As a major crisis envelopes the world, it was with some melancholy that I heard Pope Francis’s addresses to the U.S. Congress and the UN General Assembly this past week.
It takes a lot to get me to publicly criticize something the pope has said on political issues. I’m not a Catholic, but I think it’s always important when a religious leader has spoken to weigh how much it matters to express disagreement.
Ultimately, the pope isn’t a specialist in most of our political issues, and isn’t responsible for advising on their particulars or resolving them. I’d rather remain in charity with a brother in Christ and an appointed shepherd of flocks, and focus my criticism where it matters: on politics and government.
So it’s a big deal for me to address just the couple of points I want to raise here. I’ll let others take on “climate change,” “income redistribution,” “social justice,” and other fictions of modern leftism that merit scare quotes because they are false propositions to begin with.
I want to talk about two things that would hamper us fatally in restoring peace and stability to the world, if we took the pope’s words to heart.
The first is a highlight from Pope Francis’s speech to Congress. Toward the end of it, he said these arresting words:
A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces.
Being at the service of dialogue and peace also means being truly determined to minimize and, in the long term, to end the many armed conflicts throughout our world.
There are two things profoundly wrong here. One is the idea that good political leadership must be about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces. This aphorism is unsalvageable: it is wrong in every respect.
Political success is first and most fundamentally about space. People, the purpose of politics, must occupy space and live on territory. A people that desires to live in a certain, preferred way must control territory in order to be able to do it. There is no other reality.
Being able to live freely, to choose your religion and the allegiances of your conscience, to make a living as you choose and turn that into prosperity and blessing for many, is a function of controlling what happens on territory. If you can’t control territory – possess space and exercise discretion over the arrangements in it – you will be condemned to be a slave to whoever does control territory.
This is the reality of the human race. The West has wrestled with this reality for centuries, and in fact came up with the nation-state as the principal means of controlling space to prevent both enslavement by empires, and the bloody chaos of tribalism. The nation-state is one of the best things that has ever happened to humankind. It is no accident – in fact, it is intrinsically necessary – that the most liberty and prosperity that peoples have ever achieved have been contingent on the success of the nation-state.
The nation-state deliberately eschews both empire and theocratic universalism. It emphasizes instead limited sovereignty over limited territory.
But now, for the first time in a millennium, this Western concept faces an existential challenge at its very core from something even tougher than progressive leftism. The surge of militant Islamism from South Asia and Africa is a direct, inherent, and basic challenge to the Western political structure – the structure that makes the world we take for granted today possible.
There is no alternative, in dealing with this challenge, to possessing space. To speak of “initiating processes,” as opposed to possessing space, is to prescribe the loss of space and the death of ordered liberty.
Moreover, possessing space must mean living according to Western ideas and values on territory, and not giving way on that territory to other importunities.
The second thing profoundly wrong in the pope’s words to Congress is the idea of being “at the service of dialogue and peace.”
When we place ourselves categorically in service to something, it can then be defined against our interests. This has been a classic tactic wielded by the modern left: usurping the definitions of things like “peace” and “dialogue” so that the enemies designated by the left are perpetually in the wrong. Political Islamists use this tactic incessantly as well.
There is a most Christian perspective on this matter which for me is decisive. In Mark 2:27, Jesus affirmed that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. In the same way, we should say that dialogue and peace are made for man, not man for dialogue and peace. The Sabbath could be defined, with regulatory enforcement, against the interests of men – that was implicit in Jesus’s point in the incident in Mark 2 – and so can “dialogue” and “peace.”
We don’t serve dialogue and peace. They serve and benefit us. I propose that our attitude toward them be that of a husbandman, tending and watching over them: as gifts of social intercourse placed in our care — a care for which we will be accountable to God — but not as masters.
The other troubling passage was in the pope’s speech at the UN. I had to go back and look for it in the published text, because I felt afterward as if the pope hadn’t said anything about what seemed to me to be the most important thing he had to talk about: the mass slaughter and eviction of Christians from the Middle East.
He did say something, but what he said was framed, almost elliptically, in leftist bromides about the generic danger of “partisanship” – as if taking sides is not about whether people are to be treated with respect and compassion, or not.
Here is the passage:
For this reason, while regretting to have to do so, I must renew my repeated appeals regarding to the painful situation of the entire Middle East, North Africa and other African countries, where Christians, together with other cultural or ethnic groups, and even members of the majority religion who have no desire to be caught up in hatred and folly, have been forced to witness the destruction of their places of worship, their cultural and religious heritage, their houses and property, and have faced the alternative either of fleeing or of paying for their adhesion to good and to peace by their own lives, or by enslavement.
These realities should serve as a grave summons to an examination of conscience on the part of those charged with the conduct of international affairs. Not only in cases of religious or cultural persecution, but in every situation of conflict, as in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Libya, South Sudan and the Great Lakes region, real human beings take precedence over partisan interests, however legitimate the latter may be. In wars and conflicts there are individual persons, our brothers and sisters, men and women, young and old, boys and girls who weep, suffer and die. Human beings who are easily discarded when our only response is to draw up lists of problems, strategies and disagreements.
No doubt, examining our consciences is always a good idea. But the horrible things happening to human beings in these conflict zones are being done by people – not by theoretical influences – and those culpable people are not to be reached by preaching to other people about “partisan interests.”
Wanting Christians and others to be able to live safely in their homes is a partisan interest. We mustn’t be afraid to say so, or to act on that goal as what it is.
It’s not “partisanship,” or the sad folly of conflict in the generic, that’s killing Christians in the Middle East; it’s homicidal Islamist ideologues. The same murderers are killing Muslims as well. Taking sides against these murderers, and possessing space so that they cannot have it – and even more, so that better things can be done with it – are the only remedies that will work.
There is much to rebuke the world’s leaders for today, but it’s an expired bromide of latter-day leftism that rebukes them for excessive “partisanship,” when partisanship – defining a side and taking it – is exactly what is called for.
The one-way bankruptcy of leftism
This is why, in “such a time as this,” I found Pope Francis’s words to be curiously unresonant. Leftism is inherently a triangulating, negative, paralyzing ideology, always looking wherever success is for things to be fearful of, and things to rebuke and criticize.
Indeed, leftism requires a form of majority success to triangulate against, and can only make sense in the context of a successful system it didn’t create. To persist in leftism is to speak always as if there is some unjustifiable monolith of success and power that needs a good spanking.
Unfortunately, that was the tone of the pope’s comments on the attack on Christians in the Middle East. There was a reason why I didn’t hear his words as a defense of Christians or a call to protect all the Middle East’s victimized peoples. It’s because he made no such defense or call. Instead, he rebuked “those charged with the conduct of international affairs,” in leftist terms that could only paralyze and confound them.
But the rebuke is brittle and outdated, because today, the overall context of monolithic success is gone. And leftism makes no sense at all without it. Those “charged with the conduct of international affairs” in 2015 are the opposite of a successful monolith: they are struggling, overwhelmed, and turning to narrow, defensive purposes in a world they control less and less with each passing day. The left finally has what its divisive negativism always portended anyway – a status quo that is collapsing – and now its rebukes ring hollow and meaningless.
We who claim to govern ourselves can’t afford to get these things wrong. The bromides of progressive leftism are bankrupt in the face of the disaster bearing down on us. We can benefit from much that Christian leaders have to tell us. But we have to exercise wisdom and judge realistically, as God has given us the mind and spirit to do.