in Charles’ original post, there are some missing distinctions. Without these distinctions being explicitly stated and clarified, it is hard to say whether you and Charles are disagreeing, agreeing without knowing it, or just talking past one another.

        Here’s what I mean: You ask, “…why it is inappropriate to exhort our political leaders to do the right thing?”

        Now, of course it’s not “inappropriate” to do that. It’s appropriate to do that. It’s a moral obligation to do that. And Charles would agree that we **should** exhort our political leaders to do the right thing. (For example: We should exhort our political leaders to outlaw abortion.)

        But, you seem to think that Charles believes we shouldn’t exhort them “to do the right thing.” Why do you think that?

        I can only guess it’s because Charles is against exhorting our political leaders to “legislate morality” in the form of implementing Jesus’ command to “love one another” through the agency of government.

        Here is the distinction which is missing:

        1. Government is that organization in society which, unlike all other clubs and unions and corporations and churches, may exercise *force* to implement its policies.

        2. Therefore, anything the government does is backed by force, to lesser or greater degrees.

        3. But, Catholic moral theology insists that there is a very high bar of justification required, to initiate the use of force against others…even IF it’s in pursuit of a good and just end.

        4. Therefore, the government ought only to pursue good and just ends if, in doing so, it is justified in using force to do so. But if the government acts to pursue good/just ends in areas where the use of force is not justified (or is disproportionate), then that act, by the government, is evil. (It’s not enough to have good intentions; good means of achieving those intentions are also required.)

        5. The old adage that “you can’t legislate morality” is misleading; and frankly, Charles should have avoided referencing it. The reason is that EVERY act of legislation is a declaration that “Opposing This Particular Evil Warrants The Use Of Force.” This is necessarily a judgment fraught with moral implications. Far from saying that “you can’t legislate morality,” the Church holds that every legislative act necessarily implies a moral value system (sometimes a good one, sometimes a bad one). In this sense, you can’t NOT legislate morality, if you legislate at all.

        6. It follows, therefore, that we CAN and MUST “exhort our leaders to do the right thing.” But, “do the right thing” means, “legislate wisely in realms which warrant the use of force…and, avoid legislating AT ALL, in realms which do not warrant the use of force. And in borderline cases, the legislation should be written in a fashion which makes the use-of-force very indirect and very restrained, so that any illicit exercise of force in such cases is minimal.”

        Those are the right principles. How might we apply them?

        Well, Pope Francis’ words frequently get twisted by the manner in which they are reported, and I don’t want to contribute to that. So let’s get away from Francis and pose, instead, an entirely hypothetical situation:

        Let’s say that a future pope were to advocate the following (in some impromptu commentary on a plane-flight, perhaps):

        1. The United States ought to protect every unborn child with the same legal protections afforded to 1-year-old children;

        2. The United States ought to outlaw the manufacture, purchase, or use of barrier contraceptives for all persons;

        3. The United States ought to ensure that all taxpayers in the U.S. tithe to their churches by ensuring that they donate at least 10% of their pre-tax income to one or more churches or church-affiliated nonprofit charitable organizations, and if they don’t, take whatever portion of that 10% that they didn’t donate as tax revenue, to help fund various government entitlement programs for the needy; and,

        4. The United States ought to see to it that all married women in the U.S. are given the benefit of skillful lovemaking by their husbands, by enacting mandatory training and a no-knock, no-warning spot-check inspections regime (!).

        Now, Item 1 deals with justice in opposing the evil of murder. Murder is a forcible evil; and in fact, as regards the individual being murdered, you really can’t get much more forcible than murdering them. Is the use of force justified in such a case? Clearly. Therefore it is appropriate for any human person, let alone any Christian, let alone the pope, to exhort the government to “do the right thing” by outlawing abortion.

        Item 2 deals with grave moral evil that puts many persons’ souls in danger of hell…but, is it forcible? While I absolutely **ought not** use a condom while making love to my wife, is it true that I have threatened physical injury to either her, or myself, in doing so?

