Russ Douthat has a strange column in The New York Times today arguing that because the pope’s views cross the standard political lines of America’s left and right wings (denouncing both environmental destruction and embryonic) that he shows “that truth may not be served by perfect ideological conformity.”
The church is not a think tank, and there’s room for wide disagreement about how to put its social teaching into practice.
But Catholics are obliged to take seriously the underlying provocation of the papal message — namely, that our present political alignments are not the only ones imaginable, and that truth may not be served by perfect ideological conformity.
But Pope Benedict does not eschew “perfect ideological conformity,” before becoming pope he was, in fact, the enforcer of official Church doctrine, precisely the Church’s lead pointman on perfect ideological conformity. The Roman Catholic Church is not ideologically open simply because its own demands for ideological conformity puts its teachings at odds with American right wing or left wing ideologies. Douthat is ironically claiming that “truth may not be served by perfect ideological conformity” where the standard of serving truth is being more perfectly ideologically in conformity with the Pope. His standard of truth is not eschewing all institutional and political authorities and conformism for the sake of free-thought, it’s conforming more fully to a particular ideology, that of Roman Catholicism.
Douthat’s idea of learning from the pope how to escape “perfect ideological conformity” boils down to the following:
Why should being pro-environment preclude being pro-life? Why can’t Republicans worry about economic inequality, and Democrats consider devolving more power to localities and states? Does opposing the Iraq war mean that you have to endorse an anything-goes approach to bioethics? Does supporting free trade require supporting the death penalty?
See? We can learn to eschew perfect ideological conformity if only we would perfectly ideologically conform to Roman Catholic positions. Being pro-choice is of itself to be a conformist ideologue. Only by being pro-life can one be a free-wheeling freethinker like the pope who follows his conscience and thinks outside the box.
This article is written as though Douthat has so imbibed the notion that the current contingencies of right-left American political alignment are somehow fixed and eternal realities, such that any other combination of positions must be a bold and revolutionary rejection of the overwhelming power of consistent and self-enclosed ideologies. But in reality, there can be just as rigid, self-enclosed ideologies that don’t cut along our own culture’s contemprorary right-left lines and they can be just as open to criticism for their inflexibility and ideological narrowness as American conservatism and American liberalism. And as freeing as Douthat fantasizes it would be to get all crazy and mix up his own political allegiances more in line with Catholic social teaching than Rush Limbaugh’s party line, this does not make the Catholic Church a paradigm of openmindedness and reimagination.
Finally, Douthat judges the Pope is better at crossing divides than Obama apparently since “Obama’s Washington” is still split along the old partisan lines which the Pope is boldly flouting. So, apparently the Pope is a bold success at shaking up the political map simply by calling for consistent Catholic ideological thinking (with no observable effects yet in changing any parties’ actual political boundary lines) while Obama is a failure at shaking up the political map because his own calls for a post-partisan government have not materialized in Republicans converting to Obama’s liberal ideology.
This is patently ridiculous of course. Obama cannot be judged by how his enemies respond and the Pope does not get to be called a political boundary collapser simply for asking the boundaries be redrawn when thus far they have not been in actuality. The test of which one is closer to being an anti-ideologue is simple—where are the anti-ideological gestures? Both Obama and the Pope promote their respective political ideologies and call for quite a bit of conformity to them. But it’s Obama who invited Rick Warren (the Pope’s soul brother on many social issues) to pray at his inauguration and it’s Obama who acknowledged the need for a good faith public debate on abortion at Notre Dame. I’m waiting for the Pope to allow gay Anglican bishop Gene Robinson give an opening convocation for one of his major addresses and for him to attribute good faith to pro-choice advocates rather than accuse them of promoting a “culture of death.”