Grading the Pope’s visit so far

Pope Francis is visiting the United States, and he is proving to be one of the most controversial popes of recent times. This is not a bad thing. But the Pope’s grades are are mish-mash: he gets some As and Bs but also a lot of Fs and Incompletes. Let’s take a look.

Dining with the homeless rather than with Washington politicians. A-PLUS. Did Jesus spend his time with the Sanhedrin and Pilate, or did he spend his time with the poor, sick and needy? You know the answer. The Pope leads by example here, and this decision alone makes his trip a success.

Condemning abortion. B. The Pope could have done more to specifically condemn government funding of abortion, but he is sticking to traditional Catholic teaching on abortion, and I think this is mostly a good thing. Of course, the Mormon position is somewhat different on abortion, but the Pope’s reminder that abortion is something to be avoided is a good moral lesson for us all.

Emphasizing the traditional family. A. The Pope gets excellent marks for pointing out that the family is under attack by the secular world. The Catholic church continues to oppose same-sex marriage even though such a view is not popular in Europe and the United States. News flash to liberals: same-sex marriage is still not very popular in many areas of Latin America, Asia and Africa, where the Catholic church is growing the fastest.

Emphasizing the importance of religious liberty. A. The Pope told President Obama that Catholics are concerned about maintaining religious liberty in the United States. Good for him. We should all be more concerned about this.

Compassion for immigrants. B. The Pope gets solid grades for his Christ-like love of immigrants, but the refugee crisis in Europe is not a simple problem that can be solved by Europeans blindly taking in millions of mostly Muslim people, the majority of whom are motivated by economics. Yes, the United States is a land of immigrants, but the United States also takes in millions of immigrants every year, and as much as I believe in the benefits of immigration it must be done in an orderly fashion with clear knowledge that many immigrants do indeed end up getting benefits from the government. The Pope seems not to care about this reality.

Global warming alarmism. F. The Catholic Encyclical on the environment is an embarrassment. The encyclical completely ignores the real science on the issue and fills page after page with moral platitudes about saving the Earth without acknowledging the actual role of technological innovations (some of which produce CO2) in bettering the lives of literally billions of people. The Pope seems to think we should all live in caves and huts without electricity and even criticizes air conditioning, which he himself uses (and is essential to preserving the Sistine Chapel, by the way). For a much better document, I proudly and unashamedly direct you to the LDS statement on the environment.

Economics. F-minus (or incomplete). The Pope grew up and lived most of his life in Argentina, where I lived for a time. I have been traveling there for more than 25 years. Argentina does not have a functioning free market or anything close to it. Argentina is a corporatist, crony capitalist state where the most powerful people get rich by buying off politicians, who also get rich. The poor get poorer and the middle class disappears in such a system. Crony capitalism also happens in the United States, of course, but at least there are vast areas of the economy in the United States that are free market-oriented. So, the Pope’s views on economics are hopelessly blinded by his life experience. When he thinks “free market” he thinks of corrupt, rich politicians taking bribes from corrupt, rich businesspeople. So of course he opposes such a system, and we all should oppose it. But this is not the free market. The free market is Steve Jobs inventing an iPhone that replaces dozens of devices with one small device that can fit in your pocket. The free market is Uber providing jobs and cheaper fares to tens of millions of people. The free market is your uncle starting a new small business because he perceives there is a need. The free market is a woman starting her own business braiding hair for her friends, who tell their friends, who tell their friends, etc. In short: the free market is the voluntary exchange of goods or money in a way that benefits both the buyer and the seller. The free market benefits us all, but especially the poor because in a true free market more jobs are available and people can learn principles of self-reliance. The Pope simply does not understand this, but I tend to think that someday he might change his mind on this issue.

Guns. F-minus. The Pope criticized people who build weapons, questioning whether they should call themselves Christians. Yes, we all yearn for a world where swords are beaten into plowshares. Personally, I am only in favor of defensive wars, so I like when the Pope speaks out against warfare. But if we are going to defend ourselves (which, by the way, is a moral thing to do), we are going to need weapons to do it. There is nothing immoral about building defensive weapons. Nothing. In fact, the evidence shows a clear correlation between a high number of defensive weapons and a more peaceful populace. Houston, without gun control, is much, much safer than Chicago, which has gun control. And so on. The Pope also does not see the logical fallacy in claiming that a society without guns would be more moral. The reality is that in our fallen world a society without guns means only the government and bad guys have guns. Does the Pope really believe the world is safer when only the government and bad guys have guns? Has he heard of the Soviet Union, or Nazi Germany or perhaps Cambodia under Pol Pot?

