Agreeing with the Pope by Misinterpreting Him

Agreeing with the Pope by Misinterpreting Him December 23, 2013

My colleague Morning’s Minion has two recent posts (here and here) about the “heartburn” experienced by conservatives in the US caused by Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation.   Among the conservatives he mentions is Michael Novak, a prominent conservative Catholic intellectual.  (Here conservative applies to his political and economic beliefs and not necessarily to his Catholicism.)

Novak wrote a review of Evangelii Gaudium in the National Review entitled “Agreeing with Pope Francis.”  I will leave it to MM and to others (see, for instance, the blog Caelum et Terra) to comment on the specifics of his critique of Pope Francis’ take on neo-liberal economics.    I want to focus my attention on the way in which he frames his argument.   The piece begins with the title, which must have been seen as a bit provocative, or at least startling by the readers of the National Review, most of whom I presume are partial to the economic theories that the Pope is criticizing.   And indeed, he seems to immediately back off from his title with the following lede:

Reading the new exhortation by Pope Francis after the wildly misleading presentations of it by the Guardian and Reuters (both from the left side of the U.K. press), and reading it with an American ear for language, I was at first amazed at how partisan and empirically unfounded were five or six of its sentences.

So how to explain the title?  It would seem that Novak wants the best of both worlds:  to reject the Pope’s argument while at the same time showing respect for his exhortation, suitably contextualized.  The contextualization takes two forms.  In the conclusion he carefully explains that an apostolic exhortation is not as important a document as an encyclical:

An exhortation is not so much a teaching document laying out a careful argument — that is the task for an encyclical. Rather, it is more like a sermon, a somewhat informal occasion for the pope to set out his vision as a pastor, and to present it as an invitation to deeply felt piety and devotion. Pope Francis excels at such personal speech.

Note the final description:  the exhortation is a call to “deeply felt piety and devotion”, not a call to reform social structures that cause the poor to cry out to heaven.    Thus, Novak is willing to listen to what the Pope says, as long as it is understood that it does not require him to do anything.

The second way in which Novak frames the Pope’s argument is to treat it as parochial:

[R]eading it through the eyes of a professor-bishop-pope who grew up in Argentina, I began to have more sympathy for the phrases used by Pope Francis.

Of course, the Pope is Argentinian, and his writing will reflect his first hand experience with the economy in Argentina.  But this can be read in two ways.  One way is to see a non-Western intellectual (though one educated in Europe) whose interpretation of global economics reflects his experience with being on the short end of austerity measures and other prescriptions of the economic elite.  In other words:  he is bringing to bear a cosmopolitan perspective.  The other, one which Novak adopts, is to parse the Pope’s language and  thereby marginalize him.  He launches into a long (and seemingly tangential) paean to the wonders of American capitalism, the implicit point being that if the Pope understood how capitalism really worked, he wouldn’t engage in

swipes [that] are so highly partisan and biased that they seem outside this pope’s normal tranquillity and generosity of spirit.

However, Novak seems a bit uncomfortable in saying these things, so he endeavors to explain away the Pope’s words.  The most striking example is his attempt to deal with the Pope’s use of “trickle-down theories”, a reference to trickle-down economics.  (In passing, I note that Novak’s assertion that this expression originated in attacks on Ronald Reagan is incorrect:  according to the Oxford English Dictionary, this expression originated in the 1930’s and was common in the 1940’s when Harry Truman used it.)  He refers to this as a “careless mention” that was “exacerbated by a poor translation.” As quoted in his article, the “unfortunate” English translation reads

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.

The (presumably) original Spanish text reads

En este contexto, algunos todavía defienden las teorías del “derrame,” que suponen que todo crecimiento económico, favorecido por la libertad de mercado, logra provocar por sí mismo mayor equidad e inclusión social en el mundo.

The key point for Novak  is that the expression “trickle down theories” does not appear in the Spanish text and therefore the English text is wrong.   The “correct” translation should be “spill-over theories” since the Spanish word “derrame” means “spillover” (as in water spilling out of a basin or over a seawall).

