The Pope spooks Conservatives

Pope Francis’s candour regarding the shortcomings of market capitalism and his pronouncements on many divisive social issues has people paying attention, and many Conservatives don’t like it, says our US Correspondent Tomas Mega, from Nevada

New York City’s landmark St. Patrick’s Cathedral has become an unexpected venue for a circuitous battle over economic philosophy.   The Roman Catholic Cathedral, which opened its doors 135 years ago, is in need of restoration and a campaign to raise millions for the effort is underway.  Led by billionaire Ken Langone, one of the founders of America’s favourite home improvement retailer, The Home Depot, he is courting wealthy donors to make big contributions.  But Pope Francis’ recent critical remarks regarding the wealthy and the exclusionary nature of market capitalism apparently has some affluent donors thinking twice.  So concerned is Mr. Langone that he has reportedly met with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, telling the Archbishop: “this is one more hurdle I hope we don’t have to deal with. You want to be careful about generalities.”

Throughout history, Popes have been advocates of the poor.  It’s their job, and as such their remarks are hardly viewed as breaking news.  But Pope Francis, the first non-European pope in 1,300 years, and Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, has changed the dynamic.  His candour regarding the shortcomings of market capitalism and his pronouncements on many divisive social issues has people paying attention, and many Conservatives don’t like it.  Conservative talk show colossal Rush Limbaugh has said: “this is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the Pope.”  Sarah Palin adds that “he sounds kind of liberal.” Adding to Conservative political and religious anxiety are the Pope’s remarks that even atheists can go to heaven if they are good, and that the Catholic Church is too focused on preaching about abortion, gay people and contraception, and needs to become more merciful.

All this talk about income inequality, tolerance, gay people and a more merciful approach to the disenfranchised has unsettled Conservatives, convincing many that the Pope is a socialist.   After all, he is from Argentina.   As U.S. Congressman, Roman Catholic, and former Republican candidate for Vice President Paul Ryan dismissively said regarding the Pope’s comments, “They haven’t had real capitalism in Argentina.”  To some Conservatives, the Pope’s rhetoric seems to make him sound like, Heaven forbid, a Democrat!  A socialist and a Democrat!  My God, that’s what Barack Obama is!  It is easy to understand Conservative angst.

How American Christians feel about the new Pope is, not surprisingly, somewhat mixed.  Polls indicate that conservative Protestants and evangelicals, a traditional stronghold for Republicans, are beginning to feel that Francis is going a bit too far.  They had a closer bond to Pope Benedict and his status quo Papacy.  For decades, American Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals have used religion to further their political agenda.   A Pope who questions the virtues of market capitalism, espouses mercy, forgiveness, tolerance, and suggests that the Church has been too focused on narrow, divisive social issues is very bitter oratory for the “The Party of NO!” to swallow.   What is a good American Christian Fundamentalist, Catholic or Evangelical to do when, after decades of seeing the Church as an ally, they interpret the new Pope remarks as something akin to “Wait a minute, folks, were not on the right path here”?

One would think that the Pope is making life uncomfortable for Republican Catholic politicians such as Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio and Rick Santorum.  Their objections to social safety net programs that benefit the poor, gay people and contraception paint a somewhat less-than-merciful demeanour.   But some Republicans are taking the high ground on the Pope’s remarks, smartly doing their best to spin it in a positive way.  Newt Gingrich has said, “I think the Pope may, in fact, be starting a conversation at the exact moment the Republican Party needs to have that conversation.”  John Feehery, a Catholic Republican strategist says, “What does the party actually believe in?  What is its purpose?  Is it just to have unbridled capitalism without any moral core?”

Mainstream Catholics have a much higher approval rating for the Pope.  That would seem to be in line with the thinking of American Catholics, as revealed in a March 2013 CNN/ORC poll, where three-quarters said they are much more likely to follow their own conscience on difficult moral questions, three-quarters said they believe the new Pope should allow Catholics to use contraception, and six-in-ten said women should be allowed to be priests.  Despite the Pope’s high approval rating among Catholics, not all are happy.  Conservative Catholics, who have spent their adult life embracing Church doctrine regarding social issues the new Pope now says the Church is too myopically focused, are quick to point out that, despite the Pope’s rhetoric, Church doctrine remains unchanged and is likely to remain unchanged.  They are correct.

This should encourage those prospective wealthy donors to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  The Pope is not a politician and he won’t be campaigning for any office in America.  They are unlikely to withdraw their check books and risk media attention to take on the rock star status of the new Pope.  With wealth comes responsibility, and they would be far better served not to become petty over the Pope’s remarks regarding the exclusionary nature of market capitalism, especially as it relates to one of America’s iconic places of Christian worship.

The more interesting story is what next will come out of the Pope’s mouth.  And how Republicans and Christian Conservatives who are relentlessly pushing for a smaller, less involved government react to the Vatican’s proposition of mercy and economic inclusion toward the nearly forty seven million Americans now living in poverty.

 Caption: To some Conservatives Pope Francis sounds like a socialist and a democrat

Photo: AP


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