Neither Left nor Right, Greek nor Jew, Male Nor Female

A Jesuit mission, northern Michigan.

A Jesuit mission, northern Michigan.

We’ve all been bombarded with information, notions, guesses, photos, hopes, and fears about the new pope over the last forty-eight hours.  Indeed, 50 hours ago (at least at the time of this writing), hardly anyone in the United States or in most parts of the world knew anything about the man who was to become Pope Francis.  Some of the responses–at least on social networks–have been bizarre, to state the least.  Lots of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” type posts.  Poor Pete Townshend.  Lots of extreme anti-Catholicism has emerged as well, though usually disguised as righteous indignation or cautious humor.

Others have been downright offensive.  “Look, they couldn’t really pick a non-European.  They just picked an Argentine-Italian.”  These folks who probably consider themselves non-racist are, frankly, as bigoted and as racist as any alive to base an opinion–pro or con–on the ethnicity of a person.  This is the point where I thank the good Lord for the Dominican nuns who educated me and taught me a person is a person is a person.  Amen–neither Greek nor Jew, neither male nor female.  All one.

Some posts have merely been prickly, especially about the new pope’s designation.  “He can’t be Pope Francis I, as there is not yet Pope Francis II.”  We’ll, ok, technically this is correct.  But, I for one am glad I first heard his name as Pope Francis I, as I had no idea that no other pope had ever taken that name.  It’s my confirmation name, so I’m especially happy.

Most Catholics, though, seem rather happy, and we are certainly willing to give him the benefit of any doubt and we hope with hope against all ills in the papacy and the Church universal.  After all, we pray, the Holy Spirit did guide the hands of the vote.

Two things that many good Catholics have stated have troubled me deeply, however.  Here’s been the standard line: “Well, he’s neither left nor right, but he believes strongly in social justice.”

First, the Pope can be neither left nor right.  In fact, no Catholic can be left or right.  It’s quite possible and very probable that no left or right even exists.  Two of our greatest Catholic thinkers over the past century, Christopher Dawson and Russell Kirk, noted time and again that the left-right divide is truly a propagandistic means employed by ideologues to divide humanity against humanity.  “The tactics of totalitarianism are to weld every difference of opinion and tradition. . . into an absolute ideological opposition which disintegrates society into hostile factions bent on destroying one another.”  The result, Dawson rightly argued, was nothing but the dehumanization of the person, resulting in bloodshed, destruction, and death.

After all, by stressing that one is left or right, we allow the sphere of politics to intrude too much into parts of life that should never be political or have been allowed to have become politicized in the first place.  A man, by his nature, is certainly a political being.  But, he or she is also so very much more than this.  The curse of the last 100 years has been politicization of everything under the sun, and every form of politics has proven imperial in its unhealthy desire to spread its cancer.

In reality, as Dawson and Kirk understood it, there is ultimately only man and anti-man, God and anti-God.  The divide is neither left nor right (horizontal), but transcendent or not (vertical).

Finally, we use the term “social justice” at our own peril.  There is no such thing as social justice.  If we properly understand justice as a virtue, we must define it properly and recognize that it is an objective and transcendent ideal, well beyond the reach of human manipulation.  That is, justice cannot be modified by whim, logic, or tradition.  It is what it is.  We can ignore it, mock it, or forget it.  But, it remains, only to be remembered and, if we are so blessed by God’s grace, to reign in the small and the large, the things of this world.

As the ancients understood it and as the Church has embraced and sanctified it, justice properly means “to give each person his or her due.”

When most–including well meaning Catholics–employ this term “social justice,” they mean very importantly the helping of the poor and a deep search for equality.  Yet, justice demands inequality, as it must recognize that each person brings unique gifts to the community of the moment and to the temporally expansive Body of Christ (Romans 12; 1 Cor 13).

What most mean by social justice is actually the virtue of charity (love), the highest of all virtues and that, as Josef Pieper reminded us, which ties the other six cardinal and Christian virtues together.  Prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope, and charity.

I realize this post might seem excessively picky and pedantic.  For this, I apologize.  But, I also believe that we must employ the proper terms for the proper things and define them to the best of our ability.

Just as politics has proven imperial, so language has succumbed to the propagandistic elements of the political, meaning manipulated for earthly gain.  We must remember, though, the first commands to Adam: to name things and to have stewardship over the created order.  Language matters, and we have not yet entered into a no-return world of Doublethink.  Justice is justice, and charity is charity.  They are certainly related to one another, but they are not the same.

When the manipulative manipulate, I’m not surprised.  But, when good Catholics buy into such manipulation, innocently adopting the language of the ideologues and others of unlimited ambition, I worry.

Most importantly, all seven virtues are so far beyond a left-right spectrum that we must–imperatively–transcend the limitations of our present infatuation with the political world.

Heaven is not the Oval Office, U.S. Senate, or Fox News.  Eternity is the eighth day, well beyond the comprehension of any one of us, unmerited by a single one of us, and offered only as a gratuitous gift of grace.


Birzer is a professor of history and author of intellectual biographies of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Christopher Dawson, and J.R.R. Tolkien.  He is currently completing a biography of Russell Kirk (1918-1994) and has just released his first set of video lectures (8 total) from Catholic Courses.


Categories:Pope Francis

  • Will

    Extra! Pope STILL Catholic! Media stunned!

  • ivan_the_mad

    A very good article, and I’m pleased to see a reference to Dawson.

    But I must disagree somewhat with your assertion that “[t]here is no such thing as social justice.” I understand what you’re getting at in light of your admonition to avoid left/right dichotomies as presenting false divisions, but the social teaching certainly seems to think social justice as such is something to note. From the catechism, in an article entitled “Social Justice”:

    1928 Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation. Social justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority.

  • Dan C

    That social justice is a search for equality is part of the right wing conflation of secular movements and the Catholic left. Quite frankly, the Catholic right, from which this essay derives, has little knowledge or depth in reading the Catholic left with any regularity, much less charity.

    Social justice is the broad attempt to move pass feeding the poor to reach those economically structural sins that cause poverty. This is an affirmed direction of social justice inquiry by thr last three popes, all differing with political commitments and temperaments.

    I prescribe to this author a better and more in depth discussion with the Catholic left, which for years was considered impure and just plain “icky” by the Catholic right.

    Doing so will help many understand this papacy, I believe.

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  • Rosemary

    LOVE and SUPPORT and PRAY for our new Pope Francis. Please give as much support as possible to this good man……………….He wants all that is right and just. He is God’s representative here on earth. All those with goodness in their heart will stand with our Pope……………………….

  • Bill

    Dr. Birzer, it is more important than ever to prevent twisting of language. “Social justice” for many has come to mean a more-or-less Marxist economic approach which benefits only the powerful. Great article!



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