George Will’s Puerile Tantrum over Pope Francis

In a Washington Post syndicated column published last weekend, George Will went after Pope Francis and his coreligionists with phrases that might have been drawn from nineteenth-century liberal Protestant polemics. Among the Pope’s supposed vices are that “he stands against modernity, rationality, science, and ultimately, the spontaneous creativity of open societies in which people and their desires are not problems but precious resources.” Will’s reference to freely expressed “desires” in this diatribe caused me to think immediately of those who resist facilitating gay “marriages” or providing services to gay weddings, or academics who are kept out of positions here and in Western Europe for not being politically correct. Clearly the “desires” of these dissenters are not being met.

But then Will, who on Fox News and in his columns assumes the persona of a moderate “conservative,” has stressed with great irritation that opponents of gay “marriage” “will simply have to get used to it.” Presumably this innovation and such other gifts as government-enforced feminist directives fall under the category of “rationality,” “science,” or one of those other shibboleths that the Pope has failed to venerate sufficiently.

Bill Donohue, who as a defender of the Catholic faith has protested Will’s progressive “bigotry,” may be overly respectful of his target. Will ran out of interesting things to say decades ago, and he now turns out drab columns, as the ultimate Washington establishmentarian, with the help of badly educated assistants. Since Will has recently scolded the anti-immigrationist outsider Donald Trump and the shenanigans of Hillary Clinton and lavished praise on GOP insiders running for president, he may have thought that it was time to turn his attention to a bigger subject: that is, the Pope’s differences from pro-growth Republicans—and of course the multinationals that swell the coffers of the Republican National Committee.

Will went to work on the offending column with empty platitudes, some of which would suggest a preteen’s grasp of Western history. Is Francis questioning the moral value of a consumer society because he “grew up around the political culture of rancid Peronist populism, the sterile redistributionism that reduced his Argentina from the world’s 14th highest per capita GDP in 1900 to the 63rd today”? Whatever the economic problems that face the Argentines today, Juan Peron who died many decades ago has less and less to do with them. Moreover, there is no indication that Francis is a fan of the Argentine strongman who ruled his country during and after the Second World War. His criticism of obsessive materialism, whether or not one agrees with Francis on the reasons for global warming, can be easily justified, whether or not the spokesman happened to have grown up in a country once ruled by Peron.

Will descends even further into puerility when he rails against the Pope and his Church for trying to pull us back to “medieval stasis, when his church ruled the roost, economic growth was essentially nonexistent and life expectancy was around 30.” Thirteenth-century Europe showed the greatest economic development of any society in recorded history up until that time. After the Black Plague, and because of the bankruptcy of the great Italian banking houses in the 1340s, the European economy plummeted, and would not reach the same peak again, at least in Northwestern Europe, until the Industrial and Agricultural revolutions were underway in the eighteenth century. Will could check out my assertions by reading (my onetime teacher) Robert S. Lopez and Armando Sapori, two leading medieval economic historians (both of whom were anticlerical far leftists, and certainly not shills for the medieval Church).

It is not clear that the “church ruled the roost” throughout the Middle Ages, any more than Will’s silly statement that the medieval economy was static for a thousand years. For centuries, particularly in the late Middle Ages, Popes and other churchmen were contesting power with monarchs, and certainly didn’t always prevail in this continuing struggle. Ironically, the position of the Pope may be more secure in our antiseptically secular late modern age than it had been through much of the “age of faith.” It is also impossible to see how the medieval Church was to blame for Europe’s slow recovery from the invasions of the late Roman Empire and the so-called Dark Ages. The effect of this continuing devastation was so great and the available resources were so scarce that one need not assume medieval Catholic resistance to understand why the climb out of this wreck took time and effort. Moreover, since Italian Catholic bankers caused what has been described as “the economic Renaissance of the thirteenth century,” there is no evidence that the Church was causing “stasis,” even if canon law imposed some restrictions on commercial loans. Indeed, medieval churchmen were involved in creating the growing web of financial transactions.

Even more indicative of a reckless style is the claim that Francis, out of malevolence or prejudice, wants to return the human race to poor health as well as an impoverished economy. There is no evidence that the Pope is against medical science or prefers medieval remedies to modern medicine. How are the Pope’s complaints against the excesses of a consumer society equivalent to a protest against people living better and longer in the twenty-first century than they were a thousand years ago? Will should know that the major rises in life expectancy, owing to improved sanitation and breakthroughs in medical science, took place in the last hundred and fifty years. They were not retarded by medieval Catholic “stasis.”

By the way, I am appalled by the crusade waged against the Pope by the neoconservative and GOP establishment media. This has been entirely prompted by his views on global warming, which are not held by the journalists who are attacking the Pope, or more properly put, by the corporate sponsors of those engaging in this stream of abuse. This does not mean that the Pope has said nothing unsettling about current issues. He has taken some positions in this area that seem regrettable, for example, his exhortations to Europeans to welcome with open arms Muslim “migrants” rushing into Europe, supposedly in quest of asylum. Many of these migrants have left Turkey and other places where they were safe and far from starving because they wished to take advantage of European prosperity and the vast welfare system that would be made available to them. But their presence in the European heartland poses a demographic threat to the already diminishing Christian population, and the possibility that this mixed multitude includes terrorists and Muslim extremists renders their presence in Europe even more worrisome. One might ask why our GOP-neoconservative media are far less concerned with this problem than they are with the Pope’s having been swayed by the arguments in favor of man-caused global warming.

Paul E. Gottfried

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Paul E. Gottfried is the retired Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and a Guggenheim recipient. He is the author of numerous books, including The Search for Historical Meaning (2010) and Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America (2011). His latest book is Fascism: The Career of a Concept (2015).

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