Did The New New Republic Even Fact-Check Its Cover Story On Pope Francis?

J. Arthur Bloom | Opinion Editor

As a “vertically integrated digital media company,” the investment fund known as the New Republic still produces dead-tree editions to keep up appearances. Once the flagship magazine of American liberals — the white ones, anyway — it also must keep up appearances in an ideological sense despite the billionaire CEO Chris Hughes, the spouse of a failed Democratic congressional candidate, taking the company in a more capitalistic direction. For example, the cover story in this month’s issue is a tissue of misrepresentations by a self-styled Christian socialist about conservative and traditional Catholics.

In a long and highly personal essay, staff writer Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig chastises critics of Pope Francis for raising doubts about some of his policy prescriptions and his alleged desire to “bring the Church into the modern age.” She writes:

Pope Francis approaches the past with dialogue, not mere deference, in mind. He knows that the only useful approach to the past is to recognize it as a work in progress. This has the effect of imbuing accumulated tradition with no special authority over current conclusions. … From that alone conservatively disposed Catholics might flinch.

The piece has come under criticism from some Catholic writers who see her as misunderstanding the papacy, which, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI put it, “is bound to the Tradition of faith … it is not unlimited; it is at the service of Sacred Tradition,” rather than a kind of absolute monarchy. The people Bruenig aims her polemic at are the ones who think, when approaching the past with “dialogue, not mere deference, in mind,” one should still keep in mind that it’s louder than we are.

The piece doesn’t get much deeper than quoting a few policy-based objections to statements of Francis’s and implying the ones who said them are vaguely disloyal and full of “fear.” This in itself is a bit misleading; the right-leaning journal Crisis ran a piece just recently counseling conservatives to calm down, so the idea that they’re all of a mind with Sean Hannity on this is arrant nonsense.

“In [Bruenig’s] mind, it’s not possible for conservative and traditional Catholics to have mindful reservations about Francis; they are acting out of emotionally driven animus,” wrote Gabriel Sanchez at the blog Opus Publicum.

“In the worldview of Bruenig, the pope can do anything,” said Dr. Adam DeVille in the Catholic World Report this week, adding that her sense of “papal maximalism … and this cult of personality surrounding the papal office are un-traditional, un-historical, un-theological, un-ecumenical, and unhealthy.”

Both writers take Bruenig to task for describing the pope as “the world’s most renowned Christian theological guide.” It’s a point of view that causes Church history to collapse into absurdity; one could say Saint Paul should have kept his mouth shut about the “workable synthesis” of Mosaic law and the Gospel instead of confronting Saint Peter at Antioch.

Damon Linker argued earlier this week at The Week that “the pope isn’t a radical at all; that if I’m wrong and he actually is a radical, then conservatives are perfectly capable of and justified in criticizing him.”

Indeed, none of this is necessarily to the point if Francis isn’t a “radical pope.” On that, Bruenig tries to have it both ways, noting (truthfully) that he has presided over no substantial changes so far. Yet to argue that nothing has changed, but also say Francis seems to have a taste for it and anyway change is good, is a bit too clever, suggesting something about the priorities of the author.

How does she know the Church is ready for a radical pope? Or that Francis is one? Or that such a pope would be a good thing to have? Graduate school, obviously. Much of the cover story — three separate sections — is devoted to Stoker Bruenig’s intellectual development at Cambridge under the tutelage of Fr. John Hughes, a proponent of a school of thought known as “radical orthodoxy,” a program of using Christian principles to critique modernity in ways that are often hostile to capitalism (a school which, for the record, I happen to have a lot of sympathy for). Fr. Hughes passed away in a tragic car accident last year.

He is referred to as a priest twice, and as Father John twice, which, in a piece about the pope, would give you the impression that he was a Catholic priest, wouldn’t it?

Well, he wasn’t, he was an Anglican priest, and that isn’t mentioned anywhere in their cover story. This should not have gotten past their fact checkers, if Chris Hughes has bothered to keep any on. I was not the only one who read the piece and got the impression Fr. Hughes was Catholic, which shows a note of clarification is needed.