        Some will say, “Not *physical* injury. But you have done spiritual harm.” And I agree with that statement, and I even agree that spiritual harm is worse than physical. BUT, I also note that such harms ought to be proven in a court of law, and no terrestrial government court has either authority or competence to judge such spiritual harms: It lies outside both their expertise and their jurisdiction. So, while I should possibly be charged with a crime under *canon* law, I shouldn’t and couldn’t be charged with an assault by the courts of the United States. And it follows that this is a law that the legislative authority of the United States can’t justly enact.

        Item 3 is essentially compelling persons to tithe. Tithing is something they ought to do; but, is it something the government ought to compel?

        Recognize that in the U.S., the government gets its just authority by an act of delegation from its citizens (see the text of Amendments IX and X to the U.S. Constitution, and for interpretative clarity, the relevant texts in the Declaration of Independence). Note also the Preamble to the Constitution: “We the People…do ordain and establish….” Well, if the U.S. government has just authority to compel tithing, and if it got that authority from us, it follows that we must have had that just authority to begin with, so that we could delegate it to them.

        So do we have just authority to walk to our next-door neighbor’s house, point a gun at them, and say, “Pay your tithe to your church, or else?”

        No. It therefore follows that the government ought not enact such a rule, legislatively.

        And Item 4 is even more obvious: Yes, we husbands are morally obligated to become good lovers for our wives, within the realm of our capacity to do so. John Paul II even made some statements about controlling climax, as a part of his Theology of the Body lectures. BUT, absolutely nobody has just authority to use force to compel this kind of thing. So, even apart from the invasion of privacy and all the other considerations, this is a law that the U.S. government should never enact.

        In Conclusion,

        Yes, we ought to exhort the our leaders to do the right thing. But, since “doing the right thing” often involves the government doing NOTHING and leaving certain matters wholly in the realm of individual action, it follows that Charles is right to say that certain kinds of “legislating morality” are, in fact, inappropriate.

        Make sense?

      2. Celeste - April 5, 2016


        Thank you for the use of your time, talent and treasure to compose your comment. Thank you for clearly stating your arguments, and using factual premises to make your conclusions. Your essay has come at a providential time for me. I have been struggling over the past several years, with the conflicting information from our Pope, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishops and Priests (who believe that more power to a government means more peace to the poor) and the freedoms that have been established and protected by the U.S. Constitution.

        One side wants to increase the power of a controlling entity that, by its very nature has no morality, no conscience or sense of justice, and take it from a man who was designed by God to have free will to follow God’s teaching and grow in his love. How does Christ’s teachings, that are embodied in the church, coincide with tyranny. I have been reading the history of the United States, its conception and the founding fathers original writings regarding their arguments for and against the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution for over 10 years. The Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution exactly the way they intended it to work. It is not a “living, breathing document” meant to be contorted for the times. It’s simplicity alone protects our God given rights and responsibilities by limiting the power of the government to control.

        What is in the minds of our shepherds who are charged to protect us? Why would they wish to supplant our ability to learn from our charity and mercy? Neither the receiver or the supplier of the governments “generous bounty” receives the mercy from this stolen bounty. Nor is there any method to hold the government in check from using the stolen bounty for their own personal benefits.

        I trust the Catholic Church. I respect the authority of the Church. I respect the authority of the Pope, whom Christ gave the authority regarding his mercy, forgiveness and blessings. I pray for the ability to discern Christ’s message within the Pope’s message as well as other church authorities. I pray for their ability to properly discern Christ’s word.

        ~The Good Samaritan was not forced by government to bind up the wounds of victim of robber’s.
        ~With great freedom – comes great responsibility. We are to provide through our own devices mercy to others.

        God Bless

  9. Scott Gramman - September 15, 2015

    Please sign me up for new post

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