Opinion

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

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.