Damon Linker overstates the case
Cultured readers will remember Sylvester the cat in one of his reformed periods, when he was trying not to eat Tweety bird, until, inevitably, because he’s a cat, and a hungry one, he launches himself at Tweety’s cage. Some observers of the Catholic Church think of politically conservative Catholics in relation to Pope Francis as if they were Sylvester just before he breaks.
These Catholics, they think, have so far been restrained by their respect for the papacy but are inwardly so upset by Francis’ alleged liberal politics that at some point they will turn on him. It’s not an unreasonable prediction. Traditionalists started sniping at Francis within a minute or two of his election. Some of the Catholic writers at places like National Review and NRO have written with obvious annoyance at the pope.
I see email strings from respectable conservative Catholics of some worldly status, which is to say who are not cranks, in which almost everything Francis says is read with the prejudice of an unscrupulous prosecuting attorney. Conservative Protestants hostile to the Church are welcomed into these discussions as long as they trash Francis.
Some of this reflects reactions to internal Church debates and not public politics. Still, a good many politically conservative Catholics are Sylvester before he breaks — and a few Sylvester after he breaks. This is the point of an article by Damon Linker in The Week titled “The Republican Party’s War With Francis Has Finally Started,” which is not really about the Republican party at all but about Catholic conservatives he believes uncritically support the party. They “have held their tongues, working to put a positive spin on papal pronouncements that many of them find increasingly alarming.”
Salon recently ran a similar article, with the title “The Pope Francis revolution: Inside the catastrophic collapse of the Catholic right.” It was what you’d expect from Salon: heightened language with facts that are more or less true but selectively arranged to drive a thesis the author and site very much hope to be true, with the explanation of what it really means coming from a pro-choice Catholic partisan. And (surprise!) it’s somehow Benedict’s fault.
There are others, I suspect because many people really want it to be true. Linker, a Catholic himself and author of a book called The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege, sees the matter more clearly than Salon’s writer but not all that clearly. Francis, he writes, “has broken from too many elements in the Republican Party platform” for these conservative Catholics to continue supporting him. With his upcoming encyclical on the environment, “Francis has put conservative American Catholics in the position of having to choose between the pope and the GOP. It should surprise no one that they’re siding with the Republicans.”
This is unfair, I think, and Linker doesn’t do a good job of proving it. His evidence is one blog item on the First Things site, written by a culture and art critic, Maureen Mullarkey (a good friend, I should say), an item put down sharply by the magazine’s editor R. R. Reno; one web article in Forbes by a writer I suspect no one in America would have previously identified as Catholic; and another blog item from the First Things site in which Princeton professor Robert P. George explains the nature and limits of the authority of papal statements. The slight evidence, one element of which (Reno’s rebuttal of Mullarkey) argues for the opposite position, is supported by his history of the “theocons” of the eighties and nineties, who he claims set the pattern for adapting Catholicism to Republican politics.