The “La Croix” Interview: On Clericalism and the Tango

The Holy Father’s interviews are almost always provocative. But we do not always find a lot of answers, at least answers we think we can use.

“The opposite danger for the Church is clericalism. This is the sin committed by two parties, like the tango!”
— Pope Francis, La Croix, Paris, May 17, 2016.

“Bishop Fellay is a man with whom one can dialogue. This is not the case for other elements (of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X) who are a little strange, such as Bishop Williamson and others who have been radicalized.”
— Pope Francis, La Croix.

“States must be secular. Confessional states end badly. That goes against the grain of History.”
— Pope Francis, La Croix.


The present Pope can be wry. Could the national dance of Argentina possibly be a “sin”? Pius X apparently condemned the tango early in the 20th century. Other popes looked askance on the waltz, which, thanks to Vienna, now seems the most genteel and elegant of all dances. President Obama, of all sober people, was recently seen dramatically doing the tango—with an elegant Argentine lady, no less. Pope Francis said that as a young man he himself danced the tango. So I presume the “sin” of dancing the tango by two parties is not unto death and easily met with abundant mercy. The Pope seems less forgiving for what he calls “clericalism” and the “radicalized” of the Pius X Fraternity. (Strange how Pius X keeps coming up these days!)

Interviews are usually open-ended sessions designed to cover a multitude of issues. Almost every interview that Pope Francis has given during his time in the papacy has caused much attention, comment, and subsequent “clarification”. Though he has not surpassed the “Who am I to judge?” comment of the Rio trip for international notoriety, Francis has come close even here in La Croix.

The present interview with the French Catholic daily was primarily directed to France. It has many nice things to say about French spirituality and recalls the great French Catholic intellectuals. But it also covered, as they say, a “multitude of sins” beyond the two tango dancers. This interview contains a series of disparate issues, each of which has a point on which I will briefly comment. When asked about the recent synods, Francis remarked: “I think we all came out of the various processes different from the way we entered. Including me.” Francis did not elaborate just how he was different. But he did say: “I sought to respect the Synod to the maximum. You won’t find canonical prescriptions there about what one may or may not do.” The whole thing was just “a serene, peaceful reflection on the beauty of love, how to educate the children, to prepare for marriage.” Of course, what most people were looking for was precisely some accurate guidance about “what one may or may not do.” The international wrangling over several of the footnotes to the Apostolic Exhortation is precisely about seeking clarity when none seems forthcoming.

Does Europe have Christian roots? Everyone knows about its Greek, Roman, and barbarian origins in addition to Israel and Christianity. Most know of Islam’s conquests of the Eastern Roman Empire and the conquest of North Africa. To speak of Europe’s Christian roots as a “colonial enterprise” makes it appear that the evangelization of that continent was more of a conquest than a conversion. Only a Latin American would look at it that way. Christianity is supposed to be a “service”, like “washing the feet”. This image of “washing the feet” keeps coming up. As far as I know, though shoes are taken off, washing the feet of someone else is practiced nowhere outside Holy Thursday liturgies. Most people and cultures, it seems, would prefer to wash their own feet, not to make a ritual of it. One of the modern economic wonders is the world-wide industry of making shoes and socks available to most of the people on the planet. Most of the refugees that I have seen pictured are wearing tennis shoes.

The Holy Father does not draw his ideas about the origins and causes of war from Thucydides, Aristotle, von Clausewitz, or Augustine. We read in Augustine’s treatise “Against Faustus”:

What is the charge brought against war? Is it that some men, who will in any case die sooner or later, are killed so as to establish order for a people who will live in peace? To make such a charge is not the part of religious minds, but of timorous minds. The real evils in war are the love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild resistance, and lust for power and such like, and it is generally to punish these things, when force is required to inflict the punishment, that, in obedience to God or some lawful authority, good men undertake wars, when they find themselves in such a position as regards the conduct of human affairs that right conduct requires them to act, or to make others act in this way.

For Thucydides, the war was caused by the fear of the Spartans of the rising power of Athens. For von Clausewitz, war was another name for politics. For Augustine, war was not located outside of man in the things he made.