Areas where the Pope gets a big, fat incomplete: I have read the Pope’s speeches, and there are not many mentions of the Savior Jesus Christ. What’s up with that? Perhaps we will hear more about Jesus in later talks. Why doesn’t the Pope spend more time talking about the devastation of traditionally Christian communities in the Middle East? Those communities have been around for nearly 2,000 years, but I have not seen many mentions of them in his talks. And, last but not least, the Pope traveled to Cuba without condemning Communism in the strong tones of Pope John Paul II, who grew up in Communist Poland and saw the horrors of Communism with his own eyes. I really miss that pope.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

32 thoughts on “Grading the Pope’s visit so far

  1. I don’t understand the difference between the Pope’s position on abortion, and the Mormon one. As far as I know the commandment “Thou shalt not… kill, nor do anything like unto it” (D&C 59:6) is pretty clear despite sometimes hearing about special cases.

  2. David, here is what (the official Church web site) says about that:

    “The Church opposes abortion and counsels its members not to submit to or perform an abortion except in the rare cases where, in the opinion of competent medical counsel, the life or good health of the mother is seriously endangered or where the pregnancy was caused by rape and produces serious emotional trauma in the mother. Even then it should be done only after counseling with the local presiding priesthood authority and after receiving divine confirmation through prayer.”

    The LDS Church does not take the position that life begins at conception, which is a key Catholic teaching.

    In my opinion, the LDS church is clearly pro-life but has some slight differences with the Catholic church on this issue.

  3. Geoff,

    I really would like to ask and honest and sincere question. As an Irish Catholic convert to the LDS church I find your analysis and critique of Pope Francis to be quite offensive and inappropriate. If someone did the same type of analysis to any of the First Presidency or Quorum of the 12 speeches or conference talks would you allow it to be published on Millennial Star? It seems quite obvious that your concerns have more to do with the politics of the issues involved rather than an actual attempt to understand where the Pope is coming from.

    Even if you disagreed with him the tone and wording that you use is very disrespectful. Having read your blog multiple times I know what would have happened if somebody critiqued a speech of President Monson’s with the same intensity.

  4. I haven’t been impressed with him so far, and I think he’s confusing a lot of folks.

    Then again, some Lds leaders disappoint me sometimes, too. They also can be confusing. So I guess living in this glass house, I won’t throw stones. But then again, the joke goes that Catholics are supposed to believe the pope is infallible, and they don’t, whole Mormons are not supposed to think their leaders are infallible, but they do think they are…

  5. I know of cases of converts to Mormonism from Catholicism that went back to Catholicism, or at least left Mormonism, because they could not accept the slightly less unqualified condemnation of abortion in Mormonism.

    (I add that I accept the Mormon position, though I speculate it might be a touch firmer in a less wicked society.)

    I don’t know why being Irish or a convert from Catholicism gives anyone any special qualifications to condemn this post.

    My own feeling is that Francis has proven himself to be intellectually unserious in comparison with his predecessors. I have particular admiration for John Paul the Great, notwithstanding that I have never been Catholic, and acknowledge that he left some mighty big shoes to fill.

  6. Sean, thanks for your input. I guess we are just going to have to agree to disagree on this issue. (I am also not a big fan of people criticizing the “tone” of a post. If you don’t like the tone, then go read something else. Nobody is forcing you to read this post or this blog. I hope that is clear.)

  7. I don’t think there is such a thing as a “defensive weapon” – any weapon I can think of can be used in defense or offense. It simply depends on the attitude and intent of the user (or country) involved – and how that attitude and intent are perceived by those around them. I agree we need weapons, but we also need to figure out how to minimize the number of weapons in the hands of those (individuals and/or societies) which would use them to kill for fun or gain.

    Also the General Handbook of Instructions goes into more detail on the Church’s abortion stance. In addition to what is mentioned on the website the Handbook also clarifies that if competent medical authority determines the fetus/child would be born dead or die shortly after birth that an abortion may be acceptable as well.

    And as an economist I can say that once the investigation moves beyond a tiny insular society no one has ever been able to find a “free market” economy in actual fact. If there are not sufficient rules (and effective – potentially coercive power) from some type of governing authority then the “natural men” tend to dominate and steal or extort; and if there are sufficient laws and governmental power to minimize the tendencies of the natural men then there are many restrictions on economic activity as well. I do agree that to the extent we can foster innovation, productive activity, and matching rewards to results economies tend to function much better. But that type of system breaks down for any number of reasons – including many that people on both the Left and the Right of the political spectrum have identified.

