Pope Francis’ Christmas message, clotted with the word fraternity, was such a brew of pernicious banality that it is hard to know where to start. From the perspective of our 24-hour news cycle, a Moloch that feeds on contrived obsolescence, the papal dispatch asks to be addressed before the end of Christmastide. However, what matters is not one passing item in the news but its substratum, something steady and abiding. In this case, that bedrock something is hostile to the very civilization—however flawed—which has sustained the Church that gave it life and breath.
This pontificate hungers for a kind of matricide. So, permit me, please, to work toward Francis’ baleful Christmas message by degrees.
Step back from the mess of it and begin, instead, with Daniel J. Mahoney’s The Idol of Our Age . The book’s subtitle How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity applies in spades to Francis and his doctrinaire maunderings. Mahoney, a political philosopher, places discussion of “the perplexity that is Francis” in a larger historical context: that of the modern, “progressive” moral order derived from the convolutions and fallacies of what is termed “social justice.”
Writing as a Catholic layman, he summarizes his approach to Francis in the Introduction:
For the first time in the history of the Church, we have a pope who is half-humanitarian and thoroughly blind to the multiple ways in which humanitarian secular religion subverts authentic Christianity. With winks and nods, he challenges the age-old Catholic teaching that there are intrinsic evils that cannot be countenanced by a faithful Christian or any person of good will. In a thousand ways, he sows confusion in the Church and the world. His views on politics are summary, to say the least, and partake of . . . inordinate egalitarianism. Pope Francis has displayed indulgence toward left-wing tyrannies that are viciously anti-Catholic to boot. His views on Islam are equally summary and partake of an unthinking political correctness (the Koran, he insists against all evidence, always demands non-violence). He has spoken respectfully about Communism, the murderous scourge of the twentieth century.
The Pacifist Illusion
Mahoney wastes no sympathy on Francis’ open flirtation with pacifism. While Christianity is incompatible with terrorism and wars of aggression, charity requires legitimate authority to shield those in its care from tyranny and aggression. He quotes Roger Scruton: “. . . the right of defense stems from your obligation to others.”
Mahoney echoes Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man in Immoral Society (1932). Niebuhr’s tragic view of history and human nature contrasts with Francis’ failure—or refusal—to face the world’s complexities by ducking behind a sentimental utopianism that paralyzes. As Niebuhr understood, morality does not imply passivity in the face of evil. Mahoney draws on that insight to remind us that few Christians know how to think politically. Jorge Bergoglio is not among those few.
The Sermon on the Mount is not a call for societal suicide or even a guide to public policy. As scholars have noted, Christ’s “effusive” praise for the Roman centurion on the road to Capernaum (Matthew 8:5-13) is hardly compatible with pacifism. Yet in a recent book of interviews with a French social scientist, Pope Francis declares that “no war is just” and that one “always wins with peace.” He has obviously not considered “the peace of the grave” . . . . By seemingly siding with peace at any price, he prevents statesmen, Christian statesmen, from carrying out their responsibilities to justice and the common good.
Francis does not consider the potential existence of that moral monstrosity: an unjust peace. His thinking on such matters avoids engagement with the varied motives that animate human ambitions—from blind hatred and religious fanaticism to lust for power:
One expects more expertise in the soul from the Holy Roman Pontiff, and not the crude and reductive economism he regularly displays.
The Mythology of Fraternity
Francis blesses the city of Rome, and all the wide world, with a wish for fraternity. Weightless, the word replays as if promoting a brand name. Shelves are stocked with the product line: “bonds of fraternity,” ” relations of fraternity,” ” wishes for fraternity,” “the foundation and strength of fraternity.” Cans are labelled: “Fraternity among individuals of every nation and culture. Fraternity among people with different ideas . . . . Fraternity among persons of different religions.”
Jesus of Nazareth said nothing about fraternity. Rather, he told us to love our enemies. That is not the simple, smiling precept it is too often taken to be. It is more clear-eyed than it sounds to us. We moderns are two thousand years past the precariousness of Jewish listeners chafing under Roman domination.
Implicit in Jesus’ injunction is recognition that enemies are real. They exist. Beyond the bounds of pity and remote from feelings of kinship, enemies marshal themselves against us and seek our ruin.
To love them is first to know them. And the knowing does not absolve them from their intentions nor exempt them from the consequences of their acts. Neither does it disburden us from protecting those in our care. In this context, to love is to wish ultimate good, not damnation, to the enemy. It is a love that has nothing sentimental or emotionally tender about it.
The Book of Genesis presents us with an elemental, cautionary story about man’s aptitude for brotherhood. Untethered from a biblical sensibility, Francis forgets that history began east of Eden, in that place where Cain slew his brother Abel. Cain’s act of fraternal enmity insures that, pace Baudelaire, there is no such thing as the race of Abel. Righteous Abel died childless. It is the race of Cain that fills the world. From within the dogma of Original Sin emerges realization that we are Cain’s progeny, not Abel’s.
No reference to fraternity appears in the gospels. It was the Enlightenment that bequeathed us the word. It is from Robespierre, not Jesus Christ, that the word fraternity acquired its laurels. In circulation during the French Revolution, the tripartite motto—fraternité, égalité, liberté—gained public currency from Robespierre’s 1790 speech celebrating the organization of the National Guard. Every tricoteuse in Paris, knitting beside the guillotine, could mutter fraternité. It is a bloodstained locution. Unmindful of its historic resonance, Francis seizes the word, drenches it in treacle, and intones:
Our differences are not a detriment or a danger; they are a source of richness. As when an artist is about to make a mosaic, it is better to have tiles of many colors available, rather than just a few! . . . As brothers and sisters, we are all different from each other. We not always agree, but there is an unbreakable bond uniting us, and the love of our parents helps us to love one another.
The same is true for the larger human family, but here, God is our “parent,” the foundation and strength of our fraternity.
Francis shrinks the complex realities of cultural difference—of distinct patrimonies, of disparate aims and interests—to the accidents of skin color. That “tiles of many colors” falsifies the realities of the lived life in the trenches of geography and time. Fidelity to truth—truth on the ground where we live—demands we ditch mawkish references to the “human family.” There is no such entity. We are all one species, but we are a family only in the taxonomic sense (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, et alia). To pretend otherwise is to denature the concept of family, dissipating the word, bloating it into a mystical fog drained of humane application.
To be continued.