Politicians and Bishops in an Age of Absurdity and Bumper Stickers

Nancy Pelosi’s attempt to stop Archbishop Cordileone from being Catholic and a bishop indicates we are living in a confused, insane time

“Politicians have to be progressive; that is, they have to live in the future, because they know they have done nothing but evil in the past.” — G. K. Chesterton, Avowals and Denials, 1935.

“The last citadel in the Western world of God-given moral prescriptions concerning man’s use of his sexual faculties is the Catholic Church.” — Monsignor George A. Kelly, The Battle for the American Church, 1979.

“Question authority.” This well-known slogan, which has a Socratic heritage (more on that later), also has roots in Benjamin Franklin’s statement, “It is the first right of every citizen to question authority.”

My guess, having lived in Eugene, Oregon, for nearly twenty years, is that most people in these progressive part of the woods understand “Question authority” as a call to reject authority, and I suspect that holds true for most Americans. I’ve joked on occasion of how fun it could be to track down a car with the “Question authority” bumper sticker and ask the owner, “By what authority do you advocate that others question authority?” The inherent humor of such subversive inversion is appealing—”See, I’m questioning your authority to tell others to question authority…”—but I doubt the conversation that would likely follow would live up to the irony of it all. Besides, and let me be perfectly clear, most progressives aren’t openminded enough to tolerate the question of their authority.

In fact, most people who communicate by bumper stickers aren’t usually given to thinking through the logic of those mostly trite, if occasionally funny, statements. But in an age of soundbites, slogans, and snarky one-liners, they can pass for cleverness, even wisdom. They also, in many situations, are meant to stop any and all real thought, a sort of “Oh, yeah!? Take this!” type of remark.

Which brings me to the Most Famous Papal Statement of the Past Three Thousand Years: “Who Am I To Judge?” Of course, as countless folks have noted, Pope Francis originally said something a bit more qualified and specific than that. Even taken out of the larger context, which is quite essential to the sentence in question (made at the end of his June 28, 2013, interview while returning from World Youth Day), the difference should be obvious.

If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?

Good Catholics have debated the wisdom of that remark; as one priest said to me, “That’s all that most people know about Francis, and that’s all they’ll ever know.” That discussion, however, is different from noting that the purposeful misuse and abuse of the pope’s remark is not only bothersome, it is disingenuous, cynical, manipulative—and effective. Which is why, of course, many politicans and other public figures have used it repeatedly.

Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is the Minority Leader of the United States House of Representatives and the highest-ranking female politician in American history. She is also a Catholic who defines her “Catholic” faith—”my religion”, she calls it—by her rejection of clear and constant Catholic teaching, and she recently drew upon that sentence of Pope Francis in an attempt to stop San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone from giving a talk in support of marriage in Washington, DC (that talk was given, and can be read here).

In the larger scope of global events and Really Important Stuff, Pelosi’s pathetic stunt might be of little interest, but I think it is a near perfect example of just how banal, nonsensical, and ridiculous matters have become in the United States. As the San Francisco Chronicle notes, Pelosi, “is one of the country’s most powerful Catholic politicians,” which in and of itself is cause for either laughter or lamentation, as Pelosi’s brand of “Catholicism” is barely a caricature of a mirage of a distortion of actual Catholicism. She talks about “conscience” without displaying any substantive knowledge about the Church’s actual teaching about conscience. She presents herself as a “devout Catholic” while openly rejecting Catholic teaching on, well, nearly everything while thumbing her nose at the bishops. As I wrote two years ago, “Pelosi has made an entire career out of outlandish, ridiculous, false, and hideous statements because it works. And she gets away with it. Again and again and again.”

The Chronicle, of course, was undoubtedly happy to leak Pelosi’s letter, which apparently contained five basic points, all of which are either nonsensical or beside the point.

First, Pelosi urged the archbishop to not attend the controversial March for Marriage event, which she characterized as “venom masquerading as virtue.” But, really, who is she to judge? If someone is supporting marriage and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who is she or anyone else to judge him? Sigh. Of course, it doesn’t really work that way, does it? Again, most progressives aren’t openminded enough to tolerate the question of their authority—or their judgment. 

