Opinion Columns & Blogs

Davis Merritt: Pope challenges our political habits of mind


If it is true that the test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind and still function, then Pope Francis has issued an intellectual challenge to America’s sharply bifurcated political classes.

Many Catholics, as well as non-Catholics, no longer accept – if they ever did – a pope infallibility on temporal affairs. That does not mean, however, that Pope Francis’ words are irrelevant. As head of an organization of 1.2 billion members, his words have a resonance that any head of state would envy.

So when Pope Francis, in an 84-page apostolic exhortation that is a blueprint for his papacy, sharply criticized a “financial system which rules rather than serves,” he became part of a fundamental debate.

He called out “trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice.” That philosophy, he wrote, “expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.”

Growing economic inequality, he said, is the result of ideologies that “defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and … reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.”

He continued: “In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.”

For America’s increasing percentage of liberals and conservatives equally sequestered in the comfort of ideological cul-de-sacs of their own devising, those papal ideas create the sort of cognitive dissonance that F. Scott Fitzgerald probably had in mind when he suggested that definition of intelligence.

But will America’s absolutists of both left and right get it? Could this pope’s departure from decades of papal intransigence and social inertia make even some small impression on the philosophical divide that renders our democracy seemingly incapable of collaborative action on our most pressing issues? If Pope Francis can function with traditional liberal economic notions and traditional conservative social notions equally in mind, should we not give that a shot?

For hardened ideologues, that won’t be easy. It requires stereotypical liberals, for instance, to deal with two competing ideas implicit in Pope Francis’ exhortation: his and their concerns about free-form, unfettered capitalism and their concerns about the separation of church and state.

Of determined conservatives, it requires, for instance, dealing with their ideas of free enterprise and trickle-down economics against his and their beliefs about social and cultural issues such as abortion and contraception.

It is an enduring habit of the human mind to seek to resolve such internal tensions, because we are more comfortable without them. So we convert one of the normally negotiable ideas into a non-negotiable principle to the exclusion of the other.

Truly perplexing conflicts can be searingly difficult for us to maintain and still function, but resolving them is a lazy mind’s recourse. It’s much harder to balance the tensions, but also potentially much more productive. Resolution merely for the sake of psychological comfort forecloses alternatives and cements us and our society in a place that is not very healthy.