  8. While it’s a bit odd to put ourselves in the shoes of the issuer of grades and render judgement on the pope’s actions and words in a public assessment, we all do it privately anyway. That is, unless you cling to every speech of the pope’s as the word of God subject to no disagreement — a standard God doesn’t even hold for himself.

    Sean, this is nothing more than a public display of one person’s well thought rationale on the matter. Would that all disagreements in society were conducted this way!

    The fact is the Pope conducted this speech for public display reasons, not because he felt it would change hearts among the politikers.

    The public has the duty to consider it and accept and reject parts of it. If it was President Monson up there I wouldn’t find it disrespectful for someone else in another faith to grade it this way.

    I believe in the marketplace of ideas and the power to freely disagree. I do not believe in the superiority of feelings to trump dialogue on important issues relating to the public.

    Tell me my words specifcally about you have hurt your feelings and I’ll respectfully refrain in future. Tell me my words about public policy, morality, society, etc have hurt your feelings and I’ll ask you to refrain from engaging in, reading, or listening to public debate if you want to protect your feelings.

  9. JSH, you are correct that there has never been a completely free market economy, but there have been less free and more free economies. Hong Kong from the 1840s until 1999 was perhaps the most free market economy ever seen. The result was huge economic growth and the creation of a massive middle class (as well as many rich people). Yes, some people did better than others, but today there are no beggars in Hong Kong and there is nearly no unemployment. Interestingly, Sweden from 1880 until 1950 was nearly a free market economy, and of course this created the prosperity that stalled upon the creation of the welfare state. (You can read more about Sweden’s economy here: Of course, the U.S. had one of the most free market economies of all from the 1700s until the 1930s, and the result was a huge increase in prosperity. The areas of greatest innovation and employment today — mostly high tech companies — remain areas that operate in a relatively free market. Unfortunately, we have burdened the U.S. economy with rules and regulations and a massive government, and the result has been 15 years of nearly flat growth from 2000 to today.

  10. Thanks Gerry. I think you are spot-on in pointing out that there is a difference between personal attacks and disagreements over ideology. Just to use one example, I am a huge critic of Harry Reid’s politics and political strategy but I always point out that I appreciate him as a fellow latter-day Saint. The Pope has decided to emphasize politics. He could travel everywhere and spend all of his time talking about Jesus (which is, ahem, what a lot of other religious leaders do). But he wants to talk about politics. So, it is legitimate to judge his political positions, which is what I have done.

  11. The Pope has received a lot of criticism from fellow Catholics as well. He seems very well-intentioned and his compassion for the poor and his decision to lead a less pompous life in terms of his public display is appealing. He subjected himself to possible danger by riding in a small and common car instead of the elaborate Pope Mobile. He is likable but when I contrast the things that he says that are very PC except with relation to abortion, sanctity of marriage and religious freedom, I feel he is a little naïve.
    I notice that progressives tend to ignore his positions that agree essentially with our Prophet might say and highlight his pronouncements on global warming, gun-control, immigration and economics.

  12. JSH writes: “I don’t think there is such a thing as a “defensive weapon” – any weapon I can think of can be used in defense or offense. It simply depends on the attitude and intent of the user (or country) involved – and how that attitude and intent are perceived by those around them. ”

    JSH, there are nit-pickers who would argue that helmets, bucklers and shields are “defensive weapons.” Then there are counter-nit-pickers who would say these things are armor, not weapons. By this is beside the point. I used the word “defensive weapons” purposefully. Weapons are tools. As you point out, the key issue is how they are used. Weapons in and of themselves are not immoral. The same gun that could be used to rob a 7-11 might later be used by a single, pregnant mother to protect herself from an abusive former husband intent on killing her. Does that same gun suddenly turn from immoral to moral? No, it is the purpose of the user, who is accountable to God, that changes. Based on the Pope’s comments, I don’t think he understands this, or if he does he conveniently forgets it in certain public pronouncements.

  13. Inasmuch as many people are naive, perhaps some of what we have in Pope Francis’ dialogue is intended to connect with the vast majorities. And once that connection is in place, then they won’t be so condemning of Catholicism and might actually pay attention to some of the arguments regarding Christ, etc.

  14. Meg, I am sure there are people in the Vatican who make that argument. There are certainly liberation theologists who make that argument and have made it since the 1960s. Unfortunately for such an argument, there is no actual evidence that making religion about “connecting with vast majorities” actually works. There are hundreds of progressive churches out there these days, from Congregationalists to universalists to the CofC. And, almost without exception, all of these churches are dying. It turns out that if you teach a progressive Gospel people stop coming to church because they can enjoy a progressive Gospel in the mountains or on the beach or doing just about anything. Meanwhile, the churches that are growing are the “conservative” churches, the Baptists, the evangelicals and the Mormons. If your church teaches a consistent message of morality, people are more likely to actually go to church. There are important lessons here for liberal Mormons and for liberal Catholics.

