Home Culture Culture News

Why Are So Many Pundits Trashing the Pope?

The pontiff crosses a Western taboo.

The pontiff crosses a Western taboo.

When Pope Francis recently wrote an encyclical letter condemning the polluting impact of global capitalism, conservative maven Michelle Malkin was offended. “Holy Hypocrisy!” she declared:

“While the pontiff sanctimoniously attacks ‘those who are obsessed with maximizing profits,’ Carrier Corporation — a $13 billion for-profit company with 43,000 employees worldwide (now a unit of U.S.-based United Technologies Corp.) — ensures that the air in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel stays clean and cool.”

Related: The 13 Most Radical Lines From the Pope’s Climate Encyclical

I’m normally not a big fan of the Catholic Church, or popes in general. But if anyone should be allowed to adopt a “sanctimonious” tone, it’s probably a pope, right? Isn’t an air of moral superiority part of the job description?

Malkin might have been joking, but she doesn’t usually go for Art Buchwald-style funny in her prose. Moreover, it came in the middle of a passage in which she unironically called the pope a hypocrite for criticizing global capitalism and using air conditioning at the same time.

This is the same bizarre argument that right-wing columnists pulled out during Occupy Wall Street, when, for instance, Charles Krauthammer called protesters hypocrites for complaining about corporate capitalism even as they drank Starbucks, wore Levis and used iPhones.

At first glance, the Francis encyclical seems like Typical Pope Stuff, full of organized religion’s usual sour grapes over various new altars humanity has chosen to worship before – in particular, technology and profits. Francis repeatedly argues that the sweeping changes of humanity’s recent past (which of course include a dramatic reduction in the influence of religion) haven’t been all they’re cracked up to be.

“The growth of the past two centuries,” he writes, “has not always led…to an improvement in the quality of life.”

The pope also manages to bootstrap a collection of old Catholic grievances into the hipper, more millennial-friendly conservationist argument. He insists that “the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion,” and somewhat implausibly complains that consumerism is a bigger threat to our supply of natural resources than overpopulation.

The passage on overpopulation is particularly odd. The pope seems to argue that instead of trying to offer “reproductive health” services to poor nations, we should just throw away less food. Francis in other words wants us to be better stewards of the environment, but only if we can do so without using condoms.

So there’s a lot of the familiar churchy terror of progress in here. But some of the Francis diatribe is more urgent and political. In parts it reads like a Bernie Sanders stump speech, denouncing wastefulness and greed. One passage is striking:

“The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings. Finance overwhelms the real economy….Some circles maintain…that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth….For them, maximizing profits is enough. Yet by itself, the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion.”

The relentless quest for profits, the pope writes, has left the planet mired in problems: escalating levels of crime and violence, huge populations of migrants without rights, hunger, degradation, the destruction of the environment. On that last note, he levels a blunt insult at the cosmetic end-result of capitalist achievement: “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”

Language like this inspired caterwauls of wounded anger from establishment pundits all over America, where the nation’s opinion priests seemed determined to shoo the ignorant pope away from issues above his pay grade.

Right-wing goofballs like Malkin and Cal Thomas ripped the pope for being the dupe of scientists pushing a climate change conspiracy theory, with Thomas accusing the pope of joining the “disciples of the environmentalist cult.” Ross Douthat quickly denounced Francis as a “catastrophist” who thinks humanity’s recent technological achievements are a “500-year mistake.”

People from all corners piled on. A columnist for the Missoulian conjured a memorable image in his piece, “Pope Francis Goes Off the Rails.” A writer for The Federalist named Denise McAllister even argued with a straight face that the Jesuit pope – a man who dedicated his life to the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi – somehow misunderstood the Gospels’ instructions on poverty. The West Virginia Coal Association complained that Francis failed to appreciate the wonders of fossil fuels. And the National Post even went so far as to say that the encyclical read “like the Unabomber manifesto.”

What was so weird about a lot of these articles was their strident, accusatory tone. The pope is a hypocrite! A cultist! An apostate! A substandard economist! It wasn’t just that the pope was wrong, but that he’d stuck his beak somewhere where it didn’t belong.

Of course the most hilariously obnoxious response belonged to Times columnist David Brooks, whose “Fracking and the Franciscans” piece actually chides a Jesuit pope for underappreciating the importance of self-interest. Brooks, who in his spare time has carried the preposterous title of a Yale Professor of Humility, wrote his piece in the same florid style of a papal encyclical:

“The innocence of the dove has to be accompanied by the wisdom of the serpent — the awareness that programs based on the purity of the heart backfire; the irony that the best social programs harvest the low but steady motivations of people as they actually are.”

How’s that for sanctimony, Popeface! Amateur!

Lindsay Abrams at Salon has already done a thorough takedown of this strange Brooks broadside against the whole Christian love thing, so there’s no need to get into that too much here. But there was one part of the article I found truly incredible, a section on the pope’s failure to appreciate the wonders of the Asian economy:

“A raw and rugged capitalism in Asia has led, ironically, to a great expansion of the middle class and great gains in human dignity….

Pope Francis is a wonderful example of how to be a truly good person. But if we had followed his line of analysis…there’d be no awareness that though industrialization can lead to catastrophic pollution in the short term (China), over the long haul both people and nature are better off with technological progress.”

Has it really come to this? Is it now conventional wisdom to admonish the Catholic Church for underappreciating the contributions of Chinese totalitarianism toward “human dignity?”

It’s nauseating enough when Western economists laud the Chinese “economic miracle,” as if there’s some deep secret involved in using slave labor to hoard mountains of manufacturing profits.

But asking us to appreciate the “gains in human dignity” offered by a society without freedoms of speech, assembly, political choice, religion or labor organization is beyond absurd. For that matter, so is calling the Chinese economy a model of free-market progress, when it’s actually a system that depends almost entirely on ongoing, intimate interference from the world’s most ubiquitous and domineering central government.

That the pope’s letter inspires such hysterical stupidities speaks to how deeply upsetting it must be to our guardians of mainstream opinion. But what exactly has all of these people so upset?

To me, all of this speaks to the weirdly cultist, neo-Randian, Road to Serfdom vibe that is increasingly swallowing up the American cultural and intellectual mainstream.

Capitalism and competition aren’t merely thought of as utilitarian systems for delivering goods and services to people anymore. To people like Brooks and Rand Paul and Charles Murray (also known as Jeb Bush’s favorite author), the free market is also a sort of religion that can address every important human question.

We used to think of wealth and spirituality as being two completely separate things. But in the minds of some in modern America, they’re becoming fused. The way Brooks and others clearly imagine it, one achieves wealth first, then dignity follows behind. We’re losing the ability to imagine a dignified life without money. Which is pretty messed up.

In the past, it was completely natural for a religious leader like a pope to suggest that our economic system leaves important spiritual questions unanswered. After all, that’s what religion was supposed to be for, addressing the non-material parts of our lives. But in modern times, this idea offends many people.

Hence this bizarre wave of criticism directed against an elderly cleric in a funny hat who is being blasted for being impractical, unrealistic and insufficiently appreciative of the material, despite the fact that it’s precisely a pope’s job to be all of these things.

I’m not religious, and I’m not particularly a Luddite or an anti-capitalist. But I’m open to the idea that there should be something else in life beyond money, or that we may be losing something important when we communicate by clicks and drags instead of face-to-face meetings. Is that really such revolutionary thinking, especially coming from a pope? It seems like such a strange thing to get angry about.