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Will Progressives Look a Gift Pope in the Mouth?

By       Message Patrick Walker       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink

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A Charismatic Pope--and Progressive Godsend

Every once in a while, the Catholic Church elects a reforming pope, a charismatic leader who stirs the imagination of Catholics and non-Catholics alike, instilling renewed vitality in the Church after what had seemed long years of off-putting institutional stodginess. Such was Pope John XXIII, initiator of Vatican II, who inspired warm admiration in the likes of Jewish intellectual Hannah Arendt. And such is current Pope Francis I, who was recent favorably cited, in support of his own economic justice views, by progressive Jewish politician Bernie Sanders.

From flickr.com/photos/42438955@N05/14758513027/: Pope Francis--Will progressives look a gift pope in the mouth?
Pope Francis--Will progressives look a gift pope in the mouth?
(Image by KOREA.NET - Official page of the Republic of Korea)
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Now while non-Catholics of many other faiths or none have voiced enthusiasm for Popes John and Francis, it's no accident that two of the best-known enthusiasts were individuals of Jewish heritage deeply concerned with democracy. Nor, indeed, is it merely chance that so many leading progressive activists and writers are of Jewish heritage, whatever their current beliefs or religious practice. One suspects that in embracing progressive political views, they're responding deeply, if perhaps indirectly, to the uncompromising social justice teachings of the Hebrew prophets. And in their enthusiasm for Catholic Popes who most strongly emphasize the social justice teachings of Jesus, they're simply embracing, perhaps unconsciously, what's deepest in their own heritage. For Christians of all stripes are too apt to forget that Jesus, in his uncompromising concern for the weak and poor of this world, for the orphan and widow, was above all being a good Jew, steeped deeply in the Hebrew prophets . And the most universally inspiring popes, unsurprisingly, are those who seem closest to the spirit of Jesus.

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So what does this all have to do with today's progressive politics? Frankly, a lot, for Catholic popes who cleave most closely to the emphases found in Jesus, rather than, say, sexual morality or issues of Catholic doctrine, are a godsend for progressives seeking influential allies. As spiritual leader of hundreds of millions of global Catholics, the pope commands the kind of bully pulpit we'd love to see Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders gain by becoming president. And given the Church's reputation for being stodgy, conservative, and respectable (though Jesus hardly was), popes close to Jesus in teaching lend the voice of an ultra-respectable "white bread" institution to progressive views that are, by the standards of Beltway groupthink and orthodoxy, truly radical. Thus a pope who "gets Jesus right," as Francis clearly does, winds up on the right side of controversial political issues that are at their core moral ones, like economic justice and climate action. No wonder nominally Catholic Republicans like Paul Ryan, who could hide their anti-Christian social views behind a papal emphasis on abortion and sexual morality, must turn embittered critics of their current spiritual leader.

Pope Francis and Naomi Klein

One point just made merits special emphasis. Pope Francis has taken strong, correct moral stances on the world's two most important political issues, economic inequality and climate change. Now, one might be inclined to change the order of priority, since runaway climate change, if aggressive action isn't taken soon, could be an unprecedented catastrophe for humanity, perhaps the equivalent for civilization of "being bombed back into the Stone Age." But economic inequality is already a personal catastrophe for billions of human beings, and, from the climate change standpoint, the unjust, "supersized" influence of extravagantly rich fossil fuel plutocrats over government, especially in the United States, is the foremost obstacle to climate action. So Pope Francis is not only right on the two most important political issues, but he has prioritized the issue--economic inequality--most crucial to staving off climate Armageddon.

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The crucial takeaway, for ardent fans of the climate justice vision in This Changes Everything, is that Pope Francis is putting his global bully pulpit--and the moral authority of the Catholic Church--behind what's essentially the agenda of Naomi Klein. Besides offering another striking instance of the deep accord between reforming Popes and Jewish progressive activists, Pope Francis's public advocacy for economic justice and climate action opens up a unique opportunity for progressives of all stripes. Provided we're smart enough to seize it.

Healing the Tragic Progressive-Catholic Rift

See, the shift in Catholic moral emphasis under Pope Francis--an emphasis now closer to that of Jesus himself--opens a door (indeed, more like a wide, imperial gate) to vastly improved relations between Catholics and political progressives. Now, granted, the official moral teaching of the Church hasn't changed at all-- a crucial fact for non-Catholic progressives to realize in their dealings with progressive Catholics, and one I'll return to. But the change in moral emphasis--from abortion and sexual issues to economic justice and basic human well-being--is of gargantuan importance, especially since it dovetails with a growing progressive shift in the Democratic Party itself. And Democrats, especially progressive ones, could reap immense electoral benefits by focusing on the simultaneous progressive shifts in the Catholic Church and the Democratic Party. This point merits some explanation.