  15. Meg, you may or may not remember that I lived in Nicaragua in the 1980s for two years. I have been visiting that country since then (almost going on 30 years — wow!). Anyway, Nicaragua during the 1980s was “liberation theology” central. There were groups of Catholic priests who threw away their crosses, got married and started churches with pictures of left-wing heroes on the walls and rock and roll bands on the stage. These churches were nominally “Catholic.” The point of course was to “connect with the vast majorities,” i.e., the people who stopped going to church because traditional Catholics were so retrograde and preachy and stuff. So, how did these churches do? They were nearly empty every Sunday. I mean empty. Crickets. How did the traditional Catholic churches do with their masses in Latin and their moral preachiness? They were packed. I mean not even standing room packed. I mean people hanging out in the parking lot so they could hear the mass over the speaker packed. So, yeah, that whole “connecting with the vast majorities” thing has been tried, and it failed spectacularly.

  16. Geoff,

    Just gotta say that your dismissal of Sean’s critique on tone is pretty weak. You are certainly entitled to your opinion, but the whole “if you don’t like it, go somewhere else” argument shuts down dialogue. Try a little self introspection next time and really ask yourself if you could make the same points in a manner that promotes dialogue and understanding. Just my 2 cents…

  17. AJ, I gotta disagree. Sean is not interested in dialogue. He is interested in me writing a different type of post, a post that he would find more comfortable or in tune with what he would like to write or read. If he wants that, he should go somewhere else or write it himself. So, I don’t see his comment as being about dialogue but instead about being a “protest comment” that he didn’t like the post. The way you truly protest about not liking a post is by not reading it and not commenting on it. So yeah, we are just going to have to disagree on that.

    Here’s how you have a dialogue. You write a comment like this: “Geoff, I liked some parts of your post. But do you really think the Pope is that ignorant about economics or science? I mean, he has a masters degree after all. It seems to me his thinking in pretty much in line with what a lot of climate scientists and progressive politicians are saying these days.” That would have been a strong comment that would promote an interesting dialogue. But Sean’s comment was about protesting the post itself, and there is not much possibility of dialogue there, sorry.

    Note to commenters: this will be the last comment published regarding the “tone” of my post. If you don’t like the tone, go read something else. If you have a polite disagreement, your comment may make it. Maybe. 🙂 If you liked the post or have something positive to say, comment away. Multiple times!

  18. Fair enough, some good points there. I still think that tone is a part of dialogue, even if it is just filing away in the back of our minds so that the next time we write or interact with others we are more aware of how we appear to others. In the end it may make our writing more clear or effective.

  19. JSH, Geoff,

    A lot of the heartburn goes away when you recognize that a free market is not synonymous with an unregulated market. You cannot have a free market without a regulatory regime, and the more complex the market, the more elaborate the regulatory scheme required.

    What distinguished a properly regulated free market from an unfree market is the lack of central planning. There have certainly been markets that have come very close to that ideal.

  20. AJ, I have been blogging for a long, long time in the Mormon on-line world. I am way past caring what other people think of my “tone,” except for perhaps my wife, and she likes my tone, so I am good. I don’t really do this to please other people. I do this to get my thoughts out there, and if you don’t like it, go read something else. There are a lot of people who think it is their job to police the internet and they cruise around different places leaving outraged comments here and there. I am not a big fan of outrage. How you respond to a post is your decision, just as it is your decision whether to be offended or not. Modern-day prophets have made it clear that your reaction is a choice that you can make. My advice to readers is: if you don’t like what somebody writes, make a choice not to read it and go about your day reading things you do like. If you want to show your disagreement, disagree politely, showing a specific point of disagreement. If you want to make a general comment that is on topic, go for it. If you want to tell the writer how incredibly awesome their post is, then that is definitely welcome.

  21. Commenters who object to tone without actually raising substantial points of disagreement always come across to me as concern trolls.

  22. Kent beat me to it. Concern trolls are concerned.

    Q. How does one tell if one is a moderate?
    A. One spends more time shooting at one’s own side than at the other side.

  23. As someone who is almost always getting called out because of “tone” there is a reason I don’t care. Having tried to “sound reasonable” by the standards of people who apparently know what “sounding reasonable” is supposed to be, all it did is make me an easier target. I tried to negotiate, I tried to agree on parts and disagree on other parts to find some common ground. All I got was the brushoff. When I spoke up in my own Internet voice then people took notice, even if in the negative. They took me seriously by trying very hard not to take me seriously, but they at least paid attention to me. What I learned from the experience was that “tone” means nothing to people who have made up their minds what is and is not appropriate to say or think. Rushing to argue against “tone” is a way to ignore the arguments made.

