Watching the scene in the Apostolic Palace last May was quite an uncomfortable experience, to say the least. What I loved most about seeing President Trump meet Pope Francis is that the implications of their encounter totally crack through our narrowly conceived categories of religion, politics, and culture. How do we package these two characters? They hardly fit into the boxes of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ on which we’ve come to rely so heavily. This cringe-worthy extravaganza reveals just how much our dualistic notions of left and right, religious and secular, and good and bad are inadequate modes of expressing the realities which they seek to convey.
The American president, who ran as a Republican, flouted the norms of American political conservatism from the beginning of his candidacy. The right wing of American politics has typically been associated with “traditional values” which stem from Christian moral tenets. After the cultural revolution of the 1960s, most Christians turned to political conservatism as a means of preserving the cultural relevance of their now-old-fashioned ethical values. Thus the coining of the term “Religious Right.”
Catholic Christians were left in a quandary: as a persecuted minority group, Catholics had historically sided with the Democratic party. The concerns of immigrants’ rights, the preferential option for the poor, and communitarian ideals were more aligned at that time with liberal political values. This all took a drastic turn after the the 1973 ruling in favor of the legalization of abortion. Liberal politics quickly became associated with permissive attitudes toward morality and, through time, elitist ideological concerns regarding race and gender.
With whom ought Catholics align themselves today? It seems that we are welcomed in neither of the two mainstream political parties. And the figure of Pope Francis stands as a stark example of the profundity of the conundrum in which we Catholics find ourselves.
Though many tried to use Pope Benedict XVI’s traditionalist tone as a license to paint the Catholic Church as a bastion of political conservatism, Francis is making it much more difficult to do so. Francis stands by the notion that gender complementarity is intrinsic to marriage, he condemns the ideology that claims that the male-female binary ought not be normative, and vehemently opposes abortion; he also dedicated an entire Encyclical Letter to warning the world about the impeding ecological crisis, dedicates many of his homilies to critiquing the dangers of unfettered capitalism, and said Mass at the US-Mexico border as a gesture of solidarity with undocumented immigrants (which went on to spark the infamous Trump-Francis brawl).
Though Trump’s platform has been largely identified with political conservativism, he tends increasingly toward Republican Party heterodoxy. He has loudly defended the fortification of border control, ardently promotes trickle-down economics, his stance on the legal status of abortion has flip-flopped to epic proportions, and he supports the LGBT agenda.
Needless to say, American Catholics are struggling to find a political home in the US. Our political dysphoria has lead to a range of conflicting responses to the Roman Pontiff. Some liberal Catholics have applauded his “progressive tone,” and have implored him to “go further” and “get the Church with the times,” while more conservative Catholics have expressed concern about his unconventional rhetoric and have gone as far as accusing him of being a radical Marxist, and worse, the anti-Christ. Francis is not alone-other “confusing Catholics” like Dorothy Day didn’t fit the dualistic American paradigms of politics and culture. Also accused of being a radical socialist, Day refused to associate herself with the American political stage. She attributed this position to her deeply held moral convictions as a Catholic. In an encounter with the young Francis (later-to-be Cardinal) George, she said that she would not be voting for JFK: “I believe Mr. Kennedy has chosen very badly. No serious Catholic would want to be president of the United States.”
Day’s political outlook was rooted in Jesus’ proclamation in the twelfth chapter of Mark that his “Kingdom is not of this world.” Christians “don’t belong” in the temporal realm-both in the sense that they are subjected to God as ultimate authority, rather than to leaders of earthly governments; and in the sense that we are strangers, aliens even, in our culture. Our submission to God as ultimate authority makes it difficult for us to fit easily in the categories that mere humans have constructed.
While at times Catholics may find a particular political party’s platform to be more hospitable to their concerns than another, we ultimately have no home in any political party. While human constructs are shaky and unstable, God is constant and eternally relevant to the needs of the human heart.
Our contemporary circumstances, now perhaps more than ever, have revealed just how much Christians don’t fit neatly into the constructs of the temporal realm. The postmodern culture in which Americans are currently entrenched is founded upon the assertion that the man-made truths that were born of the Modernist philosophy of the Enlightenment project lack authentic value. The mission of the postmodern project is to deconstruct these poorly conceived notions of truth and to relegate the judgement of truth to the individual’s subjective criteria. The truth of my existence is not determined by something outside of myself, but by my own autonomous will. To fulfillment of my life, then, is to assert my self-will with as little restriction from the government and other people’s wills as possible.
The Pope’s gifts to President Trump, copies of his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium and his Encylical Letter Laudato Si, lay out the Church’s proposal regarding the truth of the human person with an eye toward the the postmodern context in which we find ourselves today. Francis claims that the Gospel proposes “a unified and complete sense of human life,” offering an integral vision that takes into account the complex needs of the human person as he or she strives toward unity with fellow human beings and with the Creator (EG 75).
He elaborates on this “integral vision” of the human person’s vocation in Laudato Si:
Our capacity to reason, to develop arguments, to be inventive, to interpret reality and to create art, along with other not yet discovered capacities, are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology. The sheer novelty involved in the emergence of a personal being within a material universe presupposes a direct action of God and a particular call to life and to a relationship.”(LS 81)
Politics, then, is not a mere human endeavor, but is a means for human beings to strive toward the fulfillment of their transcendent vocation together: “To believe that [God] is at work in everyone means realizing that he seeks to penetrate every human situation and all social bonds…we have been created in the image of the divine communion [of the Trinity], and so we cannot achieve fulfillment or salvation purely by our own efforts.” (EG 178)
The mission of the Church, then, is to defend this view which upholds man’s vocation to transcendence as the keystone upon which we engage with culture and the political body:
In this universe, shaped by open and intercommunicating systems, we can discern countless forms of relationship and participation. This leads us to think of the whole as open to God’s transcendence, within which it develops…This is what makes for the excitement and drama of human history, in which freedom, growth, salvation and love can blossom, or lead towards decadence and mutual destruction. The work of the Church seeks not only to remind everyone of the duty to care for nature, but at the same time ‘she must above all protect mankind from self-destruction.’ (LS 79)
This is what makes the encounter between Francis and Trump so entertaining. Francis is an enigma, an oddity of sorts, to the American eye. His “position” on important issues is a mystery to us. His nuanced and integrated view of the human person and society does not mesh well with our rigid ‘liberal-conservative’ binary, precisely because he is convinced that the human person is defined by his or her vocation to enter into communion with the ultimate Mystery-God Himself. Trump’s views also transgress this binary, tending toward a rather different direction from that of the Pope. The awkwardness of this meeting is indicative of the fragility of our country’s understanding of culture, politics, and society. Perhaps their encounter is a sign of things to come…or better yet that we need to go back to the beginning.