This summer, Alan Jacobs had a great post responding to a recent biography of Virginia Woolf. In the post, Alan points out that actually respecting Woolf means taking seriously her heart-wrenching last letter to her husband, in which she praises him in some of the most genuine and intense language I’ve ever read. Instead, the biographer in question, Viviane Forrester, apparently makes Woolf’s husband the villain of her story, rather than respecting what Woolf herself had to say on the matter. I find that kind of ostensible respect, which actually depends on minimizing the agency of the people supposedly being respected, is pretty common. (I see it all the time, for example, with college instructors who want to love students the most, but who end up diminishing their individuality, and in so doing demonstrate profound disrespect to them. Adult respect depends on adult discrimination, on adult judgment.)
Something similar has been happening with Pope Francis. I am very happy that the pope we have cares a great deal about inequality, about social justice, about poverty…. We’re gonna have a pope, it seems, and I’m glad that we have a pope like Francis instead of one like Benedict.
But, look: the pope’s a pope, and I’m an atheist, and an anti-clericalist, and I think the Catholic Church has been guilty of a lot of terrible historical crimes (and, I admit, of doing a lot of important charitable work), and I’m just not keen on popes in general. If you dissolved the Vatican and sold all the treasures and the churches and the real estate, you could save countless lives from misery and death with that money, and since I don’t believe in a Catholic god or any other, that’d be my preference. I have friends who are Catholic, just like I have many friends who are conservative and libertarian and Patriots fans and other kinds of people who I think have made a pretty profound error in judgment, and it’s not like I’m purging my Facebook feed of any of them. But I do think that if you want to like a pope, you should take him seriously as a pope and not as a receptacle for your desires. I don’t mean to police other people’s enthusiasm, but a lot of lefties I know seem to be slipping from “all things considered I’d rather have this pope more than any other popes,” which I agree with, into “this pope is an objectively good person, and I’m not gonna think too hard about his opposition to abortion, same sex marriage, gender equality, and all the rest.” What else to make of something like this? I think a lot of people have been seduced into thinking that the pope’s insistence on the horrors of capitalism, the need to fight poverty, and similar lefty-friendly ideas stems from a desire to woo said lefties. I think it comes from a genuine belief that these issues are central to the doctrine of his church and the will of his god. And so it comes as little surprise that he apparently met with Kim Davis, given his own, unambiguous opposition to marriage equality.
Francis over Benedict, no doubt. But I don’t think this pope is cool because I don’t think popes are cool. He thinks, among other things, that crackers and wine literally become flesh and blood in people’s mouths. That seems like lunacy to me. But I think recognizing that he really believes it and the other things his church preaches entails a kind of respect that’s not shown by some of his more enthusiastic supporters, for whom his belief is a temporary inconvenience, a set of minor embarrassments best left unspoken.