Surely you’ve heard the Good News: We Have a Pope. What do you make of it all? So far I’ve heard many different opinions on the matter. Some are excited, but I would say a large majority of those in my circles are fairly upset.
While many feel positively towards the fact Pope Francis is of Latin American descent, they are disappointed he is still opposed to gay marriage, gay adoption, abortion, and is not totally friendly on contraception. Amongst other things, they were hoping for someone more progressive. A friend of mine said, tongue-in-cheek, to a group of people rabble-rousing about the selection: “yes, it’s amazing they’d choose a Catholic as the Pope.”
Yesterday was the start of CPAC 2013. Every year for the last forty years the Conservative Political Action Conference brings the rising stars and established voices in the conservative movement.
This year it’s an onslaught of all the major characters: Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Allen West, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachmann, Donald Trump, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush and many others. These are, above all, lovers of liberty (caritas de libertati).
I bet most of you are reading that list and are horrified. As it has been noted many times in the last news cycle, this is a specifically far-right-of-center group. And, most importantly, it has specifically avoided an invitation to notable “conservative” Republicans like Chris Christie and John McCain. This does not surprise me. Christie, for example, is unpopular with the base. Though beltway media types hype him as “the one,” I would predict his campaign to be marred by controversy, met with resistance on all sides. If you have been following the conservative movement you should know that the times are changing.
While there are many shades to these speakers coming to CPAC, one thing is consistent: they’re all Christians. Not only this, they hold many of the same Christian values. Namely, they are pro-life, pro-family, pro-Israel, and aren’t afraid to use God-talk to fundamentally support their public values. Beyond this, the “American” Love of Liberty is so deeply bound up with these values that it is hard to keep them separated.
Of course, these terms are loaded. Anyone who studies religious behavior and ideology can tell you it is always more nuanced than the generic conversation would have you believe. But over the next two days we are going to see a very present, very vocal hurrah for the “Gospel of Life”.
What is that?
Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan in his book True Freedom: On Protecting Human Dignity and Religious Liberty outlines two broad cultural impulses occurring in America today: the Gospel of Life and the Culture of Death.
He holds that the Culture of Death stands with three legs: pragmatism, utilitarianism, and consumerism. He says these are fancy vocabulary words for “the passionate drives for having and doing“. He gives the example of a baby being born. What raw pragmatic, consumerist, or utilitarian use does a baby have? Very little (not withstanding what it develops into). He believes the Culture of Death has rejected the most basic law in Christianity: the Law of Gift, which is the Law of Love.
Against the Culture of Death, he suggests being versus having; solidarity against consumerism; and most importantly, the Law of Gift over the Law of Survival (which he says is synonymous with selfishness). This Culture of Death versus the Gospel of Life is a dialectic which was presented by Pope John Paul II and, according to Cardinal Dolan, is foundational in the American public square today.
Now at this point, I’m wondering what you’re thinking. Is what he’s saying bothering you?
Many “progressives” I know are appalled by the rhetoric on the right, especially from the noted pundits above. They find them abrasive and, if I might say it like this, flat-out wrong. To them, it’s obvious gay marriage is right. It’s obvious pro-choice is better than pro-life. As both of these concepts promote equality–in their eyes.
Cardinal Dolan discusses abortion at some length in that book, but even more-so in another booked called A People of Hope. In True Freedom he gives the opinion that under the current laws there is more that threatens an unborn baby than protects it. He gives the information that in the City of New York 40% of all pregnancies end in abortion, and the rate for non-Hispanic blacks is upwards of 60%.
The basic premise in True Freedom is a need for a moral law underlying basic public policy and of course human interaction. In A People of Hope he discusses his position on what’s called “Affirmative Orthodoxy“. He believes that responding positively in relation to the beliefs of the Catholic tradition is more helpful than defending against the negativity.
What does he mean? An example of this is… “why don’t Catholics believe the choice [to abort a baby] should be up to the Mother?” To which an Affirmative Orthodox response would be, “actually, Catholics believe XYZ” on the matter. To reposition and message a response not to appear defensive but actually positive and uplifting.
Now of course, this is a matter of opinion. This is not something that can be said to be objectively positive. But this is precisely what Cardinal Dolan is trying to break into the cultural conversation. A re-framing of the Catholic Mind to know, in fact, what it stands for. To not be afraid to say, against the so-called Culture of Death, that a Catholic does not believe it is morally tenable for 60% of potential births to end in abortion for XYZ reasons.
