David Harsanyi / August 2, 2013

What Conservatives Can Learn From the Pope

Being neither a Catholic nor a religious scholar, I’m in no position to offer opinions on the Roman Catholic Church or its doctrine. Yet it seems to me that conservatives might learn a thing or two from Pope Francis when it comes to messaging and tone.

The pope, it is widely reported, has “recast the Catholic Church’s image” by focusing on its “inviting, merciful aspects” – even “shocking,” as The Washington Post put it – to a planeload of reporters in an impromptu interview last week. Regarding homosexuality, he asserted, “Who am I to judge?”

Well, OK, that’s not exactly what he said. The pope, answering a question about celibate gay priests, noted, “If they accept the Lord and have good will, who am I to judge them?” If – which is a far cry from much of the public perception about the incident.

But perception matters. Most members of the press thought this moment quite remarkable, though really, it shouldn’t strike anyone with even the slightest curiosity as exceptional. The pope’s “who am I to judge” formulation is about as old as his institution itself. The church’s catechism says gays “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” This has been standard treatment for nearly everyone – in theory, if not always in practice – since the Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged incident.

What the pope did not do, as far as I can tell, was announce his support for gay marriage. Nor did he claim that homosexual activity is no longer a sin. He simply articulated one of the more compelling messages of his church’s teachings.

In this way, the incident is reminiscent of how much of the press treats classical liberal ideas – with either willful ignorance or a misleading grasp of the basics but almost always making sure to focus on the most extreme and cartoonish aspects of ideology. Guess what. Most of us haven’t read an Ayn Rand book since we were in our teens, and many of us weren’t too crazy about them when we did.

While the pope has circumvented the most negative perceptions about his institutions, conservatives have struggled to do the same. It begins with the tenor of rhetoric. Conservatives can make a powerful argument about how free markets – rather than an expanding welfare state – are the key to stronger communities, the way to escape from poverty and the key to improving income mobility, or they can call everyone a bunch of moochers. They can argue that traditional families are a public good and the foundation to our success, or they can obsess about sodomy laws. You can talk about strengthening our legal immigration system or weave a colorful tale about the cantaloupe-sized ankles of drug-running illegal Mexican immigrants. You can stress the morality of protecting nascent human life, or you can wander into pseudo-medical terrain about rape to rationalize your position.

These sorts of blunders don’t happen as often as the press would have you believe, but they do happen too often.

Not long ago, Pope Francis gave a homily in which he claimed that atheists could also find salvation. Though I was excited about this development for a couple of days (never hurts to have a backup plan, after all), the church soon clarified his comments. Apparently, the catechism says that atheists can find salvation but that those who reject the teachings of Jesus Christ cannot. So nothing’s changed. But, if I may, this vicar of Christ doesn’t sound like a jerk about it. And if you’re a politician, that’s a more valuable skill than any you can imagine.

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