(He sounds like a wonderful teacher, and I’m sure his thoughts on Catholic theology were insightful; I don’t mean to gainsay that at all. But facts are important.)

I pointed this out on Twitter last Monday night, and a week later it still hasn’t been fixed, so obviously Stoker Bruenig and the New Republic’s editorial staff don’t agree. When I first pointed it out, Bruenig began to dissemble, tossing out an ad hominem about being criticized by an “ensemble of white males.” Apparently it is to “be a jerk about a well beloved deceased priest” if you suggest it’s relevant what kind of priest he was. She also said she “presumed people would know Cambridge = CofE.”

For an advocate of the poor, this sure assumes a lot of knowledge about how Cambridge works.

At this point it’s safe to assume that the New Republic doesn’t view the distinction between Anglicanism and Catholicism as significant enough to be worth noting in a cover story about the pope. They both have bishops and stuff, what’s the difference?

The bigger question is whether this elision is related to bigger issues in the piece, some of which have been pointed out by others. I submit that it is. Like the way Bruenig describes tradition, which is far more akin to the “threefold cord” of Anglicanism:

The present and the past must speak as equals, as both are works of human effort. … Francis’s handling of tradition and modernity privileges neither, but rather produces a workable synthesis of their contributions.

If this is true, then, pace Linker, there is indeed cause for concern, because it isn’t really the pope’s job to produce “a workable synthesis” of modernity and tradition. The pope isn’t a glorified Archbishop of Canterbury. **The analogy is even more apt because in Bruenig’s understanding of this modern synthesis, in lieu of deferring to the past or sacred tradition, the Church defers to the secular state. More on that later.

Whether or not Francis is interested in changing the Church’s teaching on things like homosexuality and communion for divorcees is, again, debatable, but there are reasons to believe other clergy are, because they’ve said so. Stoker Bruenig doesn’t even bother to mention them, a fact New York Times columnist Ross Douthat pointed out on Twitter:

Douthat alludes to a number of German ecclesiastics who are prepared to tweak the Church’s teaching in various ways, even threatening to go their own way if they don’t get what they want. The head of the German bishops conference even suggested young people who want “to be clear in their positions” have embarked on “the beginning of terrorism,” using rhetoric that is, frankly, similar to Stoker Bruenig’s.

She even quotes Cardinal Kasper for support of Francis’s alleged radicalism; he says the pontiff “does not represent a liberal position, but a radical position, understood in the original sense of the word as going back to the roots, the radix.”

What Kasper proposes amounts to a break with tradition; if we are leaves or twigs, to cut off our branches to return to the roots entails dismemberment and decomposition. But we’ll get to that later. Suffice it to say that this concept is very enamoring for those looking for a precedent for their radicalism. The popularizer of the #fullcommunism meme likes it too:

The joke’s on them, since white nationalists have already staked a claim on that bit of nomenclatural topography. Radix Journal exists, and they wouldn’t like it.

This is an excellent place to bring up how the liberalizers’ commitment to diversity quickly turns to condescension the moment minorities don’t play the roles that have been appointed for them. Last year Cardinal Kasper caused a minor scandal when he said the views of African prelates on homosexuality were informed by a cultural “taboo,” and that “they should not tell us too much what we have to do.”

You see this attitude in a secular context in the progressive attitude toward blacks who voted overwhelmingly for traditional marriage in Alabama; their votes don’t matter because a wealthy, largely white alternative-sexualities lobby has decided to use federal courts to overrule them. They shouldn’t tell us too much what to do, after all. And they definitely shouldn’t get to decide for themselves.

Acting racist toward more tradition-minded clerics from the Third World is a recurring motif among liberalizers, especially in the Anglican Communion. Archbishop of York John Sentamu has been the recipient of a fair amount, and he’s not even all that much of a traditionalist, he just thinks they should be accommodated. In 1998, Bishop John Spong of Newark, who worked to build an “atheistic” Christianity, famously said that, “Scientific advances have given us a new way of understanding homosexual people. At the Lambeth Conference and in dealing with the Third World this knowledge hasn’t percolated down.”