He believes the moral law is, in fact, objective. This is how we can stay away from what Ayn Rand called the Cult of Moral Greyness. There is a black and white answer to what is good and evil. To Dolan, the answer is clear: the Gospel of Life is greater than the Culture of Death.
Personally, I don’t know what to make of that information. I really don’t know how to evaluate the problem of abortion in the world today. I see a lot of problems arising from overpopulation and global poverty, but simultaneously I agree with Dolan that there are major moral crises at work and it isn’t merely too many people causing the problem. Generally, I try to stay out of it. I have friends and family who have gotten abortions and while I do not judge them, I am still unsure how it makes me feel. I suppose in a way I am indifferent.
What I’m trying to highlight here is the importance of self-understanding. While so many people I know view this right-wing ideology as anti-progressive they surely do not see themselves this way. They view themselves as, well… progressive! What makes you so sure you are right and they are wrong?
If you are committed to real dialogue across ethical boundaries then you really have to be aware of self-understanding. You cannot project an enemy onto the other no matter how far removed they are from your own worldview. Too many people I am friends or colleagues with do this, especially in relation to those who are opposed to gay marriage or opposed to abortion. They are so sure their position will be the victor in history that it seems to them the other side may as well be vanquished as it’s just holding the rest of the world up.
If Pope Francis I’s election is any indication, the global conversation is very different than the limitations of American “conservatism” and “progressivism”. The African and Latin American Church, according to CNN’s Vatican correspondent John L. Allen (and co-author of A People of Hope) describes how the global South is on the Rise. This is not a group nearly as invested in the same tendencies as American progressives as they simply don’t have the same access to the same things. Planned Parenthood? Doesn’t exist. At least not in the same ways it does here.
Needless to say, their positions may be very different than your own. To assume they are uninformed or unenlightened merely because they do not mirror your position is indeed a fatal flaw of any accurate worldview.
Self-understanding is hugely important in interpreting the world at large. Think about it. How do you understand yourself? Surely, positively! Well, maybe not surely, but usually even when I meet someone morose or self-effacing it is in some sort of egotistical way (and don’t get me wrong, I think we are all egotistical). Self-understanding of another requires deep empathy with your own self, as you are the only one you can truly empathize with.
If you are unable to recognize the other is acting with as much surety as you are, then you will be unable to engage them in any way. Affirmative Orthodoxy is actually a very helpful tool for engagement across deep ethical divides. It asks you to define yourself positively rather than defensively. What do you believe? Don’t let me put words into your mouth; don’t let me frame your worldview for you; tell me and I will listen!
This is a big problem I see in the world today. People, including myself, are often unable to listen because we are too busy talking. G.K. Chesterton was once asked what the worst problem in the world was, and he replied, “I am”. Why? Because he wouldn’t shut up. And we all know the G-Code is Silence…
Now I love Chesterton, so I’m quite glad he didn’t shut up and left copious amounts of writing so we can sift through his thoughts, but I see his point very well. Too often we fall into the trap of being so sure we have defined the “other” accurately that we create straw-men to set fire to with the flick of a match. Do you have no empathy? Do you like it when someone creates a caricature of your own worldview? If you don’t, why do you do that in response?
Ask yourself truly, do you define the other fairly? To Judge is to Know… so I ask you to Judge with a measure of Mercy. All in their highest ideals, look above so you can move below.
Instead of criticizing Pope Francis I for not being this or that, why don’t you instead try to understand how he might view himself? Why is he squarely situated in this Gospel of Life against what he believes is the Culture of Death? Are you so sure you understand either of these concepts so that you can say “I am one and not the other”?
The Grey in-between which Ayn Rand wrote against is a space I find myself occupying more often than not. Sadly, this confuses most people I speak to and they make snap judgments about my thinking. Characterizing it as this or that when it is actually this and that! So I can say from my own experience I wish people were more willing to listen, less willing to judge without that measure of mercy, and ready to engage positively like Cardinal Dolan is suggesting.
This is not to say we will all agree, but it is to say we are at least willing to respect each other. I hope you will listen to what Pope Francis has to say without being so sure you already knows what he means. You might end up surprised. Who knows? You might even like him.
I also hope when you hear the speakers at CPAC over the next few days you do the same thing. Don’t be so sure.
Listen. To me, this is foundational in the true Law which Cardinal Dolan and I agree is Love. There is real freedom in listening and real freedom in being quiet. Sometimes it’s best to just sit still and let it be.
Don’t you hope people really listen when you speak? I hope you do the same. But in the end, do as you will.