While acknowledging that Europe cannot take all migrants, the reason we have so many refugees now, Pope Francis thinks, is because of “the wars in the Middle East and in Africa.” Wars cause hunger. And what causes wars? “If there are wars, it is because there exists arms manufacturers…and above all arms traffickers.” It is admitted that arms can exist “for defensive purposes”. The logic of this analysis would seem to be that earlier wars were caused by the makers of spears, swords, scimitars, the breeders of war horses, or the craftsmen who made and trafficked in shields, pikes, javelins, bows and arrows. I suspect that, if we did rid ourselves of modern arms, missiles, and bombs, we would simply fight with knives, like ISIS and the Mexican drug lords already do. Then, to stop wars, someone would pose getting rid of the knife industry. But weapons do not cause wars. They are the results of what causes wars, the roots of which, as Augustine said, lies in the human soul as we know it.


On the question of unemployment, it is “because of lack of investment capable of providing employment.” Certainly investment is a factor in the development of jobs. By itself, nothing happens without also having innovation, profit, laws, and, the self-discipline to work well. Most importantly, we need an understanding of the world that allows it to be used, not an ecological view that just wants to preserve it. It is often said that the reason there is such a miserable rate of economic activity in Muslim countries is spiritual—it is the belief that God causes everything, so that human enterprise makes no difference. Allah is equally praised whether anything is done or not. Muslim refugees, be it noted, do not rush to other Muslim countries for two reasons: 1) they would not be welcomed, and 2) the refugees recognize that what they are looking for can only be found where people have already figured out how to be prosperous. A third reason might be that some refugees are directed into Europe precisely to invade it and eventually take it over.

“The great majority of humanity’s wealth has fallen into the hands of a minority of the population. A completely free market does not work. Markets themselves are good but they also require a fulcrum, a third party, or a state to monitor them. In other words, what is needed is a social market economy.” This sounds like nothing so much as Bernie Sanders! We have here little attempt to analyze why so much of the world is no longer in dire poverty, or why it still exists where it does.

The implicit re-distributionist thesis implied here—that is, “take from the rich and give to the poor”—is usually, when put into practice, a formula to make everyone poor. It undermines the notion that wealth is produced by everyone and punishes those who are more successful in producing it. The notion of a “social market economy” probably can be traced to the Jesuit economist Heinrich Pesch (1854-1926), or to the Germans in general. What we almost never see in this Pope, against the Argentine background of statism, is a concern about the power of the state as itself a major factor not only in economic failure (See Samuel Gregg’s recent CWR essay on Latin American populist states) but in its capacity to control freedom through its coercive powers.

The Pope turns to the question of what happens to migrants once they do manage to get into European cities. They form a ghetto, but they should be integrated. It has been long known, however, that particularly Muslim immigrants deliberately form ghettos through which they control and enforce Muslim custom and law and demand privileges. Once these ghettos become large enough to proceed, they seek to impose their own laws first on themselves then to force the surrounding society to abide by Islamic laws and customs. The ghettos are mostly the result of a deliberate choice not to integrate. The Pope does note in this context the declining birth-rate in Europe, which he sees as a “selfish search for well-being”. He does not here, at least, relate this decline of birthrate to the need of foreign labor. He does say that France is trying to increase its own birth rate.


Probably, the most cited passage in this interview concerns “the fear of Islam” as related to migrants. “Today, I (Pope Francis) don’t think there is a fear of Islam but of ISIS and its war of conquest, which is partly drawn from Islam. It is true that the idea of conquest is inherent in the soul of Islam. However, it is also possible to interpret the objective in Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus sends the disciples to all nations, in terms of the same idea of conquest.” Needless to say, this is quite a mouthful to swallow. First of all, I have long argued (as the Pope rightly implied), that the origin of Islam’s ambition to conquer the world for Allah did come indirectly from the Gospels. This source is probably where the Qur’an got the idea in the first place.

