Nicholas Frankovich has a very astute post in National Review’s Corner blog about the amazing technicolor light show from the Vatican last night. In it he argues that the real battle in the Catholic world is not between the right and the left, but rather between those who are vertically oriented and horizontally oriented.
Two years ago on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Francis traveled to the neighborhood, Piazza di Spagna, which is near Rome’s highest-end shopping district, to pray and preach against neglect of the poor. On that occasion too, his politics overshadowed his spirituality. In general, he does a bad job of integrating Christianity’s horizontal message, “love thy neighbor,” with its vertical message, “love God.”
His intentions may be noble, but what he usually ends up communicating is that the horizontal message is primary. His assumption, which was fashionable among Jesuit educators in the 1970s, is apparently based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: You can’t expect someone to listen to your theology and philosophy if he’s cold, hungry, and sick. So the first duty of a teacher and of a preacher is to be, in effect, a social worker and political activist.
The poor we will have always with us, however. The implication of Jesuit social activism is that we must constantly postpone our attention to their spiritual needs. In many quarters, including the Vatican under this pontificate, the institutional Church has lapsed — or crashed, with a thud — into its besetting sin of valuing temporal over spiritual power. The political popes of the Renaissance would understand Francis well.
Contemporary Catholicism is mainly divided not between the political Left and the political Right but between the horizontally oriented and the vertically oriented. The latter are often pushed to the margins of Catholic circles. Last night, while up at corporate headquarters the princes of the Church were garishly attempting to ingratiate themselves to global political elites, the Institute of Christ the King, an order of traditional Catholic priests, led a stately Marian procession through the streets of Rome.
I noted in my critique of Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical that it really lacked a firm theological message, and that the encyclical was too secular in its language. Frankovich crystallizes why Pope Francis’s message seemed so hollow to me.