The Pope and Practical Politics

It is no secret that we live in very politically polarized times.  And perhaps you are like me in that not only am I devoutly Catholic, but I also have very strong political convictions.

But as Catholics, what do we do when we find our political convictions challenged by our Holy Father?  Do we abandon our politics for our faith?  Or do we ignore our faith for our politics?  Or is there some other way out of this dilemma?

Pope Francis has recently visited the United States.  And no matter what he says, his words are analyzed in the media through the lens of politics.  That is not to say that the Pope does not make political statements.  It is only to highlight that we must be careful about what secondary sources tell us about this Pope, as he is one of the most often misunderstood and misquoted in my recollection.

Regardless, Francis says many things that raise the ire of the political right and the political left.  How are we to respond?

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

It must be remembered that the pope only speaks infallibly on the topic of faith and morals.  And even on these topics, infallibility only applies when he specifically and officially invokes that power.  If the pope secretly confided to someone that he didn’t believe the Resurrection was real, this would not violate papal infallibility.  If the pope declared that 2 + 2 = 5, this would also not be infallible because that is a matter of mathematics, not faith or morals.

Politics, while often dealing with topics of religion and morality, is not covered by infallibility per se.  It is possible for the pope to be wrong on political policy.  Pope Pius the XI entered into a concordant with the European fascists, which he later regretted.  So when a sitting pope makes statements of a political nature, those political points are not backed by infallibility.

But be careful here!

At this point, many would use this as an opportunity to simply dismiss the pope whenever he challenges their politics.  “Well, he’s talking about politics so it isn’t infallible.  Now I don’t have to listen.”

That is, to my mind, the absolutely incorrect attitude.

Pope Francis may not share all of your politics or my politics.  But he is the Vicar of Christ on Earth.  He is the head of this great family we call the Catholic Church.  And like the head of any family, we must listen to him.

Does this mean we MUST abandon our politics if they conflict with his?


What it does mean is that we must take him very seriously.  This has a few practical implications:

  1. We must remember that religious conviction supersedes political conviction.  If the Holy Father is directing us to a religious end or purpose, then it is our responsibility to at least explore that way of thinking.  If he makes an appeal beyond the political, it must be held.  Allow me to give an example: right after 9/11 I was very much in support of violently confronting terrorists.  For me, I was morally accepting of torturing terrorists if a) they were people who wished us harm and b) they had information that could save lives.  But the Church made very clear that under NO circumstances could torture be morally licit.  It was a deep offense against the human person.  In this case, the Church said that issue was not at all political, but moral.  And so, as a loyal son of the Church, I bowed my passions, judgment, and prejudices to the Church.
  2.  We must find the theological truth behind the politics. A very controversial issue right now in our country is illegal immigration.  There are some who feel strongly that everyone should be allowed in.  There are some who feel strongly that they should all be removed.   In his speech before Congress, Pope Francis said: “We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.”  Notice, he put forth no particular policy.  But he reminded us of the deep theological truth that we must always remember: all human life has value. This does not mean you have to let everyone in.  You can still enforce the law while recognize the humanity of other people. And even when he does support particular political issues, like combating climate change, it is based on (as author John C. Wright put it) “utterly orthodox Christian teaching on stewardship of God’s gift of the Earth to Man, or Christian warnings against wealth and worldliness as old as Moses.”
  3.  We must not become complacent. Pope Francis is challenging everyone from every political field to see the world from a different perspective.  This does not mean that we should abandon our politics or that we are somehow wrong in our political convictions.  But we should be careful about falling into the trap of the Pharisees: though they were on the seeming right side of God’s law, they were too caught up in rules and policy to see the persons in need.  They followed the letter of the law and not the spirit.  When we look at our political convictions, it is good to take stock and remind ourselves why we hold these convictions and how they line up with the teachings of Christ.

In the end, we may find ourselves across a political divide from our Pope.  But even then we should thank him for giving us the opportunity to re-evaluate our politics in the light of faith.

Copyright 2015, W.L.Grayson


W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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