What Islam did not get from the Gospels was the jihad of military conquest as a means to implement the going forth to all nations. But whoever reads the Qur’an, in any age or place, will find this charge to conquer all nations is intrinsic to Islam’s integrity and understanding of itself. Francis says as much: “The idea of conquest is inherent in the soul of Islam.” How we reach from this premise that there are two radically different Islams—one violent and one not-violent—is difficult to see. There is no textual or historical basis for claiming that violent conquest is not an authentic interpretation of the Qur’an and the history of Islam.

It is probably true that Islam does not care much whether it conquers by violence or by demography or by elections. This is why the subject of conquest keeps recurring. It is why, with much justification, ISIS rightly claims to be following the commands of Allah while the others are dragging their feet. This expansionist understanding of Islam is also why we desperately need a critical edition of the Qur’an that has access to its real historic sources.

“In the face of Islamic terrorism, it would therefore be better to question ourselves about the way in which an overly Western model of democracy has been exported to countries such as Iraq, where a strong government previously existed, or in Libya where a tribal structure exists.” This is a remarkable passage. It seems to argue that Islamic terrorism is caused by efforts to establish a faulty form of democracy. But Islamic violence and absolute state control predate any modern Western idea of democracy.

The passage appears to justify the regimes of Hussain and Gadhafi. They were heroes, not villains. Many people besides the Pope have rightly argued that we had little national interest in trying to change Muslim despotisms. These despots were the only ones that could sit on the extremists within Islam. But they had to do so with a brutal hand. Let the Sunnis and Shiites fight their old differences among themselves. It is not our business. Democracy in any sense has never really existed in any Islamic state with the possible exception for a time in Lebanon.

Evidently “co-existence between Muslims and Christians is still possible.” As a proof, the Pope cites his own country, which has around a half million Muslims among forty-three million non-Muslim citizens. What we need to know is what happens when Muslims become ten, twenty, fifty percent of the population. The historical record is pretty clear. They set up the Muslim law as normative. They carry out their mission of conquest by both peaceful and military means. That is their faith. Who can blame them for following it?

Subsequent to this interview in La Croix, the Holy Father and the Grand Imam of Cairo briefly met in Rome (May 23, 2016). This is how the discussion is briefly described by the Holy See: “The two authoritative interlocutors highlighted the great significance of the new meeting in the framework of dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam. They went on to focus on the common commitment of the authorities and faithful of the great religions to peace in the world, the rejection of violence and terrorism, the situation of Christians in the context of conflict and tension in the Middle East, and their protection.” Whether these are anything more than pious thoughts remains to be seen. Most Christians have already been expelled from the Islamic world. And peace for Islam still means what happens after the world is converted to Allah, as the jihadists will tell us.


Two final passages remain worth commenting on: 1) the “exaggerated laicity” in France is a problem. Religion is not a “sub-culture” but a “fully-fledged culture in its own right”. It is apparently a “culture” not a “state”. France’s heritage to the Enlightenment is the cause of this exclusion of religion’s proper cultural place. “Openness to transcendence is a right for everyone.” It is a “right” that few Christians in Muslim lands and increasingly in many secular lands, including our own, enjoy. 

2) “States must be secular. Confessional states end badly. That goes against the grain of History.” The notion that states must be secular is the opposite of almost all popes before the last century. The word “secular” means many things from Marxism to Jefferson to Benedict XVI. All Muslim states are in some sense “confessional” states. Few have withered away. If a “confessional state” works and allows others to live in peace, there is no reason why it cannot exist. This seems to be the English tradition.

But perhaps the most enigmatic phrase in the whole interview is just what the Pope means by going “against the grain of History.” The passage is almost Hegelian in character. Is the “grain” of History a moral criterion? Is it deterministic? Does it refer to salvation history? Is “History” some sort of being or spirit apart from the records of free and rational human beings who make it up in this world? 

One thing, in conclusion, that we always have to say of the Holy Father’s interviews is that they are provocative. We do not always find a lot of answers, at least answers we think we can use. But we do find, on reading them over that many new unanswered questions arise in our souls. Much indeed remains to “dialogue” about—and perhaps to tango about.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).