Secular Right | Reality & Reason

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Pope Francis against the Individual

On stage, Pope Francis, like Juan Perón, his predecessor in so many respects, can be a vivid speaker. The same cannot be said of his prose, where his arguments are all too often swamped by jargon, citation and the failed, muddy language of someone who cannot, I am afraid, quite keep up.

In the course of a new screed the Pope turns his attention (as so often) to neo-liberalism, that rarely seen, frequently imagined bogeyman that seems to spend so much time rattling around the papal skull:

A society in which the true fraternity dissolves is not capable of having a future; a society in which only “giving in order to have” or the “giving out of duty” exist, is not capable of progressing. That is why neither the liberal-individualist vision of the world, in which everything (or almost) is an exchange, nor the state-centric vision of society, in which everything (or almost) is a duty, are safe guides for overcoming inequality, inequity and exclusion that now overwhelm our societies. It is a search for a way out of the suffocating alternative between the neoliberal thesis and that neo-state-centric thesis.

Leaving aside the fact that Francis’ description of the ‘liberal-individualist vision’ is little more than stale demagogic caricature—something of a specialty of this pope–his call for a ‘third way’ between free market systems and socialism shouldn’t be missed. In reality, that’s we already have across the West, but what Francis wants is something akin to the corporatism (there are unkinder words) that did so much damage to his native Argentina.

And as always with Francis, his perspective is saturated with conspiracism, often vintage conspiracism:

Almost one hundred years ago, Pius XI [warned of] a global economic dictatorship that he called the “international imperialism” of money.


And then Francis turns his attention to a fresh enemy—demagogues can never have enough enemies—in this case the “invasion…at high levels of culture and education in both universities and in schools…of libertarian individualism”, an invasion, it must be said, is not immediately apparent to me.  Looking at today’s schools, and even more so the universities, very little libertarian individualism seems to be on display. On the contrary, we see the collectivism of the left, being enforced with ever increasing degrees of rigor, something that this Pope whether by ignorance, malice or willful ideological blindness or a blend of all three has chosen to overlook.

The Pope continues:

If individualism affirms that it is only the individual who gives value to things and interpersonal relationships, and so it is only the individual who decides what is good and what is bad, then libertarianism, today in fashion, preaches that to establish freedom and individual responsibility, it is necessary to resort to the idea of “self-causation”.

But individualism does not affirm (or does not have to affirm) that it is only the individual who gives value to things…

Over at Reason (of course!), Stephanie Slade writes:

As with [the Pope’s] comments about capitalism, then, the problem is not so much that he’s speaking to issues that go beyond the scope of his office; the problem is his speaking to matters on which he is ill-informed. In this case, his statements betray a shallowness in his understanding of the philosophy he’s impugning. If he took the time to really engage with our ideas, he might be surprised by what he learned.

He might, for instance, be taken aback to discover that many libertarians hold beliefs that transcend an Ayn Randian glorification of selfishness (and that Ayn Rand rejected us, too, by the way)…. Or that lots of us are deeply concerned with the tangible outcomes that policies have on vulnerable communities, and that libertarians’ support for capitalism is very often rooted in its ability to make the world a better place. Or that some of us are even—hold on to your zucchetto—followers of Christ.

Most of all, he would likely be startled to find that, far from thinking “only the individual decides what is good and what is evil,” few libertarians are moral relativists. (Except the Objectivists, of course. Or am I getting that wrong?) Speaking as a devotee of St. John Paul II, one of the great articulators of the importance of accepting Truth as such, this one is actually personal.

It’s hard not to wonder whether Pope Francis knows any libertarians. In the event he’s interested in discussing the ideas of free minds and free markets with someone who ascribes to them, I’d be happy to make myself available.

Stephanie should not hold her breath. Locked into his own convictions, and, like many demagogues, both bully and intellectual coward, Francis has shown himself prepared to talk things over with those whose disagreement—a tame atheist or two—runs on predictable lines unlikely to dent his faith, but to be prepared to debate people who offer a serious challenge to his political prescriptions, well…

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Miscellany, December 15

  • Someone has called us the “world’s most boring blog“. I think not everyone must agree, because in the three and a half weeks since we launched we’ve had more than 100,000 page views and, remarkably, 2,300 reader comments.
  • Confirming the descent of the whole topic into absurdity, Fred Phelps’s Westboro Baptist Church of funeral-picketing infamy has jumped into the controversy over the Christmas display at the Washington State Capitol in Olympia by demanding that it be allowed to put up a sign saying “Santa Claus will take you to hell”.
  • Another occasion for mirth: in a full-page Times ad promoting the anti-anti-Prop 8 cause, the Becket Fund announces that the undersigned “commit ourselves to opposing and publicly shaming anyone who resorts to the rhetoric of anti-religious bigotry”. So who’s prominently featured among the signers? Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, famous for such outbursts as “Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity, in general, and Catholicism, in particular. It’s not a secret, okay?” along with other noted voices of moderation like Chuck Colson and Alveda King. [P.S.: Thanks to Ken in comments for pointing to this post exposing the dodginess of the actual content of the Becket statement.]
  • Yes, the phrase was floating around long before we appropriated it for a blog title. Here’s Robert Tracinski in 2006 with a column entitled “The Secular Right”, which begins:

    We all know the basic alternatives that form the familiar “spectrum” of American politics and culture.

    If a young person is turned off by religion or attracted by the achievements of science, and he wants to embrace a secular outlook, he is told–by both sides of the debate — that his place is with the collectivists and social subjectivists of the left. On the other hand, if he admires the free market and wants America to have a bold, independent national defense, then he is told — again, by both sides — that his natural home is with the religious right.

    But what if all of this is terribly wrong?…

    Tracinski goes on to engage with Heather’s writing, mostly favorably, but argues against her embrace of “skepticism” as a basic posture.

  • I think Ken Silber is right to express frustration with the nowadays standard bit of traditionalist Unified Kvetch Theory that makes much of the “accusation that the left is all about ‘the self,’ as if collectivism and egalitarianism were not leftist tendencies.”

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“Crunchy conservative” Rod Dreher’s new USA Today op-ed is entitled “GOP’s path to victory still goes through God”, and at least he doesn’t shy away from telling us where he stands:

Today, the greatest threats to conservative interests come not from the Soviet Union or high taxes, but from too much individual freedom. … All political problems, traditional conservatism teaches, are ultimately religious problems because they result from disordered souls.

Less individual freedom. Religion inserted into the management of “all” political problems since they all, without exception, “result from disordered souls”. What an appealing future for conservatism. Do you think Jeffrey Hart might have had a point when he described such a tendency as “toxic to moderate, independent, suburban, young and, more inclusively, educated voters”?

P.S. Some other reactions to Dreher’s column: James Joyner, Dennis Sanders, Doug Mataconis, Andrew Stuttaford.


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