Most of the people Bruenig criticizes are white. But there’s a certain similarity between these criticisms of African clergy and the suggestion that American conservatives and traditionalists are nothing but fearful and superstitious.

Her comments on liturgical traditionalists are even worse. There is a much-acclaimed shift among the Millennial generation back to more high-church forms of worship, including historic liturgies, and away from the amorphous ones of both our mainline Boomer parents and rock band evangelicals. It seems pretty uncharitable to look at one of these people, casting about for a style of worship that reflects the grandeur of God, and then tell them that that want to recover old forms is to “relate to the past in a wholly modern way” and then compare them to “those who ignored climate change.”

Even if there’s some merit to this line of argument, it applies more to progressive Episcopalians than Latin Mass Catholics. For example, Jonathan Merritt recently wrote about Rachel Held Evans, a young writer whose “thinking has become increasingly progressive — especially on hot button theological issues such as gender and sexuality. This shift culminated in her leaving evangelicalism for Episcopalianism.”

Generally speaking, I think the trend toward high-church worship is a wonderful thing, but it’s important that it express a commitment to catholicity rather than a kind of cultural elitism. It would be a real shame for all this energy to be directed into a body that has badly neglected its responsibilities to the Body of Christ. The Episcopal Church’s heterodoxy on gay issues has put the entire Anglican Communion in a state of flux — maybe Bruenig would call it “dialogue” — with the Lambeth Conference indefinitely postponed. For any but the most devout practitioner of the progressive religion that price is much too high. Evans goes on to offer a self-righteous gloss on the decline of mainline churches everywhere; that the church needs to die to be reborn; “Lately I’ve been wondering if a little death and resurrection is exactly what the American church needs. What if all this talk of waning numbers and shrinking influence means our empire-building days are over and it’s a good thing?”

That seems like wishful thinking wrapped up in a misguided analogy to me; supposing the Church regularly reincarnates itself is incompatible with the idea of an apostolic faith and Christ’s promise to be with us until the end of the age. But almost more striking is the fatalistic kind of progressive amor fati; progressive unto death.

As a former Anglican, it baffles me that this is a road smart people like Cardinal Kasper seem to want to go down. It leads to confusion, isolation, and as some of the more honest progressives admit, death.

The Church is not an empire either, and God-willing, that temptation will be resisted. The Anglican tradition has a long and sordid history of pseudo-Erastianism, which continues today in the Episcopal Church’s advocacy for Obamacare, and Gene Robinson and an Episcopal health ministry official getting cushy fellowships at the Center for American Progress. The WASPs may be gone, but the Episcopal Church’s empire-building days ain’t over. Indeed, you could say the corollary to thinking the Church is an empire is a deference to the state as an agent of liberation, which brings us back to Bruenig, who has written:

“A stateless response to poverty has not been part of Christian tradition for some time, and to address poverty without implicating politics at this point in history would be nearly impossible.”

And this:

“If the state is here to recognize and protect property rights, then the state must recognize that the excess of the wealthy quite literally is the property of the poor, and act accordingly. Just as the state would work to retrieve a stolen article, it must retrieve the hoarded wealth being stolen from the poor, and deliver it to them.”

These are interesting statements. The remarkable thing about Stoker Bruenig’s point of view, in comparison to her mentor’s, is its lack of radicalism or orthodoxy, more akin to a social gospeler than Moses Coady. There’s practically nothing about it that wouldn’t be at home in the Democratic National Committee. There is no sense of scale or subsidiarity in Bruenig’s political thinking, as if the government that can supposedly end poverty isn’t the same one that aspired to make the world safe for democracy or established an unlimited right to abortion. This also gives short shrift to the Church itself as a force of social transformation.

This program has a kulak to go with it; the conservatives and traditionalists she gestures at in the piece while quoting Sean Hannity. In the Episcopal Church, this scapegoating has taken the form of a program of state-sponsored confiscation by lawsuit — right up Stoker Bruenig’s alley — of parish buildings belonging to conservative congregations that voted, sometimes overwhelmingly, to depart from the ever-more-battily-progressive Episcopal Church.

