What will Pope Francis say?

What will Pope Francis say?

By Michael Novak in the Washington Examiner on September 23, 2015

Pope Francis seems to take a childlike delight in surprising, even shocking, the audience he speaks to, so it seems foolhardy even to presume what he might say. Let's agree, then, to be surprised. 

Still, we do know the main purpose of his visit to the United States is to speak at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. It would be more than surprising if the pope did not devote a large part of his message in the United States to the dire situation of the family today. 

It is well known that Francis is the first pope ever whose life experience has shaped him to look at the world from the southernmost cone of the Americas, Argentina, which was in 1910 the 14th most productive and wealthy of the nations on earth. It now ranks 68th and is usually counted among the third-world nations. This viewpoint is fresh for the papacy. 

My brilliant and original colleague, Harvard Ph.D. and specialist in the economics of the family Catherine Pakaluk, has proposed the deepest view of Pope Francis that I have yet encountered. Professor Pakaluk suggests that Pope Francis has a steely-eyed view of the grim moral decline of the world and its tone-deafness even to the basics of the Christian faith. One imagines that inspecting the contemporary bleakness from the southernmost tip of the Americas, rather than from North America or Europe, the new pope has asked himself: If the international media give me even a minute of their attention, what is the most important thing for me to say? Surely not the secondary refinements of the Christian faith, but the most essential of all.

 This is how Pope Francis goes to the heart of the matter (in my paraphrase): The "Good News" that Christianity, learning from Judaism, reveals is that the God, whose presence nearly all human beings in history have sensed around them, is not heartless or indifferent to us. On the contrary, God comes to us with love, offering free women and free men the invitation to choose to accept his friendship. (If friendship were not freely chosen, it would not be friendship, but coercion.) God's most beautiful characteristic is that he comes to us with forgiveness and mercy. 

From that point on, almost everything else is details. But some details are important. Pope Francis seems to have learned his vision of humanism from the German theologian with an Italian name, Romano Guardini (1885-1968). Guardini saw humans as natural beings, as part of nature, as within it, but also as nature's only known conscious beings who are reflective and able to choose. Guardini did not see human beings as separate from nature, as technological products or robots, but as natural, conscious, choosing beings. The Christian faith has a higher degree of respect, even reverence, for nature than does the contemporary world, which is more in love with human contrivance. 

Thus, for Francis, questions about the environment, human ecology, human sexuality and family life are all oriented within the same framework of nature itself. Moreover, in all of nature, we human beings have a special responsibility and unique capacities for reflection and choice in each of these significant areas. 

The education of each pope begins anew when he is elected to office. For he is no longer a member of one nation only, but now of a universal community. He must learn, for example, about economics as practiced in other parts of the world beside his own. Notably, Pope John Paul II spent his youth under Nazism and then Communism and was not familiar with how life was lived under other economic and political systems. It took him a while to develop a universal vision in these arenas. Most of the Italian popes before him had similar experiences. Likewise, it would be odd if Francis were not now expanding his own view of political and economic affairs. 

Francis is distinctive among modern popes for his habits of informality, spontaneous banter, and an almost naive frankness (often needing clarification after the fact). Yet he is also a very learned man—for many years a professor of advanced philosophical and theological breadth and depth. He is a very imposing man, and of passionate temper. He is not an "Angelic Doctor," but a "very down-to-earth doctor." 

Speaking informally to journalists on his flight back to Rome from Paraguay recently, the pope joked about how fallible he is in economic matters, and he admitted that he has erred by largely ignoring the middle class while he has had much to say about the poor. 

Francis is a very human pope, and all the more worthy of honor for that. And all the closer to the rest of us.


Michael Novak is author of Writing from Left to Right and blogs at Coming Down to Earth. 


Economic tyranny trumps religious liberty

Published by Michael Novak in the Washington Examiner on November 10, 2014 I learned from trips behind the Iron Curtain from 1974 to 1991 that economic tyranny can hamstring religious liberty and render it captive. When communist governments owned or controlled all supplies of newsprint, for example, they gained power over the religious press. Any unwanted articles (pre-censored by state authorities) could be deprived by “shortages” so offending reports would appear as blank columns in the press.

If there is no private property, there is also no independent leg to stand on in speaking for one’s conscience — and not only one’s individual conscience. Besides the conscience of one limited individual, there is the social effectiveness or participation in the free conscience of a living and vital community.

Thus in the United States in the 1950s it was the hard-earned authority of black churches and church leaders who gave birth to the civil rights movement and gave social power to parchment words such as “liberty and equality.”

In Poland and elsewhere, religious communities had inspired and led the nations for hundreds of years. In such places, people were not imprisoned solely in their own individual power, which was little. Sometimes they acted through institutions and associations of their own choosing. Solidarity in Poland, for example, or People Against Violence in Slovakia.

Sometimes they acted through associations and institutions they had been born into, and long been become grateful for. They knew by family history the many ways in which these institutions had nourished, taught, and trained them in the habits of conscience, self-government, and personal responsibility. These institutions had for centuries stood outside the passing follies of the age, and had been the people’s source of independence from the self-centered, decadent, and at times even thuggish “wisdom” of their particular generation.

Religious liberty is not as essential as breathing for social and institutional actors, however. It is also essential for each individual, one at a time, especially so in the Christian tradition. For one cannot simply be born into a Christian community. At a certain point in time, all people, reflecting on their vocation to choose their own destiny, must decide in the depths of conscience which communities to live and die within.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison both argued plainly (in Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom in Virginia and in Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments) that, although the creator of the universe did not have to do so, He made the human mind free.

