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Both progressive, but from different premises

30 October 2015

Harriet Baber traces the values of Leftist Americans, who love Pope Francis, but loathe his Roman Catholicism

PROGRESSIVES on the Left were thrilled when Pope Francis visited the United States last month — and shocked when he concluded his tour by meeting Kim Davis, a minor bureaucrat who had chosen to go to prison (briefly) rather than issue marriage licences to same-sex couples (Comment, 25 September). The Pope, urging Davis to “stay strong”, gave her two rosaries and a hug. The reactions to this reveal the inherent contradictions of those on the left of centre in the US — and on matters wider than their views of the Roman Catholic Church.

The American Left was baffled. Pope Francis had ticked all the boxes: social justice, environmentalism, immigration reform, and world peace. But he shared Davis’s views on same-sex marriage, and, when it came to contraception and abortion, sexual behaviour, and gender-roles, he lined up with the Religious Right.

The Right was irritated. Roman Catholic politicians who maintained that their opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage were an expression of their religious convictions deplored the Pope’s views on climate-change and immigration reform, his support of a “preferential option for the poor”, and his opposition to the death penalty.

The former Governor of Florida Jeb Bush, a Roman Catholic, who oversaw a record 21 executions during his time in office, chided the Pope for “meddling in politics”. And the Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar (also an RC) boycotted the Pope’s historic address to Congress because of the Pope’s views on the environment.

“This climate-change talk has adopted all of the socialist talking points, wrapped in false science and ideology,” Mr Gosar wrote, “and is being presented to guilt people into leftist policies.”

The Right deplored Pope Francis’s “leftist” policies. The Left did not understand that they came from assumptions about human well-being and moral obligation which were very different from their own. The Left rejected cut-throat capitalism because it did not deliver the benefits of modernity. Pope Francis rejected it because it because he rejected modernity.


POPE FRANCIS’s views articulate Catholic Social Teaching. Developed from Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891, it is a response to the human costs of industrialisation and technological progress in regimes of unregulated competition.

Since Rerum Novarum, popes have supported a range of policies aimed at promoting the well-being of all people — policies that progressives endorse. But the Church’s rationale for supporting them comes from a radically different understanding of well-being and the social good.

Catholic Social Teaching is communitarian — aimed at “the common good”. It emphasises the connection between individuals and the community, and the value of “natural” affiliations. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that people are essentially social, and that families are the first and basic units of a society.

The organisation of the family and community, according to church teaching, is rooted in the order of nature, and embodies a “complementarian” view of marriage, family life, and religious leadership. The paterfamilias will provide for the family, the materfamilias will nurture and care, and there will always be a place for another little one at the table. The aim is “human dignity”.


DIGNITY, however, is not enough; and conformity to “natural law”, as the RC Church understands it, is inconsistent with progressives’ fundamental moral commitments. Progressives see well-being as preference-satisfaction, and the good society as one that provides the widest possible range of opportunities for people to get what they want.

Yet we are constrained by unchosen characteristics. In a good society, we believe, the options people have should not be determined by unchosen affiliations or circumstances — by sex, race, or nationality, family of origin, intelligence, ability, or dumb luck. Progressivism is individualistic: it aims to free individuals from the constraints imposed by nature and the social order.


SECULAR progressives and conservative Roman Catholics agree about the value of human dignity — and about what dignity is not. It is not living in a garbage dump and eking out bare subsistence by scavenging. It is not working in a sweatshop, or being a child soldier or a sex worker in lieu of any other options. It is not being a mere means to someone else’s ends. And we agree that laissez-faire capitalism is not conducive to human dignity.

The aim of progressive policies is freedom: the feasibility of getting what one wants. But the market does not deliver either dignity or freedom. Markets are not perfectly efficient, and luck determines the assets with which participants enter.

Without regulation and intervention, the options of women and minorities in affluent countries are restricted, and the choices of most residents of the global South are limited to subsistence farming, scavenging, begging, sweatshop work, and prostitution. The free market and the power of multinational corporations to do what they will in the interests of maximising profit undermine both freedom and dignity.

Regulation and intervention by national governments and international agencies restrict the options of the few in order to increase the opportunities of the many. The welfare state greatly expands our options because, more than anything else, income-transfers promote freedom: money is the permanent possibility of preference-satisfaction.

Progressives can therefore agree with the Pope Francis’s critique of laissez-faire capitalism and neo-colonialism, but not with his rationale, or with Catholic Social Teaching on gender roles and the family. And there is no reason to expect that the Church will ever revise its teachings on these matters. The Pope and his progressive admirers have arrived at some of the same conclusions from very different premises about human nature, moral obligation, and the social good.

The Pope is Catholic — but we are not.


Dr Harriet Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, in the United States.

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