Response to “Dear Pope Francis”

First things, if you will, first: the phenomenon of non-Catholics who feel compelled to respond to Pope Francis is amazing. From an objective perspective it looks at times like there’s a set of folks out there running a counter-PR campaign for Supply Side Jesus. I mean, if you’ve got some kind of problem with Catholicism, can’t you just ignore him?

The answer appears to be no. Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing is a glass-half-full type situation; of course, whether the glass is half empty or half full usually depends on whether you’re drinking or pouring. And holy smokes, are the libertarian types ever pouring.

Take Robert Tracinski of The Federalist, with this chickenshittishly anti-Catholic “Dear Pope Francis” open letter. I apologize for the profanity, but I can’t really respect something this deeply anti-Catholic that nonetheless squeamishly avoids the word papist. Go on, Robert, we all know you’re thinking it. I mean, choice quotes include:

I am writing to confess my sin. That’s what you Catholics are supposed to do, to confess your sin to an authority figure, right?

Oh jeez, make sure you accuse us of worshiping Mary too so I can fill out my bingo card.

I should note, however, that it is not really the physical dollar that I worship, no more than you worship a small metal crucifix you wear around your neck. That would be idolatry indeed.

Nice one.

With all due respect, Pope Francis, I’m beginning to think that maybe it is you who might have a sin to confess. Popes can sin, can’t they?


Now, I know there are interpretations of Christianity that are more compatible with capitalism and that Catholicism has always been a particularly intellectual religion, so I won’t presume to wade into the debates between its various philosophical interpreters.

In this case “I won’t presume to wade into” means “I absolutely just spent an entire essay presumptuously wading into.” So much for that so-called Catholic intellectualism, right? Heh heh. If there’s anything less tolerable than petulant disdain, it’s petulant disdain that won’t just come right out with it. Say what you will about Matt Bruenig, at least he’ll just come forward and admit to hating people. There’s at least some nobility in that kind of transparency.

But I digress. Here is Tracinski’s confession:

You see, I fit the description you recently gave of those who support the capitalist economic system, who have fallen into the sin of the “idolatry of money.” I do have a high regard for money, and since I’m an American, the particular denomination of my idolatry is worship of the Almighty Dollar.

Well alright then. Tracinski goes on to redefine capitalism, money, and idolatry. Here’s how:

No, it’s not the paper we worship. It’s the system that makes it possible for us to work to produce wealth and trade it for what others have produced. That’s what money really represents: it’s a store of value and a medium of exchange…Yet despite confessing my sin, I somehow can’t bring myself to feel guilty about it, because production and trade—aren’t these good things? Aren’t they the key to overcoming poverty and raising the world into prosperity?…But I would suggest that if you’re concerned about poverty and the well-being of humanity on this earth, you would do well to show a little more tolerance and understanding for the creed of those of us who believe in the value of dollars, money, production, and trade.

A series of very slippery moves substitutes meanings until Tracinski’s complaint differs totally from Pope Francis’. Pope Francis is using neither worship or idolatry in the colloquial, figurative sense. In Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit’s Idolatry, they rightly identify four broad senses of idolatry — idolatry as betrayal and rebellion, idolatry as metaphysical error, idolatry as ritual failure (via the worship of an intermediary), and idolatry as incorrect practice. Each of these senses of idolatry has to do with loyalty to God, and ultimately this is what idolatry is: any of a variety of acts of disloyalty to God.

Tracinski redefines this extremely serious form of sin to basically mean to hold something in high regard. But the difference between holding something in high regard rightly and holding something in high regard idolatrously is the process through which the thing is held in high regard. Augustine (Con IV:XII) for clarity:

If material things please you then praise God for them, but turn back your love upon Him who made them: lest in the things that please you, you displease Him. If souls please you, then love them in God because they are mutable in themselves but in Him firmly established: without Him they would pass and perish.

You can hold things in high regard and even love them, there’s no problem with that. But they are all at the very least only possible through God, thanks to his creative power, and their goodness is the goodness of God. If you begin to love these things in themselves, you substitute the love of the thing for the love of God, for if you loved rightly you would love those things insofar as they are God-given. So, is it alright to hold money in high regard? Sure I guess; it can bring about good, and it’s mendacious to say Pope Francis ever suggests otherwise. But to hold money in high regard to the exclusion of its God-givenness is disorderly. This is literally all Pope Francis is saying. He says it here:

At the center of all economic systems must be man, man and woman, and everything else must be in service of this man. But we have put money at the center, the god of money. We have fallen into a sin of idolatry, the idolatry of money.

If you loved wealth rightly, you would love it for its God-givenness, and in doing so you would behave correctly toward it, using it to carry out God’s wishes. Now, people don’t do this perfectly 100% of the time; that’s regrettable but understood. But Pope Francis’ point as well as Augustine’s is this: materiality is here to serve human flourishing toward the apprehension of the worship of God, and all things materially used should therefore point toward flourishing and toward the worship of God. If you love money, you should therefore love it only insofar as it can be used to serve human flourishing.

So Pope Francis wouldn’t disagree with Tracinski’s insistence that wealth serves the betterment of some: obviously it does. His objection is not that wealth never serves the betterment of people, but rather that the unrestrained pursuit of wealth to the exclusion of a commitment to human flourishing is a symptom of a disordered love of wealth. That is about as crystal clear as it gets. All of the utilitarian look-at-the-g00d-money-has-done points in the world are not responsive to this argument, and they make up the majority of Tracinski’s essay. Tracinski says:

In fact, money is valuable only insofar as it represents production.

Pope Francis and Augustine would make a distinction. Money has material worth to human beings insofar as it represents production, perhaps. Money is valuable insofar as it serves human flourishing. If it is not being sought and used to serve human flourishing, it is being sought and used wrongly. This is a very solid theological point: the dollar should serve man, not vice versa. This is why Pope Francis despairs at the idea of those who do not fare well in the market being destitute while others are excessively rich, and this has been a concern of nearly every other theologian I can think of who has written on these matters.

So at the end of all things, Tracinski has either willfully misunderstood the meaning of idolatry, worship, and money because he doesn’t like the idea of a theological inquiry into things he’d rather have freedom in (e.g. markets, trade, morality) or he just doesn’t really have the theological keys to unlock what Pope Francis is saying. There’s a weird reactionary thing going on around Pope Francis which is troubling; he’s not saying #fullcommunism or bust, he’s saying look into your hearts, examine the use of money and the purpose of it, ask yourselves if there’s more you could be doing as cultures and nations to use it rightly.

But I suspect as long as he says so he won’t be heard, and though Tracinski likely intends his confession to be tongue-in-cheek, it likely tells you more about why he’s failed to grasp Pope Francis’ spiritual message than he meant it to. Idolatry ain’t no joke, folks.

Note: I’ve been advised by an acquaintance of the author no anti-Catholic sentiment was likely intended with the excerpts in the intro. I submit this is possible. In the event that Tracinski’s colorful remarks were something like sibling-esque ribbing, well, consider mine the same.