I really should get back to real-life work, or at least BMEM, but before I do, I want to talk about one news story I’ve been following quite a bit. It seems that a lot of journalists, particularly at mainstream American papers and magazines, initially described the new pope as progressive or even a liberation theologist before correcting themselves.
I’m not against the correcting where it’s needed, of course, but it puzzles me that so many papers made the mistake in the first place. Emily Chertoff has a good run-down of this issue over at The Atlantic, for those who want to read a little more. She points out that on the culture war issues like abortion and gay marriage, the pope sounds exactly like you’d expect a Catholic priest in his late seventies to sound. And he’s already famous (infamous?) for the way he didn’t take a strong enough stand in favor of the revolution in Argentina. He also, as Chertoff’s piece points out, tried to keep priests under his control from getting too involved with community activism, because of the fear this was too leftist.
So why the rush to call him a progressive pope? As best I can see, it comes down his humble style and his emphasis on helping poor people. He’s probably not a liberation theologian, as a lot of people claimed at first (again Ms. Chertoff does a good job explaining why), but he did live in comparative poverty for a bishop – he rode the subway rather than getting driven around, and he lived in an apartment rather than the original residence, for instance. More than that, he had the audacity to work in some very poor neighborhoods, in a part of the world where people across the political spectrum accept the idea that fighting poverty requires more than just individual virtue.
In America, conservatives resist big government projects like Medicare and food stamps, partly because they don’t like big government (the programs are too expensive, they’re more effective at a local level, it gives too much power to the feds, etc.) but also partly because of how they view poverty. Poor people are poor because they don’t work hard enough, or because they have made bad decisions (had more kids than they could afford, didn’t get a good enough education, use drugs, don’t have the requisite entrepreneurial spirit, etc.). Now, of course some poor people have these vices just like some upper- and middle-class people do. But to American ears, if you suggest that huge groups of poor people are poor, not because they deserve it but because of unjust economic systems, corporations taking advantage of them, and other things? That sounds almost Marxist. Certainly it’s the kind of thing you’d expect to hear from those big-government, blame-someone-else, high-spending liberals. Not from honest, hard-working conservatives. So a pope who thinks the poor may not be poor because of anything they did, but that their poverty requires social reform on a broad level seems progressive, even when he clearly isn’t by local standards. And even when he clearly doesn’t take this to mean we need to go the Marxist or the liberation theology route.
If you ever needed an indictment of American politics on economic justice, I think you have it. Half of America believes poor people are poor because they’ve done something to deserve it – and suggesting that any kind of reform of bad corporate or other societal policy is necessary to fight poverty is enough to qualify you as a progressive. This makes me very sad.