    That said and getting back on topic, I do not like this Pope. I agree with the article. He may give lip service to some conservative things like abortion, but his actions and focus seem to be on political left social justice issues.

  24. Geoff,
    I agree with you that you do not need to defend your tone. I read this post on Wednesday, but didn’t get to the comments until today. What stuck with me was not any issue with the tone or a judgment that you shouldn’t be evaluating the Pope’s speeches.

    I think that because you (and most of your audience) are not Catholic, it makes sense to compare and contrast his speech with your own beliefs and views. There is nothing disrespectful about that. This is comparable to how I also would criticize Harry Reid. One difference might be that Harry Reid isn’t an official representative of the church. Apostles and members of the first presidency often speak at non-church functions and are often criticized by nonmembers and discontented members for what they did or did not say.

    For the millions of Catholics who view the Pope as God’s authorized mouthpiece, critiquing his words this way might seem to us like those who quote the APA to prove that the LDS leaders are misguided in the I views of sexuality or gender equality, of who lament every missed opportunity for leaders to officially proclaim their personal beliefs or pet doctrine. It may seem unfaithful to us, but makes perfect sense for those who do not believe in the authority of church leaders.

  25. I just remembered I never submitted my response, citing the BBC’s 2013 article about the reasons Pope Benedict XVI stepped down.

    The Vatican was apparently deeply mired in corruption during Pope Benedict’s time. One nice thing about Pope Francis is that he is sufficiently counter-culture that there is a chance he can clear out the stupid. Like dunking a valued but corroded piece in a caustic solution.

    From the perspective of cleansing the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, I think Pope Francis was a good choice. As to other aspects of a papacy (e.g., political, environmental, and economic views), I think Pope Francis must forge his way as he feels inspired so to do. Time will tell if his positions and actions are ultimately validated (or not). But in the net, I believe his papacy will have a positive effect on the Catholic Church.

  26. I think I read this essay around the Time the Pope release his encyclical on the economy and it articulates a conceptual problem that I think interferes with understanding what he is getting at.
    Basically we often buy into the fallacy that there is some atomic and thing called “The Market” that is separate and distinct from all other human activity. When in truth.
    “A market is not a distinct whole the way, let’s say, a planet is. A market cannot have a geologically separate existence like a rock. Markets emerge from rules; rules emerge from practices; practices emerge from associative behaviors; association emerges from the inherent insufficiency of any one person to meet his or her own needs. (Don’t confuse this with “scarcity,” that’s another story.)

    Moreover, the relevant rules, practices, behavior, and association do not stem from markets themselves. They derive from the many-faceted time-bound every-day practical experience of human life together. Take society or politics out of the picture, dry up the rules, practices, behavior, and association, and what is left of markets? Nothing. Keep all that in the picture, and you can be sure that markets remain distinguishable from other forms of human relationship. But that in no way makes them autonomous — they cannot exist distinct and apart from everything else.”

    There is no “Market” just markets each with rules that we set. And like house rules for a game of Monopoly, we can adjust the rules. they were neither handed down from Sinai nor are they like gravity, inherent in the physical properties of the universe. All Francis is saying is that we need to reexamine the rules.

  27. Joseph M, I would venture to say we are saying the same thing in different ways. What Pope Francis opposes is a “rigged market” where the same rich people always win regardless of consumer demand. In addition, he also opposes consumerism and greed, which is completely in line with what LDS prophets teach, by the way. We should all oppose these things. The first involve secret combinations and the second involves love of money and things. My contention is that he does not understand that the rhetoric he is using also implies that he oppose “non-rigged or free markets,” which is, as I say in the OP, just people voluntarily producing and selling to other people in a win-win transaction. Nobody should oppose in any way the voluntary exchange of goods, and I think that if I had an hour with Pope Francis I could show that he doesn’t oppose this either. But as I say he is using language that implies he does, which is in fact different than Pope John Paul, for example, who said the following in Centesimus Annus:

    “Man fulfills himself by using his intelligence and freedom. In so doing he utilizes the things of this world as objects and instruments and makes them his own. The foundation of the right to private initiative and ownership is to be found in this activity. By means of his work man commits himself, not only for his own sake but also for others and with others. Each person collaborates in the work of others and for their good. Man works in order to provide for the needs of his family, his community, his nation, and ultimately all humanity.”

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