The problem, however, is that despite his reference to “professional translators” he has gotten the meaning of the passage wrong.   A word-for-word translation of the text is inaccurate, since both “trickle down economics” and “teorias del derrame” are idiomatic expressions.  (In this I hear the echos of the problems with translating the liturgy literally, discussed elsewhere.)  According to my Spanish speaking colleagues, including one Argentinian,  “teorias del derrame” is a Spanish expression that is exactly equivalent to “trickle-down economics”:  referring to economic theories in which tax benefits and other incentives to the wealthy are supposed to create better economic conditions for people lower on the socio-economic scale.    Their point is further confirmed by a discussion on a forum at

Now in Novak’s defense, I must note that this term is not used universally:  a colleague from Puerto Rico did not know it.  On the other hand, he understood what the text was referring to.

So what is Novak’s point in this mistranslation?   Had he translated it correctly, he could have noted that it was an Argentinian idiom, and used this to buttress his argument that the Pope is a speaking from a narrow, Argentinian perspective.  I think, rather, that he emphasizes this point because he wants, while criticizing the Pope, to separate him from any possible connection with the economic left in America in elsewhere, people Novak dismisses:

Only those hostile to capitalism and Reagan’s successful reforms, and to the policies of Republicans in general after the downward mobility of the Carter years, use the derisive expression “trickle-down,” intended to caricature what actually happened under Reagan.

Bottom line:  the Pope is wrong (unlike John Paul II, who really understood the wonderful power of capitalism), but his critique must be seen as grounded in his peculiar experience in Argentina and not to be connected to a broader economic school of thought.

What to make of Novak’s “agreement”?  In the end it proves to be a rather shallow thing:  Novak is not moved to reconsider his own economic and philosophical preconceptions.  He agrees with the Pope only to the extent that it does not require him to do or believe anything different.  In this regard, I think it would be more forthright of him to simply declare that he disagrees with the Pope.


Coda:   As I was finishing this post my son Kiko asked me what it was about.  I described my basic argument and he responded that it matched something John Stewart had said about the Pope:  “He is the most popular man in the world that no one wants to listen to.”  In retrospect I think there is a great deal of truth in this, and it suggests to me that Novak’s example should serve as more than an excuse for schadenfreude.    One need only compare Novak to the rapturous summary of Evangelii Gaudium by Matthew Yglesias that he prefaces by saying

There’s a lot of stuff about Jesus in his thinking that I can’t really sign on to….

In its own way, this is as egregious a misinterpretation of Pope Francis as Novak makes:  Yglesias latches onto the conclusions while ignoring or downplaying the reasoning that leads to them.

And this should be a reminder to all of us:  we cannot cherry pick what portion of the Pope’s message, or more critically, what portion of the Gospel message, we listen to.   I am not insisting on mindless obedience and conformity (since such literalism itself is often another form of picking and choosing)  but rather reminding us—most especially including me—of the temptation to listen to the parts we find dulcet, and to turn down the parts that are most discordant.

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  • Jordan

    Thank you David for your post, and especially an explanation of crucial Spanish vocabulary.

    Perhaps it is time for Catholic social teaching oriented American Catholics to move away from directly refuting prominent politically conservative Catholics in the think-tanks, on Capitol Hill, and elsewhere. Pope Francis , in his Evangelii Gaudium, offers a new slate on which to draw an alternate political philosophy based not on social Darwinism but a Christlike attention to the least among us.

    We who subscribe to comprehensive CST and its realization in American life must develop a way to succinctly and convincingly explain why CST is not socialism. In his new exhortation, Pope Francis has already developed a sophisticated argument for CST as a life-giving and life-affirming political way which intrinsically respects human beings and humanity. Pope Francis’s vison of a Christian political society is deeply opposed to the materialization and objectification of people characteristic of non-theistic socialism. The distinction between agnostic/atheistic humanist socialism and CST must be the starting point for the construction of a political alternate to the lie of trickle-down.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I tend to agree that we need to go on the offensive and stop playing defense. However, the problem is that the Michael Novaks, George Weigels, etc. are highly visible and have influence all out of proportion to the strength of their arguments. For instance, if my local Catholic paper only carries such columns on its op-ed page, a whole lot of Catholics are never going to realize that their ideas are a dubious interpretation of Catholic thought unless we get out there and challenge them.

