On Pope Francis and Thomas Jefferson

A Jefferson Bible

A Jefferson Bible

Is Francis the anti-American Pope?…

I’m not sure that I believe in a God, but I do believe in Pope Francis. The man known as “the Bishop of the slums” in his native Argentina represents a brand of Catholicism I recognize from the era of Pope John XXIII. As a student I was briefly involved in the English Catholic New Left movement inspired by the journal Slant. My father, also named Francis, was a devout Catholic and Labor party member who was fond of pronouncing, “Jesus Christ was the first socialist.” Pope Francis’s embrace of a simple lifestyle outside the luxurious Vatican Papal residence, and his “who am I to judge?” attitude to people once condemned as heinous sinners, have inspired many lapsed Catholics like me to take another look at the Faith of our Fathers. But when it comes to the 78 million American Catholics and their overwhelmingly conservative hierarchy, the reaction is more mixed.

The American Catholic press is full of stories quoting conservative Catholics as feeling “betrayed,” “seasick,” and in a state of “confusion, which comes from the Devil.” This last from an archbishop, essentially accusing the Pope of speaking for the devil! Ironically it is those who most strongly believe in hierarchical authority who now speak out against their pope. According to one Catholic of my acquaintance, who has unquestioning faith in every loony Obama conspiracy theory, this pope is just “too damn liberal.” Whatever happened to the presumption of infallibility? Pope Francis alarmed this faction with his demotion of conservative American bishops and suggestion that focusing only on issues such as abortion and homosexuality does not reflect the heart of the gospel. And he startled fundamentalists by declaring the Big Bang theory and evolution compatible with Catholic doctrine. But it is his pronouncements on economics, specifically capitalism, that have provoked the most outrage in the broader world of America’s right wing culture warriors. Catholics may be the largest denomination here, but the peculiarly American evangelical prosperity gospel still dominates. Forget being rewarded in the hereafter; if you follow Jesus you will be rewarded with riches here on earth. If you run your business according to “Christian values” (maybe by discriminating against gays) you will rake in the profits. Pope Francis preaches a quite different gospel:

 The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle.”

“Inequality is the root of social ills … as long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems.

Statements such as these earned a “pure Marxism” denunciation from High Priest of the Right Rush Limbaugh. And the Pope’s outright endorsement of the government’s responsibility to control the excesses of capitalism put him on the front pages of business newspapers and websites. A typical headline used the phrase “holy war.” Thus even a figure as large as the Pope is subsumed into the Great Maw of the American culture wars.

Which is a pity, because America could use some of Pope Francis’s compassion and humility right now, and his prayers. As we approach one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar Americans are once more grappling with the open wound of unresolved racial animus, the dark side of the War on Terror, and the worsening dysfunction of a polarized government.

As for me, I don’t know if Pope Francis will succeed in luring me all the way back to the Church. Call me a Jeffersonian Christian. Thomas Jefferson created his own version of the Bible by literally cutting up and pasting together selected quotes from the New Testament. He kept all the parts in which Jesus taught the ethical way to live, and threw out all the miracles, the Resurrection, and claims to Jesus’s divinity. Jefferson also owned a copy of the Quran, ordered and shipped from London when he was still a law student. Jefferson scholars believe it was important in shaping his ideas on religious liberty. These are uncomfortable facts for those who claim that America was founded as a specifically Christian nation. I am currently reading a new book by philosopher Matthew Stuart, Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. This being a bit heavy going for the busy holiday season I cannot claim to have got very far into it yet, but, as the title implies, Jefferson, Franklin, Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen, and other founders were derided as “infidels” and “atheists” in their day. Stuart argues that they were inspired, not by Christian values at all, but by pagan Roman philosophy, the Dutch heretic Spinoza, and other Enlightenment thinkers. One historian points out that had Jefferson lived at the time of the Inquisition, he would have been burned at the stake.

So when Pope Francis arrives in America next year he will greet one of the most religious nations on earth, but paradoxically one that was founded on the decidedly secular goal of “the pursuit of happiness.” Perhaps he can inspire a necessary rebalancing of American values. But first he will have to deal with his host, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, the very cleric who accused him of stirring the Devil’s confusion. I foresee a lengthy session in the confessional box for the unfortunate archbishop.

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About Author Profile: Rita Byrne Tull

Rita Byrne Tull is an ex-pat librarian who lives in Maryland.

