Pope Francis and Liberal Delusions

From the always interesting Chronicles Magazine (subscribe to the print version here: https://www.chroniclesmagazine.org/my-ac...subscribe/ ):

Pope Francis and the Liberal Delusions
By:Thomas Fleming | December 26 and 30, 2013

Pope Francis has been under attack from many directions.  Perhaps some day his enemies--most of which are self-described traditionalist (as opposed to traditional) Catholics--will find some dirt to stick on the poor man, but so far they appear to be missing their target by more than a mile.  The most ridiculous charge--made among others by that great moral theologian of the airwaves Mr. Limbaugh--is that his condemnation of unfettered capitalism is Marxist.

Before getting to the point of this, I should make this disclaimer:  I have no idea of how much economics the Holy Father has studied.  In fact, I doubt that he could give a convincing definition of "capitalism."  But., for that matter, the great capitalist of the airwaves does not seem to be able to distinguish free enterprise from capitalism.  I do not propose to write a treatise on the subject.  Let us agree that like all "isms," capitalism is not an economic system per se but an ideology, which is to say a theory used to justify the possession of power and wealth by a certain class.  (His analysis of ideology is one of Marx's few insights!)

Vox Wrote:I'd so much like to read a treatise on this subject from Dr. Fleming!

In this specific case, capitalism is the defense of a system by which some people own and control various forms of property, especially the means of production, and are justified in using or abusing them for their own purposes with little or no regard for their fellow human beings.  It is an enormously productive--and destructive--system, and one's response to it depends a great deal on how much wealth one happens to possess.  Speaking candidly, I do not much like capitalism as a theory or the people it justifies.  On the other hand, I prefer it infinitely to its Marxist alternatives.

The Christian faith took shape, it goes without saying, in a world in which the theory of capitalism was unknown largely because the phenomenon it justifies was only in its infancy.  The Roman Empire had a more direct, less hypocritical system of exploitation: slavery.

Some of the  American bishops have made matters worse--as usual--by implicitly accepting the pseudo-conservative critique and responding to it  by conflating Christian social morality with socialism.  They are as ignorant as the talk radio economists and far more dangerous.  In fact, there is no common ground between socialism and Christianity, and to make just a little bit of this clear, I shall stick in some paragraphs from the first chapter of my next book.  The chapter is entitled "Exiled Children of Eve," and it takes its text from the Beatitudes.

Many Christians (and still more post-Christians)  have dreamed of building a new Jerusalem, where the unpromising specimens of humanity they had known all their lives would live in perfect peace and uninterrupted joy.  This heavenly kingdom was not located in another dimension or in an afterlife when the saints would receive new bodies, but in the here and now, where ordinary men and women, if they could but comprehend and follow the new revelation, would achieve a justice that had only been hinted at in the societies of the past.

When such experiments have been tried, as in Calvin's Geneva, Jacobin France, Nazi Germany, or Communist Russia, the reality is more nightmare than paradise.  You cannot make an omelet without breaking a few—or, rather, more than a few million—eggs, and you can realize the imagined rights of man without wiping out or at least truncating some of the most basic foundations of human social life, namely, marriage and the family, the institutions of local community and traditional religion, the desire for power and the need for property, the human habits of barter and exchange on which all economies depend.

Jesus' teachings are not easily reconciled with the doctrines of modern radicals and revolutionaries.  Indeed, and He more than once affirmed the binding authority of the old law, particularly the Decalogue:

"Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven."

Any impression that this Messiah had come to destroy all law and custom is mistaken.  “I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.”

Vox Wrote:I'm not sure if that is accurate, his saying that Christ affirmed the "binding authority" of the Old Law as opposed to fulfilling it. Obviously, the Decalogue stands as it's just a longer way of putting the Two Great Commandments -- to love God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves -- but it's also obviously true that the Old Law, from circumcision down to things like, "If a woman having received seed shall bear a man child, she shall be unclean seven days, according to the days of the separation of her flowers" have no binding power on us whatsoever (one reason why it perturbs me to no end to hear Protestant Christians talk about homosexuality, using things from Leviticus to make their point).

The utopian dream is not specifically Christian.  Plato and Plotinus had their social fantasies, as did Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, but pagans may be more easily excused for succumbing to their own inventions.  Christians are supposed to follow the teachings of their Master, who firmly informed the Roman authorities he was accused of challenging, "My kingdom is not of this world."  That should have been the final world on both Christian socialism and Christian democracy.  There is an ancient story that the emperor Tiberius was so impressed by the example of a Jewish prophet who did not contest imperial authority that he asked the senate to include the Christ in the Roman pantheon.  Few historians (apart from Marta Sordi) put any stock in the tale, though it is not inconsistent with Tiberius' ironic sense of humor and just improbable enough to be true.

The first Christian to convert Christ's moral and spiritual message into a program for political revolution may have been Judas, who complained when Mary, the sister of Lazarus, anointed Jesus with oil, a task she and other Christian women would soon have to perform on His body.  When Judas asked why the oil was not sold and the price given to the poor, Jesus' reply was an incisive rejection of the Social Gospel:  "The poor you have with you always, but me you do not have always."  The Christian, both as individual and as member of a corporate body (such as a family or church), will practice charity out of his love of God and of his fellows made in God's image, but he will not set up a system to redistribute other people's wealth.

Vox Wrote:Sounds like some very typical accusations hurled at the Church -- even by some self-described Catholics! -- are hurled by little Judases. "Why doesn't the Vatican sell off all that art and feed the poor?" -- as if the Church hasn't been feeding the poor for two millennia now. Grrrrrrrrr!