    • S Finn

      What do you mean by, “it’s not socialism” except “I’m an American and I’ve been told all my life that socialism is a bad thing but CST is a good thing so it can’t be socialism”. Good grief, people.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Well, CST is not statist socialism as presented by, for instance, the British or French left. It has a lot in common with social democracy, as practiced by the German Social Democrats. One problem with the word socialism is that it is applied to a wide variety of of mutually contradictory ideas. I agree, however, that recently in American usage it has come to mean “progressive ideas I don’t like.”

  • Chris Sullivan

    An excellent post !

    Follow the Popes; ignore Novak, Weigel and the other neo-conservative apologists for imperialism.

    God Bless

  • Kurt

    Michael Novak has been a part of my life for a long time, going back to the days when he was a liberal in both theology and politics. I’ve read his works regularly and we have several common friends. I stuck with him when he helped lead the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, a group of Democrats supportive of the Party’s domestic agenda but advocating a more centerist — some would say hawkish — foreign policy ( I hope my pacifist friends here will forgive me). His book, The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics, made a great contribution to socio-political discussion of the time. As late as the 1980s he still kept an appreciation for the labor movement.

    But as I try to be aware of my own shortcomings, among which is as I age thinking the social patterns and situations I became familiar with are still commonplace in society, I find Novak has the same shortcoming.

    Not to pick on one minor part of his NR essay, but he writes ” Our grandfathers were garment workers, steelworkers, store clerks, gardeners, handymen, blue-collar workers of all sorts, without social insurance, Medicaid, food stamps, housing allowances, or the like. But they labored and somehow were able to send their children to colleges and universities. Now their children are doctors, lawyers, professors, editors, and owners of small businesses all over the country.”

    I need to say to him, you are speaking of the social mobility from your grandparents to your generation. Well, Michael, you are 80 years old. Your parents and grandparents are long dead. For the generation of your grandchildren, it is a different world. One that is as distant from you as Argentina is from the USA. I think this undercuts all of the rest of his essay.

    • Your reply here is brilliant, and right on target, I believe. I also find myself, despite my social-democratic leanings, echoing Chris Sullivan above: we need a distinctly “Christian-Democratic” form of politics in America, so let’s let the pope, and not the secularist Leftist OR the libertarian or the “neo-conservative” Rightists dictate the kind of politics we should be pursuing; he’s probably far more to be trusted on “social justice’ issues than ANY American or European politician.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Kurt, very well said.

  • Mark VA

    Perhaps, when it comes to examining the perennial economic concerns, our Pope Francis is thinking along the lines of G.K. Chesterton:

    I would venture to say this:

    Our charity, to be rooted in the life giving teachings of Christ, must have a strong personal component. It is not enough to just advocate for this or that state sponsored program, however laudable the program may be, or so appear. Small scale, face to face or anonymous, as situation demands, is the most authentic and powerful expression of love of neighbor. Everything else will be given besides.

    • kurt


      Absolutely true. It is not enough to advocate state sponsored programs nor church sponsored or organized charities. Writing a check or paying tithes and taxes still leave us with an obligation to directly involve ourselves with the poor. Catholic Charities and public programs are important but not everything.

  • Ronald King

    The foundation of any system are the collective core beliefs of self in relationship to the others. What initiates these core beliefs are primal survival mechanisms whose balance, dominance and expression have been conditioned by the history of cultural and familial experiences. The more we begin to see the connectedness of all creation and human relationships the better chance we have of developing empathy for the suffering of others rather than reinforcing our instinct to protect what we have accumulated for comfort and safety. An economic system which is driven by empathy transcends any system which is driven by rebellion or competition. If empathy is the foundation then it will express itself through individual, community and national levels of human relationships. Human expressions of boundaries will not exist if empathy becomes our starting point. Empathy does not have the effect of trickling down, rather, it has the effect of union and being connected.

  • I doubt I will get around to reading Novak’s entire piece (I’ve given up trying to “keep current” with every predictable piece of nonsense going) but two things quoted have me asking:
    1. What the hell does Novak think were Reagan’s “successful reforms”?
    2. The putative grandparents (they were mine, too) that Novak invokes had something that he doesn’t mention (at least in that quote). They fought to organize and bargain collectively; something made increasingly difficult in the private sector over the last forty years. Perhaps that’s what he means by a successful reform.

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