Defending the Pope

Mark seems to find this comment from the Pope deeply disturbing: “In contemporary culture, we often see an excessive exaltation of the freedom of the individual.” Frankly, this is a comment that would be relatively uncontroversial among most believers in Catholic social teaching, on the left or right. It’s also almost exactly the same sort of thing that Amitai Etzioni has said for twenty years or more now. In fact, I’m sure we can find Bill Clinton speeches that say almost exactly the same thing. One can disagree with this basically boilerplate communitarianism, but it certainly doesn’t call for bringing out the “Hitlerjugend” big guns, does it? Or am I missing something?

Author: Steven M. Teles

Steven Teles is a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics. He is the author of Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (University Press of Kansas), and co-editor of Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy (Cambridge). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of the conservative legal movement, co-editing a book on conservatism and American Political Development, and beginning a project on integrating political analysis into policy analysis. He has also written journal articles and book chapters on international free market think tanks, normative issues in policy analysis, pensions and affirmative action policy in Britain, US-China policy and federalism. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Hamilton colleges, and been a research fellow at Harvard, Princeton and the University of London.

19 thoughts on “Defending the Pope”

  1. Maybe if you've been a member of the Hitler Youth, we expect you to be a little more self-reflective about the freedom of the individual and the excesses those who would repress it, have engage in. Maybe this lack of reflection is more of a concern when displayed by former Hitler youth, than a critique of individual freedom is when offered by former hippies.

  2. Joel there has a point. My grandmother was a member of the German Maidens (League of German Maidens? Can't recall the exact title). She didn't exactly have a choice.
    Of course, her father ended up in a camp for running communist propaganda, and ultimately got sent to fight the Americans — where he promptly surrendered. No one in that family was terribly fond of the Third Reich, yet they all belonged to the proper clubs.

  3. The remark is offensive on it's own (lack of) merits, as an example of boilerplate communitarianism, but you're right: It's silly to bring up the Hitlerjugend business.

  4. Yes, the Hitlerjugend remark was a nasty wisecrack, not a serious argument.
    What I think Steve and others are missing here is the context of the Holy Father's anti-liberal remark:
    "The Pope's comments on family values were in stark contrast with new laws in Spain to legalize gay marriage, make divorce and fertility treatment easier and cut Catholic education in schools."
    Nor is it the case that the Pope is merely defending the right of a population that overwhelmingly agrees with the Church's teachings to impose them on the minority. Instead, he wants to maintain laws with which the Spanish people largely disagree:
    "Polls show around two thirds of Spaniards support gay marriage, a sea change from the 1939-1975 dictatorship when right-wing Francisco Franco banned homosexuality and divorce. Less than a fifth of Spaniards now practice their faith."
    As to the reflex charge of anti-Catholic bigotry, I'm old enough to recall John XXIII, the man Hannah Arendt memorably described as "a Christian in the chair of Peter." I resent J2P2 and Pope Ratso for undoing his work, and for their pettiness in blocking his canonization.
    (In the Department of Historical Ironies, consider this: the alliance between right-wing Catholics and right-wing fundamentalist Protestants that now dominates American politics would have been impossible had not John XXIII's ecumenism made the Catholic bogey-man less frightening to the Biblical literalists, who traditionally identified the Roman Church with the Whore of Babylon.)

  5. Somehow, when the Pope says "the community" should make decisions rather than the "individual", I don't get a picture of a New England town meeting where all concerned citizens debate and vote on the necessary issues, standards, and sanctions in the open. No, I think more of the dictatorial model where some Lords and Lordships make decisions in secret and impose them on the community for the greater good of the common man. And oddly enough the greater benefit of Their Lordships, though that doesn't get talked about so much.
    That, I think, is the problem. And didn't Mark start out with libertarian leanings (pre-Dubya Administration)?

  6. "Pud, Ratzinger belonged to the Hitler Youth because *every* German kid in the early 1940's belonged to the Hitler Youth."
    ok – if your defense against charges that you tend to totalitarianism is that you were compelled by a totalitarian regime to be a member of hitler youth, shouldn't I expect you to be fairly thoughtful about your use of language critical of individual liberty?
    as for the anti-papist stuff – born and raised, convent school for 12 year; let me tell you about something – the guy (in drag) at the top of a hierarchy that is publicly committed to demeaning treatment of queers and women, in my book, probably needs some scrutiny when it comes to democratic values.

  7. The key word here is 'freedom' and refers, I believe, to the Church's claim to be the supreme teacher of the individual conscience. That's very disengenuous because the Church knows that the individual conscience is indeed supreme to the Church. It's only hope is that it can convince you of it's obligation to form your conscience. Newman put it this way (and I paraphrase), the Pope is infallible but the human conscience is more infallible. What's kind of funny about that is that Newman, a Roman Catholic cardinal who converted to Catholocism from Anglicanism, was burried with his long time (celibate, I'm sure) male partner. He was spot on concerning conscience, as is Benedict so well aware of this. Imagine if we all started following our consciences in our activities. He doesn't want to lose control. Ah, that would make a good thread, thinking on it, do we always act acording to our consciences?