Secondly, she wrote to Abp. Cordileone, “We share our love of the Catholic faith and our city of San Francisco…” Even if that is true, so what? It has nothing to do with the matter at hand. But, really, what sort of love has Pelosi shown for the Catholic faith during her many years of public service? Her public actions and statements consistently demonstrate a willingness to subvert Catholicism to her progressive ideology, which leads to some brazen (if not very logical) conclusions, as when she said, in 2012, “My religion compels me–and I love it for it–to be against discrimination of any kind in our country, and I consider [the ban on gay marriage] a form of discrimination. I think it’s unconstitutional on top of that.” In sum, she is “compelled” by a religion she doesn’t seem to understand or really follow to support something—”gay marriage”—that is a fiction, for actual marriage consists, fundamentally, of a man and a woman. This is the same sort of deception used by those who promote the “ordination” of women to the Catholic priesthood, as if something that cannot and does not exist—a female priest—can be created out of thin air (and thinner thinking) simply by wishing it so and saying it must be.

Third, the Chronicle reports, “She urged him to abandon an event in which some of the participants show ‘disdain and hate towards LGBT persons.'” That begs a number of questions, including her definition of “disdain and hate,” which undoubtedly is located in any and all critical references to homosexuality, bi-sexuality, transgenderism, and “try-sexualism” (“We’ll try anything, anywhere, at any time!”). In just the past couple of years, it has become obvious that even harboring any sort of disgust at the thought of homosexual acts and relationships is somehow hateful, bigoted, and narrowminded. More to the point of the National Organization for Marriage’s annual rally and march, held on June 19th, it is increasingly clear that publicly advocating for marriage—true marriage, between a man and woman, etc.—is being construed as hateful, bigoted, and narrowminded.

Of course, this is the same woman who two years ago said that those lawmakers who voted against Obamacare due to moral concerns “will be voting to say that women can die on the floor and health care providers do not have to intervene if this bill is passed.” A reasonable person might question her grasp of reality. An observant person, however, might admit that she is the perfect politician for our times. And a cynical person, dare I say, might wonder if she is the epitome of the typical “American Catholic”.

Fourth, Pelosi told Cordileone, “While we may disagree on the subject of marriage equality, we do agree that every person is a child of God, possessed of the spark of divinity and worthy of respect.” This is a non sequitur, because being created in the likeness and image of God does not mean that every act committed by people is objectively good. Put another way, respecting a person for what he is objectively—a man created and loved by God—does not mean that all of his actions are worthy of respect. This is Moral Theology 101, but to be fair to Pelosi, many other Catholics are equally confused or confusing on such foundational truths.

Finally, the Chronicle reports, “Invoking the words of Pope Francis with regard to gays and lesbians, [Pelsoi] wrote, ‘If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?'” Again, Pelosi and nearly all those who support “gay marriage” have shown, again and again, that they are either incapable of distinguishing between judging persons and judging actions, or they are muddying these waters so that people think that any and all judgment is bad, period.

Yet the Church is not against proper judgments within necessary bounds, but against judgmentalism (just as the Church is not against science, but against scientism). Judging the inner state of souls is God’s place, not ours. But we can certainly judge actions—and we must do so as it’s impossible to live otherwise. The Catechism puts it very clearly and simply, so that even children and politicans can understand, if only they will listen: “However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God” (par. 1861). To give a specific example of distinction:

• Right judgment: “Among the sins gravely contrary to chastity are masturbation, fornication, pornography, and homosexual practices” (Catechism, par. 2396)

• Judgmentalism: “If you masturbate or fornicate or have homosexual sex, you are a retrobate loser who will burn in hell forever.”


• Right judgment: “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.'” (Catechism, par. 2357)

• Judgmentalism: “I refuse to show you love and respect until you stop being homosexual.”

