As we have noted before in these pages, American Catholics and non-Catholics alike tend to view the Holy Father, Pope Francis, as a liberal, or a “leftist,” given his penchant for scolding the rich and powerful and defending the worth, dignity, and human rights of even the lowliest and most wretched of men.
We disagree with this assessment. In fact, we would argue that traditional political labels are of little or no value in assessing men like Pope Francis, whose job is to protect and evangelize the truth, without regard to one political ideology or another.
Recently, Pope Francis pursued this end in a speech denouncing genocide in all its forms and all its recent manifestations, including the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Turks during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The Pope’s pointed comments were made at a mass celebrated in the Armenian Catholic rite at St. Peter’s and in front of the Armenian President and several members of the Armenian clergy. The Holy Father not only condemned the Turkish acts as “genocide,” but gently chided the current Turkish leadership for continuing to deny the reality of the evil perpetrated against the largely-Christian Armenians. “Concealing or denying evil,” the Pope declared, “is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.”
For his trouble, the Holy Father was roundly condemned by the Turks, in particular by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who not only excoriated him for his comments but also recalled the Turkish ambassador to the Vatican in protest. You see, the Turks not only deny the size of the Armenian carnage, but deny that it should be called “genocide.” Turkey has long insisted that anyone who applies that term to the Armenian “issue” is insulting the Turkish people and is therefore a pro-Christian, anti-Muslim provocateur. Erdogan has now added Pope Francis to that list.
Frankly, we doubt that the Pope is terribly troubled by the Turks’ collective reaction. He knew well what he was doing, what he was saying, and how the Turks – and perhaps Muslim people more generally – would interpret his comments. And yet he feared not. Pope Francis is quite clearly upset by, and frustrated with, the global political consensus that has chosen to turn a blind eye to the slaughter of Christians throughout the Muslim world. The Pope has asked – and asked, and asked, and asked – for the powers that be to denounce these horrors occurring throughout the Muslim world, from Iraq to Nigeria to makeshift boats in the Mediterranean. His comments on the Armenian genocide were directed, specifically and personally, to the Armenians whose ancestors suffered under Turkish oppression. But they were made against the backdrop of the ongoing butchery against Christians by Muslim extremists.
Now, contrast, if you will, the Pope’s comments with those made the week before by Garry Trudeau, the formerly-famous illustrator of the formerly-relevant Doonsebury cartoon. Trudeau became the first cartoonist ever to receive the prestigious George Polk lifetime award and, as befits a man of his preoccupations, he used the occasion of his acceptance speech to blame his fellow cartoonists at the French weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo for their own murders at the hands of Muslim extremists.
“Charlie Hebdo,” Trudeau, began, “which always maintained it was attacking Islamic fanatics, not the general population, has succeeded in provoking many Muslims throughout France to make common cause with its most violent outliers. This is a bitter harvest.”
Never mind the chauvinistic presumption that the poor “general population” of Muslims simply couldn’t control themselves when confronted by the big ol’ meanies at Charlie Hebdo. Trudeau, quite clearly, believes that the satirists at Charlie Hebdo, through the exercise of free speech, were responsible for their own deaths because they “provoked” Muslims into murdering them. This is shameful, to say the very least. Unfortunately, it was but the tip of the proverbial iceberg for Trudeau. He continued:
Traditionally, satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable. Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful. Great French satirists like Molière and Daumier always punched up, holding up the self-satisfied and hypocritical to ridicule. Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny — it’s just mean.
By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech.
Our instincts here are to dismiss Trudeau’s ramblings as both ignorant and amoral. After all, Islam will soon be the world’s most populous religion, giving lie to Trudeau’s presumptions about “disenfranchised minorities.” Moreover, a religious sect capable of inciting as much violence, as much warfare, and as much fear in its enemies as radical Islam has can hardly be considered “powerless.” To the casual observer, Trudeau’s moral pronouncements based on this bizarre and parochial notion of “punching down” against one of the most feared and aggressive geopolitical forces of the last half-century might seem stupid, or worse yet, insane. But they are neither. They are, at least in Trudeau’s construction, perfectly expressive of the true moral condition.
To the contemporary Left – of which Trudeau is a shining example – traditional conceptions of right and wrong are not sufficient to capture the nuance of human experience. “Good” and “evil” are mere terms expressing power relationships and serve no purpose save to facilitate the abuse and oppression of one group by another. Or, to put it more simply: to a postmodern, post-religious Leftist like Trudeau, Muslims are and ever shall be “oppressed” by the white Christian aggressors who exploit and dominate the “other” in global society for their own benefit. Radical Muslim terrorists cannot be morally contemptible, therefore, since they are merely fighting back against the manipulation of power used against them by a cruel and domineering culture.
In his account of Pope Francis’s comments on the Armenian genocide, the inimitable Walter Russell Mead asked if the Pope “reads Huntington,” referring to Samuel Huntington, the Harvard scholar who posited that the 21st century would be dominated by a “Clash of Civilizations,” pitting, among others, Western Civilization against Islam. We understand Mead’s point, but believe his comment to be somewhat facetious. More to the point, we believe that the Pope and his comments on genocide are far more representative of a different clash, the clash of moral codes within Western Civilization—a clash with traditional morality on one side and contemporary, post-modern moral relativism on the other.
Pope Francis was, as we noted, unafraid to challenge evil and to call it by name. He was unwilling to condone evil because of the cultural status of its perpetrators. Evil, he proclaimed, is always and everywhere evil.
Garry Trudeau, by contrast, refused to acknowledge, much less condemn, evil because he feels that power relationships mitigate evil acts. He suggested, in short, that evil is relative and cannot simply be evaluated equally or universally. Some people – in this case radical Muslims – are less capable of evil, given their position in the power relationship.
Unfortunately, Trudeau represents the ascendant belief system in the West today, and his refusal to call Muslim terrorism evil is echoed throughout Western political culture. The President of the United States, for example, won’t even call the perpetrators of Islamic terrorism “Islamic,” for fear of assessing blame for monstrous acts to otherwise oppressed people.
In this sense, then, Pope Francis – the man who challenged the Turks and who calls the slaughter of Christian peoples “evil,” whether it occurred yesterday or a century ago – not only stands with his predecessors, but also stands athwart history (and contemporary culture) yelling “Stop!”
Pope Francis may not be as conservative as some of us may like. And he may like to talk more about climate change and the potential evils of the market economy than we see fit. However, he is anything but a contemporary “liberal,” which is to say that he has nothing in common with the likes of Garry Trudeau.
The Holy Father defies and transcends political labels, but he is, without question, a stanch and courageous defender of the traditional moral code. A “man of the Right” he may not be, but a moral “conservative” he is unquestionably.