  8. Well, Mark has admitted that it was a nasty remark, but he hasn't said what he meant by it, other than that he doesn't like the pope (or other Catholics, apparently).
    We're told that Mark doesn't like the context of the remark. But that's quite a bit different from saying what's wrong with the remark itself.
    Here's a bit more of the speech:
    In contemporary culture, we often see an excessive exaltation of the freedom of the individual as an autonomous subject, as if we were self-created and self-sufficient, apart from our relationship with others and our responsibilities in their regard.
    Attempts are being made to organize the life of society on the basis of subjective and ephemeral desires alone, with no reference to objective, prior truths such as the dignity of each human being and his inalienable rights and duties, which every social group is called to serve.
    Mark, would you walk us through those two sentences and explain where you differ from the pope?

  9. Simple enough, Thomas: I deny that the Pope, or the rest of the Roman hierarchy, has privileged access to "objective, prior truths." So when the Pope criticizes freedom as insufficiently attentive to such truths, I get the feeling I'm reading the Syllabus of Errors.
    The remark about "other Catholics" is completely baseless, and I'd ask you to take it back unless you can support it with evidence. If you mean "other right-wing authoritarian political figures who are Catholic," that of course is correct. But it's not their Catholicism I deplore.
    Cranky is misinformed. I've always been a liberal, never a libertarian.

  10. > Cranky is misinformed. I've
    > always been a liberal, never
    > a libertarian.
    My apologies; I didn't mean to insult you like that!

  11. I'm going to agree with Mark here.
    Despite the fact that my family was and is German, and did belong to all the relevant clubs–and quite a few of the very illegal sort back in the day–in the context the speech was given, I find it offensive.
    Catholicism fell in popularity in Spain because the local church, pardon my crassness, was giving Franco a handjob back in the day. They gave him the basis for being a totalitarian, down to skirt lengths and makeup, and actively aided and abbetted in the abuse of political prisoners and the brainwashing of their children. That's based on a Spanish Museum exhibit in Barcelona 2004 entitled "Franco's Helpers and Franco's Victims."
    While I appreciate that the man in the throne of Peter thinks he is the Man, electoral democracy is made up of, well, people, and forcing faith down anyone's throat will make them choke, sooner or later. Besides, gay marriage neither picks their pockets or breaks their legs, as Thomas Jefferson would say, and if I want to get gay married in Spain and burn in hell, I won't bother to invite the Pope.
    Thus, he makes a hateful comment about a minority, however veiled, he should get a swift kick in the ass right back. For this, and any number of other reasons.

  12. This is the same pope who derided the dictatorship of relativism, which most of us are more likely to call by the name of democratic pluralism. Likewise, when the pope deplores the exaltation of freedom he really means, the freedom to act in ways I and my hierarchy deplore. I think his membership in Nazi mandated groups is mostly irrelevant, but it should cause us all to reflect that there are more than a few people in the world who think it's fine and dandy to "force" their conscience onto others. Ratzinger appears to think that this might be okay so long as he is the one who would be king.

  13. Mark, where in those quoted sentences does the pope claim privileged access to "objective, prior truths"? (Does the Catholic Church actually claim privileged access to the truths referred to? I think the answer is no.)
    Do you object to the particular "truth" asserted–"the dignity of each human being and his inalienable rights and duties"? You may disagree
    about how to cash out that particular asserted truth–we know where you and the pope disagree about issues of sex and death–but that doesn't
    convert into a disagreement with this statement as is, does it? I mean, you're not a libertarian, are you? (If you read the "subjective and ephemeral desires" line as a critique of, say, consumerism, is the statement still objectionable? Yes, says Brett. But what would Mark Kleiman say? I hate the pope?)
    In the end, doesn't the objection come down to, a Catholic said this? There's nothing in the particular content you object to, but you object to the words coming from Benedict. You're reacting to the pope, not to the statement.

  14. Shame on you, Mark, for posting a nasty wisecrack instead of a 3,000 word treatise undermining papal authority. I mean, really.

  15. Thomas, It is true that Ratzinger speaks in generalities that are hard to oppose on their own (who sees themselves as being against the dignity of the human person?) but his statements are clearly targeted at particular interests. Your protests are thus disingenous because Ratzinger makes these statements in a context in which he opposes very specific types of personal freedoms based on very specific claims of objective truth that are enshrined in Catholic dogma. Yes, the church does in fact claim to have special access to objective truth, a statement that I have a hard time believing any Roman Catholic could disagree with.

  16. Barbara, on the narrow point of special access, my understanding is that the Catholic Church teaches that truth is available through the use of human reason, and thus that it is equally available to all.

  17. Thomas, I am sure that the Church teaches that truth is AVAILABLE to all in the sense that no person can be assumed not to be able to discern the truth, but the Church does not teach that truth is a matter of subjective individual conscience, at least not on all matters (no matter what was said above — you can't put individual conscience together with many aspects of Catholic dogma and say that both are equally valid). In other words, truth is not malleable, it is objective not subjective and when the Church says that homosexual acts are wrong, it means it for everyone, not just those who believe that they are or would be wrong for themselves.

  18. If some professor made a comment demeaning the "bourgeosie freedoms of the west", would anybody here get in a snit?

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