What is ignored (among other things) by those who continually mouth that sentence by Francis are the two huge qualifiers he employed: 1) “is searching for the Lord” and 2) “has good will”. That can be applied, of course, to all sinners—that is, to all of us. Was Nancy Pelosi, in trying to strong arm the archbishop, searching for the Lord? Was she exhibiting good will? No, it appears that she was simply trying to misuse the pope’s words as a tool of power and coercion for the sake of an ideology and agenda that is contrary to thae teachings of the Catholic Church.

This past Monday, in his homily, the Holy Father once again spoke of judging others, remarking on the Gospel from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:1-15). ZENIT’s summary states, in part:

The Holy Father reflected on the liturgy of today, in which Jesus commanded his disciples to: “Stop judging, so that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.”

Francis warned faithful not to usurp the role of judging. He said it’s not any person’s responsibility and if one does try to judge his brother, he will be a “loser, because he will end up a victim of his own lack of mercy. This is what happens to a brother who judges.”

Speaking on mercy, the Pope stressed that Jesus “never accuses,” rather he does the “opposite,” he defends.

This, again, is not aimed at proper moral judgments, but at a judgmentalism that fixates on condemning others out of pride, selfishness, insecurity, and other sins and sinful attitudes. Jesus’ own words indicate the need to provide moral guidance—but only once our own sins have been addressed:

Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.” (emphasis added)

The entire Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) is filled with moral judgments: against unrighteous anger (5:21-26), adultery (5:27-30), divorce (5:31-32), swearing false oaths (5:33-37), retaliation (5:38-42), hypocrisy (6:1-4), self-serving piety (6:5-8), and so forth. There is also Jesus’ statement, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (Jn 7:24), which is a timely bit of wisdom, especially in an age of illusion and deceptive appearances.

Which brings me back to Socrates and the matter of questioning authority. A graduate student, in remarking upon the topic, made this excellent point: “Questioning authority was [Socrates’] whole game. But he did not question authority in the same way an angst-ridden teenager might; he sought to get at the root of an individual’s core beliefs by questioning their knowledge.” Everyone relies in some way upon a source of authority, and our approach to understanding authority is deeply rooted in how we understand the question, “What does it mean to be human?” The Catechism nicely makes this point by stating, “Every human community needs an authority to govern it. The foundation of such authority lies in human nature” (par. 1898). And therein lies a central problem when it comes to the intertwined issues of marriage, sexuality, family, and right living: a lacking anthropology. In the words of an archbishop, who told me last summer that the battle over marriage is the biggest challenge facing Catholics today: “How do even begin to talk to people who have a completely different understanding of what it means to be human?”

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the publication of Monsignor George A. Kelly’s book, The Battle for the American Church (Doubleday, 1979), a book that offers a wealth of insights into the past and the present, and is worth tracking down for that reason. Kelly, who died in 2004, referenced the work of the author and sociologist Fr. John L. Thomas, SJ, who wrote several best-selling books on Catholicism, family, and marriage in the 1950s and beyond (one book, The American Catholic Family, sold over one million copies and was named “Book of the Year” in 1954 by the Catholic Sociological Association). Fr. Thomas highlighted several points of contention between the Catholic understanding of marriage and the views of many Americans of the mid-20th century. The prevalent American perspective—in the 1950s—included:

• the “denial of the sacramental bond of marriage”
• the rejection of the “influence of religious doctrine on the formation of marriage and family values”
• the American habit of being “practical in judgment without necessary reference to principle or doctrine”
• and “the tendency of social scientists to look upon the human person as nothing more than a complex combination of basic urges, conditioned reflexes, and acquired habits”

Is it any surprise that we are where we are? When true authority (via reason and revelation) and an authentic anthropology (again, rooted in reason and revelation) are jettisoned, we are left with absurdity—inhuman, ideological, intolerant, and sophistic absurdity. Yes, we are to pursue lives of charity and mercy, but we are also to judge with right judgment, avoiding, as Archbishop Cordileone wrote in response to his critics, “judgments based on stereotypes, media images and comments taken out of context.”

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About Carl E. Olson 1220 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.