There’s a lesson here, that the left doesn’t extend the same latitude it asks for when out of power. The legal standard privileging congregational self-determination with respect to church buildings was established in the famous King’s Chapel case in 1787, when the first American Anglican bishop Samuel Seabury — consecrated by non-juring Scottish bishops — refused to ordain the new rector of a Boston church, a Harvard man (of course) because of his turn to Unitarian theology. So they went their own way. Today, the Episcopal Church still fights for nearly every church building, but the dissenters are on the right, not the left.

This is an Episcopalian dispute — not that it matters to the New Republic — but the Catholic parallel is a kind of liberal clericalism that has arguably been emboldened under Francis’s papacy, of which Bruenig’s piece is a good representative. Just recently, the CEO of the Toronto-based Salt and Light Media Foundation and Television Network, Rev. Thomas Rosica, threatened to sue a traditionalist Catholic blogger. After becoming something of a cause célèbre in the blogosphere Rosica called it off, evidently unable to “dialogue” his way out of St. Paul’s admonition about suing other Christians in secular courts.

One could say the Church of England was built on an alliance between liberal theology and a secular state, and that’s worked out relatively well for them, to be honest. But it was maintained with substantial violence, and today it is not much healthier than its trans-priest-inclusive American offshoot. That’s why I’m not as enthusiastic as Stoker Bruenig about this:

Consider … [Pope Francis’s] remarks on financial inequality, in which he called for a “legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the state, as well as indispensable cooperation between the private sector and civil society.” Pundits like Fox News host Sean Hannity erupted into paroxysms of anxiety, speculating that the Pope had some newfangled socialist schema in mind. Meanwhile, conservative leaders such as Catholic League President Bill Donohue offered only a lukewarm defense of their pontiff, deflecting outrage by arguing that Francis’s remarks were not really as radical as they seemed.

Pope Francis made the comments in question to the United Nations last May, and the phrase “called for” does a little too much work here; he just said it had a role to play in “equitable development.” But it wasn’t just Hannity and Bill Donohue who were concerned by them. Legendary blogger Fr. John Zuhlsdorf wondered, “When has any ‘State’ done this effectively? And what does ‘legitimate’ mean? According to laws that are passed? And if the laws are bad laws? And who will administrate it?”

It’s a sure bet that someone who doesn’t take these questions seriously is concerned with power, not justice. Pope Francis’s use of the word “legitimate” certainly suggests questions about where authority lies and how it is exercised can’t be passed over. Unless you happen to know a godly king languishing in crownless obscurity whom we ought to restore, these are exigencies we just have to deal with in our nominally republican system, but Stoker Bruenig acts like it’s just a matter of bigger budgets for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

For the record, I’d be more comfortable knowing my money was well spent on a tax for the relief of the poor levied by a Catholic monarch than one passed by Congress in a secular nation-state and enforced by the IRS. Is that so insane? That a king’s sense of social justice might in some instances be better than the choices expressed by a hundred million meaningless votes, mediated through a duopoly, a zillion special interests, and what’s left of a constitutional process? This arrangement makes villains out of Republicans too, with even Reagan and especially Bush the Younger busting budgets and leaving it for the Democrats to clean up, a strategy Irving Kristol endorsed.

It’s not like the conservatives who stick in Bruenig’s craw don’t have a leg to stand on. The social teaching of the Catholic Church presents significant obstacles for a Christian socialist, chiefly its condemnations of socialism. Reconciling those issues seems like it ought to be an important task for someone who describes herself that way, but so far Stoker Bruenig seems more interested in reminding the world that Ayn Rand is in hell than tackling these more interesting things. Indeed, bashing nasty conservatives and harmless libertarians is all she seems interested in doing. Whether you’re Michael Novak or a Tridentine Mass goer, you’re all not only wicked reactionaries, but worst of all, modern ones, just symptoms of a benighted country “full of crypto-fascists,” clearly more loyal to Goldman Sachs and the GOP than the pope.

When the dictatorship of the proletariat is established, if the socialists behave toward their enemies the way self-styled Christian socialists behave toward theirs now that they’ve got a pope they think agrees with them, the rest of us will be in for a rough time.

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