The fact is, at perhaps the ideal moment, the Democratic Party and the Catholic Church are moving in an openly progressive direction. Indeed, so perfect is the timing that the more religiously minded might be inclined to trace in this the hand of divine providence. Be that as it may, the fact is, as Klein convincingly argues in This Changes Everything, that the world desperately needs a progressive takeover of government--especially with regard to economic and climate policy. As long as nearly unprecedented economic inequality affords plutocrats the means to buy media and government, our world will remain on a crash course with unprecedented catastrophe, climate Armageddon its most likely form. Economic inequality provably suppresses democracy, and lack of democracy allows fossil fuel and related plutocratic interests to exercise an effective veto on all climate action.

And tragically, a major factor precipitating this global emergency was that two of our nation's potentially most progressive forces, religion and the Democratic Party, had seemingly renounced their progressive agendas--and stood at daggers drawn. A Democratic Party that had abandoned economics and the New Deal for liberal, identity-focused issues like abortion rights and gay marriage--and a Catholic Church stressing conservative views on those issues as the core of moral teaching--were destined to conflict. With disastrous political consequences, as best embodied by the Constitution-shredding, inequality-fostering war criminals of the Bush administration, whose insane "war on terror" plagues us to this day.

Now, perhaps the biggest untold "back story" of the incalculably destructive Bush reign is how many U.S. Catholics Democrats' hard positions on identity issues, combined with their Church's overemphasis on sexual morality, drove into the unexpectedly sinister arms of "Dubya" Bush. Due to the Church's misplaced emphasis on abortion or gay marriage--one quite foreign to Jesus--along with Democrats' demonization of such Catholics as "woman haters" or "homophobes," Democrats and U.S. Catholics alike tragically forgot how much common ground they shared on issues like social justice or environment. Many Catholics, feeling they'd lost their home among Democrats and were now considered party enemies, were easily led to treat abortion or gay marriage as the sole issue--the deal breaker issue--and pull the lever for Bush. And many of them, learning with horror how little Bush represented their Catholic conscience, came to regret their choice and feel overwhelmingly relieved by the new moral emphasis in the Catholic Church. The question is whether progressive Democrats, themselves burned by their party's dangerous abandonment of the New Deal, will welcome back this sizable voting bloc, guided in conscience by a progressive pope, as important allies.

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As a founding organizer of Pitchforks against Plutocracy, a nascent movement laser-focused on fighting the core global evil of plutocracy, I very much intend to take my own words here to heart. A progressive movement seeking to build a needed big tent against plutocracy would be insane not to see Pope Francis--and his progressive political influence among Catholics--as a godsend. One can only hope the Warren wing of the Democratic Party, largely responsible for the shift from identity to "bread and butter" economic issues, will prove as welcoming to "Pope Francis Catholics."

A Lesson for OpEdNews

And lastly, as there's a vital lesson here for all progressives, I can only hope that lesson isn't lost on my favorite progressive publication, OpEdNews. See, on the world's two most important issues, Pope Francis offers ample proof that Catholics can be great progressives--in fact, that fidelity to Jesus obliges them to be. Sure, nothing has changed in Catholic moral teaching on gay marriage and abortion, nor in most liberals' opposition to Catholics on these issues. Nor is it likely to. But political movements have always found their success in uniting "strange bedfellows," in submerging differences for the sake of a greater fight. And one huge benefit of such strategic alliances is learning that one's erstwhile enemies are not demons or unreasoning cave dwellers, but fellow human beings with comprehensible reasons supporting their views. And part of welcoming them as allies is at least giving them a chance to express those reasons.

A personal friend, a Catholic progressive, has attempted to state the pro-life progressive position here at OpEdNews and has had her articles repeatedly refused, being told they were inappropriate. This is not some conservative who sells women short, bent on confining them to bedrooms and kitchens, but herself a career woman, a retired philosophy professor offering in many cases non-religious arguments for why opposing abortion is a more progressive stance than favoring it. Nor is she a Bush conservative who heartlessly wishes to force on poor women the crushing burden of raising children they can't afford; as a progressive she expresses nothing but contempt for so-called pro-lifers who, as she says, "think life begins at conception and ends at birth." Like Pope Francis himself, she realizes so-called pro-lifers lose all claim to that title by defending the rights of fetuses, whose personhood is disputed, while savagely neglecting the well-being of those already born, regarded as persons by all.

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Patrick Walker is co-founder of Revolt Against Plutocracy (RAP) and the Bernie or Bust movement it spawned. Before that, he cut his activist teeth with the anti-fracking and Occupy Scranton PA movements. No longer with RAP, he actively seeks (more...)

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