Part II

According to one interpretation of the scene, Judas went away from this encounter disgruntled with Jesus' failure to lead a social revolution.  It is certainly true that Jesus' answer remains a powerful rebuke to those who would confound the gospel with one or another form of state-imposed socialism. The poor, whom we always have with us, will be taken care of properly only when we freely behave as Christians and not when Caesar, at the point of a bayonet, requires us to render doubly unto him so that he can purchase political power with our tribute.

[html] Jesus' moral message is far more alarming than Marx or Marx's Catholic followers today have realized. Christian socialists tell us to go about our business as mankind has always done, lying, cheating, stealing, so long as we pay the state to redistributes some small portion of our wealth to the poor—a small price to pay for a "Get Out of Hell Free" card. Christ, by contrast, turns our most highly cherished values—pride, ambition, greed—upside down.

And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying, Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. [Matthew 5: 1-10]

In this first recorded sermon of Jesus Christ, the conventional wisdom (not just of Jews but of Greeks and Romans and modern Americans who have examined their consciences) is turned on its head. Failure and poverty, which were regarded as unmitigated miseries in the ancient world, are celebrated. Good fortune, wealth, and power, which had been regarded as signs of divine favor, now counted for nothing.[/html]

Vox Wrote:To read the Beatitudes and contrast them with stuff like this really is shocking:

I just "love" how the preacher-man above wants to point out some verses so people can "read it for themselves!" and see how God wants us all to be rich. Sola Scriptura. Great stuff. I also dig how he admits that traditional Christianity doesn't teach what he's teaching, but apparently, he's got the brains of Augustine, Jerome, Aquinas, and every real Catholic who's ever lived for the past two thousand years and just figgered all this out, man. Whatta guy!

If you want a shorter version of the same heresy, there's this:

(I'm really annoyed to hear the word prosper as a transitive verb -- e.g, "God will prosper you." The dictionary says it can be used as a transitive, but -- Ick.)

Like most peoples everywhere, ancient Jews respected power and success.  In looking back at their own history, they admired the exploits of Joshua, Gideon, and Samson, violent men who would not have been out of place in the American West.  King David and his son Solomon were among their greatest heroes.  David was a man of war who smote his enemies and built a powerful (albeit miniscule) kingdom; Solomon was proverbial for his wealth and women as well as for his wisdom and power.

For more recent heroes, Jews could turn for inspiration to the Maccabees, who had led a bloody insurrection that liberated their people from the Macedonian kingdom of Syria ruled by Antiochus Epiphanes.  The successors to the Macedonians were the Romans, who had been ruling over the Jews, largely through proxies like the Herods, for more than 100 years.  In expecting a messiah or savior, Jews commonly believed he would come as a fighting prince, another David or Judas Maccabeus, with sword in hand, to drive the Romans into the sea.  Yet here is this prophet or (as some would say) messiah, early in his career, calmly beginning an address to the multitude proclaiming the blessedness of “the poor in spirit” or simply, as in the parallel passage in Luke, “the poor.”

What do these words mean, really, “blessed” and “poor in spirit”?  Blessed, for example, can mean several things in English.  When we bless someone, we speak well of him.  In the Vulgate translation of the Bible, this is expressed by the verb benedicere (to speak well of), which gives us the English word “benediction.”  Benedicere is the word used to translate the Greek eulogein, as in “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.” [Luke 1.64]  However the completely unrelated Greek word, makarios, used here in Matthew, means blessed or happy, in the sense of having good fortune. (It is translated into Latin here and elsewhere as beatus).  The more basic word makar, from which it is derived, is typically used in early Greek to refer to the gods as opposed to mere mortals, and makarios thus retains a strong whiff of divine favor.  In the plural (as Jesus uses it here), makarios is often applied to the rich and well-educated.

The English word “poor” is also ambiguous; it can mean either lacking in wealth or in a poor condition or quality, as in “the actor turned in a poor performance.”  In Greek the Ptochoi (poor), by contrast, are at the bottom of the socio-economic scale; they are the beggars that crouch and cringe, fearfully, in the presence of their superiors.  There is really no good modern analogy for the ancient poor, since our homeless people are, for the most part, either mentally disturbed or "substance abusers" or both.  The ancient beggar, by contrast, might just be unfortunate, an otherwise decent person who had fallen on hard times.

Vox Wrote:The Douay's notes say this about "poor in spirit": "The poor in spirit: That is, the humble; and they whose spirit is not set upon riches."

One of Jesus' listeners who had been to school might have thought of Odysseus, the noble Greek warrior who disguised himself as a beggar and had to endure insults and abuse in his own house—a story that eerily anticipates Jesus’ own arrival in earthly form: the son of God who is born to a poor family, a man “despised and rejected and acquainted with grief.”  However, Matthew’s version “poor in spirit” takes us well beyond Homeric myth.  Odysseus may have been without resources and beggarly in appearance, but, as a proud and violent Greek aristocrat, he was anything but poor in spirit, as he would show when he put off his disguise and killed his wife's suitors.  Our Lord was telling his people that the greatest happiness one can have, the happiness usually associated with the prosperous and educated, is to possess the spirit of the cowering beggar.

What a strange statement, then, to make, that the abject and miserable, those who mourn the loss of a loved one, are the ones who have experienced divine good favor.  Most of us have read or heard this sermon so many times we take it for granted as either hyperbole—He could not have meant these things literally, could he?—or as a set of Sunday school clichés that we recite without any intention of living up to.  But then they would not be the Beatitudes, but only the platitudes.


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