Further, that it is self-evident that to any human who recognizes the relation of creator to creature, the latter has a duty of gratitude to the former. And, moreover, not simply a duty of gratitude, but even a duty of worship. For the distance between creature and creator is so vast that all honesty compels us to recognize it and pay due homage.

Both Madison and Jefferson then argued that no one else can show this gratitude or pay this honest homage but each of us, person by person. That duty is inalienable, first, because no one else has the power to exercise that duty for any one of us. That duty is further inalienable because it is a duty owed to the creator, and beyond the power of any state or civil society, or any other body (even one’s own family) to interfere with it.

In this sense, the first of all human rights, it has long been recognized, is religious liberty. For rights are founded in our duties — in this case duties to our creator, in whose fulfillment no one else dares interfere — and these rights are endowed in us by our creator.

Such rights cannot be left as mere “parchment barriers” (Madison’s phrase). The Soviet Union and its sister communist nations wished devoutly to treat them so. They freely signed agreements such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Helsinki Accords, but with no intention of upholding them in respect of religion and conscience.

As Madison also recognized, rights become rights not by mere words but by becoming embodied in community convictions and associations active in their defense. Convictions and associations incarnated into the thick habits of an entire people — and, in due time, in all the people of the Earth.

To sum up, actions and convictions gain power and permanence in the real world only where the capacities for free economic action are well protected. For religion does not live in conscience alone but in its capacities to act in the world, and to work for the coming of the good, the true, the beautiful, and the self-sacrificing assistance to others to transform this real, concrete Earth of ours.

So to act, it must have the wherewithal secured above all by certain economic rights: among them, the ownership and use of private property, the right of association, the right to personal economic initiative, and the right to create new sources of wealth and well-being. It is the last of these rights that transformed the thousands of years of an agrarian economy into an economy in which new practicable ideas became more valuable than land. And also creative of greater wealth than the long-impoverished world had ever before imagined. Enough wealth to end absolute poverty on this entire planet, and within the next 30 years.

Michael Novak won the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1994. In 1981-82 he was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, and in 1985 to the Bern Round of the Helsinki Accords.

Michael Novak and Charles Krauthammer: Two liberals who blessed the conservative movement with their conversion

Published by Noemie Emery in the Washington Examiner on December 31, 2013  Beginnings and ends of the years are for counting our blessings, and this year we have two -- Michael Novak and Charles Krauthammer -- who have given us books, Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative and Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics, both of which are about things that do matter, and both of which track the same starboard swing.

 Each came to politics from a different profession (the priesthood and medicine), each lost a brave brother (to murder and cancer) and each began his career as a liberal writing for Democrats, only to end as a conscience for the modern conservative movement, a transition detailed in these works. 

Now 80, Novak, who calls himself a "conservative temperament pushed to the left" by the Vietnam War and governmental mendacity, worked in 1968 for Robert F. Kennedy; in 1970 and 1972 for Sargent Shriver, and through him George McGovern, whom he admired more than the campaign run around him, which he found "disturbing" and a sign of the trouble to come.

 In 1976, he supported Scoop Jackson, as did Charles Krauthammer, about 15 years younger, who a few years later would leave medicine for The New Republic (then the best political magazine in the country), leave TNR to write speeches for Walter F. Mondale, and then, when Mondale lost office, for TNR again. 

He began his new gig the day Reagan took office, and, describing himself as a "Cold War liberal," spent his time there trying to infuse the spirit of Truman and Kennedy into the post-Vietnam War party, which he gave up as a lost cause soon after, loyally refusing to vote against Mondale but secretly hoping that Reagan would win. 

He was four years behind Novak, who in 1980 attended a dinner of defense-minded Democrats at which Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan asked who was thinking of voting for Reagan, and nearly everyone raised their hands. Krauthammer and Novak put little trust in our "vacation from history" from 1989-2001, when we seemed to be without enemies, understanding that it was anti-historic and would certainly end, as it did. 

"How do you go from Walter Mondale to Fox News?" Krauthammer says people ask him, and his answer is, "I was young once." 

What he means is that liberals' plans, which work well on paper, seldom work well when put into practice, which tends to emerge over time. Krauthammer says he succumbed to "empirical evidence," meaning the change between Carter and Reagan, which Novak describes in detail: "The facts of America's rapid revival forced me to change," Novak tells us, from the Democrats' nostrums of welfare and handouts to the conservatives' goals of new jobs. 

He saw the social good brought by the small business explosion, the technology boom, spurred by the capital gains tax cuts, the tide that, as Kennedy promised, lifted all boats. The numbers of the poor fell off and incomes rose, among them those of married black families. Social goals came about through sound fiscal policies. This wasn't supposed to grow out of conservative theories. But then it did.

 Democrats, Novak says, speak more often and better of the needs of the poor, but since the mid-1960s, their efforts to help have frequently been counterproductive and the conservative methods of job growth plus the efforts of civil society have worked better. Small-state conservatism began with Goldwater, who lost, and didn't begin to win big nationwide until it won over those who supported and voted for Johnson, who gave up on the liberals' means of enactment, but didn't give up on their goals. Listening to these former liberals, now when it matters, just might help it win big again.

Noemie Emery, a Washington Examiner columnist, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of "Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families." 


Noemie Emery, a Washington Examiner columnist, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of "Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families."