10 thoughts on “On Pope Francis and Thomas Jefferson

  1. george.jansen55@gmail.com'
    December 17, 2014 at 10:58

    “but the peculiarly American evangelical prosperity gospel still dominates”.

    Dominates what? And it has in common with Thomas Jefferson (and John Adams for that matter) the presumption that Jesus Christ came to teach the commercial values: thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s property, thou shalt show up to work on time, etc. In fact, reading Jefferson and Adams’s correspondence on the matter led me to a degree of sympathy for some of the odder of the evangelical churches (whether right or left politically): they seem to have a notion that this is not what the Gospel is about.

    “And he startled fundamentalists by declaring the Big Bang theory and evolution compatible with Catholic doctrine.”

    He is in line here with all recent predecessors, as he is in his statements on economics. Those who profess astonishment haven’t been keeping up.

    And really, if what one wants is opinions somewhere along the continuum running from The Nation to The New York Times, why be lured back by Pope Francis? The New York Times delivers a hefty Sunday edition that is full of things to think and buy, and you don’t have to go farther than your front stoop on Sunday morning. It will occupy as little of your time as a 7:30 Mass next door, or as much as a full High Mass across town, driving, parking, and breakfast afterwards concluded. And you can drink coffee while you read it–so far I haven’t seen Catholics above the age of about four get beyond water bottles. (This is the gospel of hydration, I guess.)

    And by the way, “grappling with an open wound” is most unsanitary–wresting tournaments forbid it.

  2. markcfdbailey@gmail.com'
    December 17, 2014 at 12:42

    “Pope Francis’s embrace of a simple lifestyle outside the luxurious Vatican Papal residence”

    Oh, good God. Do you really believe this tosh? Francis the simple friar versus Benedict the extravagant pseudo-monarch? Francis lives in a very nice – and larger – apartment in the newly built Santa Marta guest complex, forsaking the rather simpler and smaller papal apartment that Benedict and his predecessors utilised. Unfortunately that apartment still needs to be maintained, but is left empty. It’s like all the nonsense surrounding his choice of footwear. He is praised for wearing ‘simple’ black shoes as opposed to the ‘luxurious’ red utilised by every one of his predecessors (and, no, they weren’t made by Prada). Do red shoes cost more than black?

    And if a Pope is not prepared to judge, what is he doing? That, in part, is his job. When the NYT, Guardian, Time and the rest praise him, it is because they think he is bending to their will, not because they think he is great for the Catholic church.

    The truth is that Francis is not the great liberal they portray him as, but nor does he have the intellectual heft of Benedict – and, my, how they hated and misrepresented him. He is, essentially. a Peronist Pope and Peronism has worked so well for Argentina………………

    • markcfdbailey@gmail.com'
      December 17, 2014 at 12:54

      I could have gone on for days fisking this piece, but just to give a flavour of the paucity of knowledge and reflection it is worth asking Rita whether she even knew that the Big Bang theory was proposed and formulated by a Belgian Catholic priest, Georges Lemaitre, whom the Pope of the day honoured by making a Monsignor. I think you’ll find that St Augustine was pretty happy with evolution too.

  3. ritatull@verizon.net'
    December 17, 2014 at 15:17

    My point was that most of the fundamentalist Christians in the U.S., who reject science and don\’t know much about Catholicism, were surprised when the Pope\’s views made headlines. What is common knowledge to some may be shocking new information to others.

  4. Brit
    December 17, 2014 at 21:20

    Is it possible to make profits specifically by discriminating against gays? The only cases I can think of involve turning away business (that B&B, venues refusing gay weddings perhaps?) – i.e. people putting their principles (misguided if you like) over profit.

    • ritatull@verizon.net'
      Rita Byrne Tull
      December 18, 2014 at 16:18

      The thing is the fundamentalists themselves believe it, and if it doesn’t work out they blame secular “godless” forces. Many things in America cannot be understood rationally!

  5. peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
    December 18, 2014 at 12:18

    Only in America could the Protestants and the non-believers pressgang a pope to do good guy/bad guy service in their battles and reduce the debate to that most fundamental question facing all of humanity—what did Thomas Jefferson believe.

    Meanwhile, Catholics shake their heads in bewilderment.

  6. davidanddonnacohen@gmail.com'
    December 18, 2014 at 18:16

    Talk about a fight in which I do not have a dog.

  7. jeffguinn@me.com'
    December 20, 2014 at 06:46

    Whatever happened to the presumption of infallibility?

    I’m pretty certain that the doctrine of papal infallibility doesn’t mean what you think it means.

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