Agreeing with the Pope by Misinterpreting Him
My colleague Morning’s Minion has two recent posts (here and here) about the “heartburn” experienced by conservatives in the US caused by Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation. Among the conservatives he mentions is Michael Novak, a prominent conservative Catholic intellectual. (Here conservative applies to his political and economic beliefs and not necessarily to his Catholicism.)
Novak wrote a review of Evangelii Gaudium in the National Review entitled “Agreeing with Pope Francis.” I will leave it to MM and to others (see, for instance, the blog Caelum et Terra) to comment on the specifics of his critique of Pope Francis’ take on neo-liberal economics. I want to focus my attention on the way in which he frames his argument. The piece begins with the title, which must have been seen as a bit provocative, or at least startling by the readers of the National Review, most of whom I presume are partial to the economic theories that the Pope is criticizing. And indeed, he seems to immediately back off from his title with the following lede:
Reading the new exhortation by Pope Francis after the wildly misleading presentations of it by the Guardian and Reuters (both from the left side of the U.K. press), and reading it with an American ear for language, I was at first amazed at how partisan and empirically unfounded were five or six of its sentences.
So how to explain the title? It would seem that Novak wants the best of both worlds: to reject the Pope’s argument while at the same time showing respect for his exhortation, suitably contextualized. The contextualization takes two forms. In the conclusion he carefully explains that an apostolic exhortation is not as important a document as an encyclical:
An exhortation is not so much a teaching document laying out a careful argument — that is the task for an encyclical. Rather, it is more like a sermon, a somewhat informal occasion for the pope to set out his vision as a pastor, and to present it as an invitation to deeply felt piety and devotion. Pope Francis excels at such personal speech.
Note the final description: the exhortation is a call to “deeply felt piety and devotion”, not a call to reform social structures that cause the poor to cry out to heaven. Thus, Novak is willing to listen to what the Pope says, as long as it is understood that it does not require him to do anything.
The second way in which Novak frames the Pope’s argument is to treat it as parochial:
[R]eading it through the eyes of a professor-bishop-pope who grew up in Argentina, I began to have more sympathy for the phrases used by Pope Francis.
Of course, the Pope is Argentinian, and his writing will reflect his first hand experience with the economy in Argentina. But this can be read in two ways. One way is to see a non-Western intellectual (though one educated in Europe) whose interpretation of global economics reflects his experience with being on the short end of austerity measures and other prescriptions of the economic elite. In other words: he is bringing to bear a cosmopolitan perspective. The other, one which Novak adopts, is to parse the Pope’s language and thereby marginalize him. He launches into a long (and seemingly tangential) paean to the wonders of American capitalism, the implicit point being that if the Pope understood how capitalism really worked, he wouldn’t engage in
swipes [that] are so highly partisan and biased that they seem outside this pope’s normal tranquillity and generosity of spirit.
However, Novak seems a bit uncomfortable in saying these things, so he endeavors to explain away the Pope’s words. The most striking example is his attempt to deal with the Pope’s use of “trickle-down theories”, a reference to trickle-down economics. (In passing, I note that Novak’s assertion that this expression originated in attacks on Ronald Reagan is incorrect: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, this expression originated in the 1930’s and was common in the 1940’s when Harry Truman used it.) He refers to this as a “careless mention” that was “exacerbated by a poor translation.” As quoted in his article, the “unfortunate” English translation reads
In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.
The (presumably) original Spanish text reads
En este contexto, algunos todavía defienden las teorías del “derrame,” que suponen que todo crecimiento económico, favorecido por la libertad de mercado, logra provocar por sí mismo mayor equidad e inclusión social en el mundo.
The key point for Novak is that the expression “trickle down theories” does not appear in the Spanish text and therefore the English text is wrong. The “correct” translation should be “spill-over theories” since the Spanish word “derrame” means “spillover” (as in water spilling out of a basin or over a seawall).
The problem, however, is that despite his reference to “professional translators” he has gotten the meaning of the passage wrong. A word-for-word translation of the text is inaccurate, since both “trickle down economics” and “teorias del derrame” are idiomatic expressions. (In this I hear the echos of the problems with translating the liturgy literally, discussed elsewhere.) According to my Spanish speaking colleagues, including one Argentinian, “teorias del derrame” is a Spanish expression that is exactly equivalent to “trickle-down economics”: referring to economic theories in which tax benefits and other incentives to the wealthy are supposed to create better economic conditions for people lower on the socio-economic scale. Their point is further confirmed by a discussion on a forum at WordReference.com.
Now in Novak’s defense, I must note that this term is not used universally: a colleague from Puerto Rico did not know it. On the other hand, he understood what the text was referring to.
So what is Novak’s point in this mistranslation? Had he translated it correctly, he could have noted that it was an Argentinian idiom, and used this to buttress his argument that the Pope is a speaking from a narrow, Argentinian perspective. I think, rather, that he emphasizes this point because he wants, while criticizing the Pope, to separate him from any possible connection with the economic left in America in elsewhere, people Novak dismisses:
Only those hostile to capitalism and Reagan’s successful reforms, and to the policies of Republicans in general after the downward mobility of the Carter years, use the derisive expression “trickle-down,” intended to caricature what actually happened under Reagan.
Bottom line: the Pope is wrong (unlike John Paul II, who really understood the wonderful power of capitalism), but his critique must be seen as grounded in his peculiar experience in Argentina and not to be connected to a broader economic school of thought.
What to make of Novak’s “agreement”? In the end it proves to be a rather shallow thing: Novak is not moved to reconsider his own economic and philosophical preconceptions. He agrees with the Pope only to the extent that it does not require him to do or believe anything different. In this regard, I think it would be more forthright of him to simply declare that he disagrees with the Pope.
Coda: As I was finishing this post my son Kiko asked me what it was about. I described my basic argument and he responded that it matched something John Stewart had said about the Pope: “He is the most popular man in the world that no one wants to listen to.” In retrospect I think there is a great deal of truth in this, and it suggests to me that Novak’s example should serve as more than an excuse for schadenfreude. One need only compare Novak to the rapturous summary of Evangelii Gaudium by Matthew Yglesias that he prefaces by saying
There’s a lot of stuff about Jesus in his thinking that I can’t really sign on to….
In its own way, this is as egregious a misinterpretation of Pope Francis as Novak makes: Yglesias latches onto the conclusions while ignoring or downplaying the reasoning that leads to them.
And this should be a reminder to all of us: we cannot cherry pick what portion of the Pope’s message, or more critically, what portion of the Gospel message, we listen to. I am not insisting on mindless obedience and conformity (since such literalism itself is often another form of picking and choosing) but rather reminding us—most especially including me—of the temptation to listen to the parts we find dulcet, and to turn down the parts that are most discordant.