On Pope Francis, think deeper

Pro-market Christians in America could learn much from Pope Francis about holy living and compassionate thinking if only they’d think more deeply about his message. Instead, they’re too quick to extract superficial, tangential inferences about what his teaching means for the cause of free market capitalism. Indeed, advancing free markets is no end in itself — it is, or ought to be, a corollary cause for those believe, with sound and defendable reasons, that markets are a just way to bring economic progress to all peoples. Citing Pope Francis’ (alleged) anti-capitalism alone to argue against his teaching reveals a total misunderstanding of why beliefs about economic life are worth holding and, possibly, of the very nature of God.

Neither should one evaluate Pope Francis according to whether he’s pro-America. If a Christian disagrees with the Pope, it ought to have something to do with the Pope’s theology. Patriotism, as an ideal, simply doesn’t rise high enough to serve as any defense against anyone who claims to speak for or about God, no matter what one may think of such a teacher’s true place or motive. If my God is wrong because you’re country is great, it’s country, not God, who you serve.

So don’t interpret Pope Francis’ exhortations against greed and inequality as falling somewhere to the left-of-center on the political spectrum. When the Pope criticizes the market, he’s not doing so as an advocate of further state regulation. He’s doing so as an advocate of holy living. In this sense, we ought to take his teaching on restraint, discretion, and sacrifice personally — applicable to our own lives in some way that perhaps only we can know — and not as part of some larger, implicit ideology or political campaign. Ironically, if we all did this, I’m convinced we’d hear much less about the “evils of capitalism,” even in the context of an economically competitive, “free market” society.

All of this hits on a larger, more insidious issue plaguing American churches today. Sadly, how many have chosen to interpret the Pope — as speaking anti- this or pro- that, instead of do this or do that — is how so many Christians interpret sincere exhortations from truly good teachers. Sound, Biblical teaching on issues like sexuality, family, and citizenship are too quickly seen as denouncements of this or that way of thinking about such issues rather than as (sometimes hard) lessons on how we, personally, can walk with God. The extent to which we think about the Pope’s, or any good teacher’s, lessons on life in such terms is the extent to which we fail to glean what’s truly valuable in good teaching. To be wise has never been so much about understanding what’s true and good, but about willing and living accordingly.

How to argue with the Pope

If you’re going to argue with Pope Francis, at least respond in kind.

When the Pope speaks about immigration reform, wealth redistribution or climate change, he’s proclaiming God’s perspective. You may not believe he knows anything more about God’s perspective than you do, but you can, I hope, acknowledge that he believes this is true. His comments on “political” issues like the ones I listed above are rooted in, he believes, a correct understanding of Scripture and what we know about God through our observations of the universe.

So saying something like…

“The Pope is wrong about climate change. Anti-warming policy is bad policy — it’s just a red carpet for bigger government.”

…means nothing to him and those who believe him. He, along with millions around the world, believes this is God’s perspective. It doesn’t matter what you think about anti-warming policy, even if you could prove it wrong, as long as God is for it.

So if you’re going to argue with the Pope, do so in kind. Here’s how:

If you don’t believe in God, then don’t argue with the Pope’s facts. His facts are of a different kind than yours. For you, the Pope is simply wrong because he believes in a false being called “god.” Why argue any further than that? Why analyze and critique his statements according to your understanding of things? He says what he says because, he believes, God says it that way. Showing him some “evidence” that is rooted in something other than God’s revelation is pointless.

If you’re a Christian but not Roman Catholic (or, for that matter, Roman Catholic but not a Francis fan), then correct the Pope with Scripture and an appeal to general revelation (that is, what we know about God from our observations of the universe). Correct his theology. Correct his view on God’s will for these particular “political” issues, specifically. Don’t go around saying he’s wrong about, say, immigration reform because that’s bad economic policy. Why should he care? Why should anyone who takes him seriously care? If God said it, it’s not bad economic policy (according to those who take him seriously).

What’s worst is when Christians who don’t like the Pope think he’s wrong because his views don’t align with free market capitalism. What if God’s views don’t align with free market capitalism? If you want to wage a sound argument against the Pope’s ideas, show that God supports free market capitalism, or whatever you think God supports.

These thoughts are jumbled. I hope you get what I’m trying to say.

Basically, if you think Pope Francis is wrong about things and you’re not a Christian, don’t argue with the specifics of his propositions. Argue with the source of his ideas. If you think Pope Francis is wrong about things and you’re a Christian, take issue with his theology. Don’t say he’s wrong just because the numbers don’t add up — again, why should he or his supporters care if they truly believe he speaks for God?

How not to argue with the Pope (or anyone)

In a recent speech, Pope Francis affirmed his belief in the theory of evolution, noting its compatibility with Scripture.

The Big Bang, which is today posited as the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine act of creation; rather, it requires it. … Evolution of nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.

This made a few young-earth creationists mad. For those who don’t know, young-earth creationists interpret Genesis 1 very literally—they believe God created the universe in six consecutive 24-hour days about 7,000 years ago (or thereabouts). By implication, this means they believe the theory of evolution is wrong. Some of them even think evolution is heresy, or that believing in evolution is a form of disbelief in God.


from Wikimedia Commons

But my point here is not to get into that debate. I’m not ready for that, and probably won’t ever be. What I want to show is how not to respond to people you disagree with.

Below is a comment given in response to the Pope’s by Brian Thomas at the Institute for Creation Research.

Either God really created the cosmos the way He said He did and when He said, or He did not. If He did not, then we should jettison Scripture. Fortunately, historical science—like young-looking spiral galaxies, fast-fuel-burning blue stars, heat-emitting Saturn, and still-icy comets—clearly confirm the Bible’s history.

There are several things wrong with Brian’s response. Some of them have to do with the specific context of this debate, so my apologies to those who haven’t read much about evolution vs. young-earth creationism. But all of them are, I think, examples we should learn from before attempting to debate with our peers.

First, Brian misses the whole point of the argument and instead assumes his position’s truth from the very outset. His evidence for his opponent’s fallacy then derive from that assumption. This is not an argument, but a mere assertion. It also has nothing to do with what Pope Francis said—that God’s plan for creation included evolution.

Second, Brian cherry picks examples. Sure, “young-looking spiral galaxies” and “heat-emitting Saturn” may provide some evidence in favor of young-earth creationism—evidence I’m willing to consider. But there’s lots of evidence against young-earth creationism, too. He doesn’t mention these. Instead, he levels only those pieces of evidence that seem to be in favor of his position (this is my larger problem with the young-earth creationism community in general, by the way).

Third, his response opens Pandora’s box and makes an argument concerning the validity of Scripture as a whole, when all Pope Francis discussed was how God may have created the universe. Why must we “jettison Scripture” if Genesis 1 is found to be less-than-literal? In the context of a formal debate, Brian would have to defend that position before any other rebuttals of his opponent would fly, since he uses that assumption to (try to) undermine his opponent, who he knows believes in the truth of the Scriptures.

Just some thoughts. There’s a lot more to discuss here, but I’ll leave it at that.