The Catholic Opposition to Pope Francis: On Massimo Borghesi’s “Catholic Discordance”

IN HIS MASTERFUL intellectual biography, The Mind of Pope Francis: Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s Intellectual Journey (2018), Italian moral philosopher Massimo Borghesi mentions in passing those American Catholics who criticize Francis for creating confusion through his supposedly vague or inconsistent doctrinal stands. Instead, Borghesi paints a complex portrait of the pope’s mind, tracing intellectual influences going back some 60 years. He shows that Francis’s remarkably coherent, nuanced, and theologically sound worldview has been shaped by many little-known sources such as the French Jesuit Gaston Fessard, Argentinian philosopher Amelia Podetti, German Italian social critic Romano Guardini, and Uruguayan journalist Alberto Methol Ferré.

In his latest book, Catholic Discordance: Neoconservatism vs. the Field Hospital Church of Pope Francis (expertly translated by Barry Hudock), Borghesi tackles the puzzling truth that the pope’s most persistently aggressive challengers are fellow believers. He offers an explanation rooted in America’s postcommunist triumphalism, and describes how Catholic neoconservatives, who cut their teeth in the Ronald Reagan era, willfullyd Catholic social teaching under both John Paul II and Benedict XVI to project a procapitalist Christianity on, and through, the church. This ideology has now been turned against Francis. The current pope can’t be exactly an apostle of Adam Smith when he described the “unfettered pursuit of money” as the “dung of Satan.”

According to Borghesi, “Catholic Americanism,” developed by a handful of “Catho-capitalists,” is an “ideology that has permeated the ecclesiastical world in the era of globalization” — and spawned deep antagonism toward Francis, whose passion for a “missionary” church” going to the peripheries, in dialogue with all, proved impossible to manipulate. Disturbingly, what the author describes is how the Catholic Church was weaponized to serve as a bulwark of American hegemony, exactly when the end of the Soviet Union left countries struggling to redefine political and economic norms.

Two of the three architects of this ideology — men who, Borghesi posits, attempted to “hijack” the ideas of Francis’s predecessors — are now dead: Michael Novak and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. The third, George Weigel, is still active.

Borghesi considers Novak the maestro of Catholic Americanism ideology. A journalist who covered the Second Vatican Council, taught at Stanford University, and did a turn at the Rockefeller Foundation, Novak was also, for three decades, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982), his most influential text, presents capitalism as a superior system because it can turn evil into good. Borghesi describes the book as “deeply individualistic” and unconcerned with how Christian ethics can, or should, help temper the market. He sees it as a Catholic version of Max Weber’s classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). Having portrayed capitalism as a sort of earthly paradise, Novak gives American believers the hegemonic task of spreading this economic gospel worldwide, targeting in particular vulnerable countries recently liberated from communism.

Neuhaus, originally a Lutheran minister who later converted to Catholicism and became a priest at age 54, was a strong advocate for Novack’s formulation of democratic capitalism. The magazine he founded, First Things, remains a mouthpiece for the neocon perspective. Evidence for Massimo Borghesi’s argument continues to be found in First Things: former secretary of state Michael Pompeo placed an undiplomatic critique of Pope Francis’s policy toward Beijing in its pages just weeks before a trip to Rome. In response, the Vatican refused Pompeo’s request for a meeting.

Working for the DC-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, George Weigel is the author of Witness to Hope (1999), a biography of John Paul II. Weigel was, arguably, the English-language world’s most recognized Catholic authority — until he lost access to Rome’s inner circle with the Francis papacy.

In Catholic Discordance, Borghesi shows how these three men “literally appropriated” John Paul II and disfigured his most nuanced thinking on economics. The author offers a telling example to support his claim: he details how Neuhaus, Novak, and Weigel deliberately misinterpreted the crucial encyclical Centesimus Annus (1991). The papal text is overtly critical of capitalism, warning of “the risk of an ‘idolatry’ of the market,” and declaring point-blank that “it is unacceptable to say that the defeat of so-called ‘Real Socialism’ leaves capitalism as the only model of economic organization.” According to Borghesi, however, the neocons twisted the document in such a way as to make it a promarket endorsement.

The three ideologues had an oversized influence on Catholic thought through multiple mutually reinforcing networks — think-tank financing, government affiliations, media channels and outlets, academic ties, and Vatican connections. They used these networks to serve those in power, which became apparent in the run up to the 2003 Iraq invasion. The Catho-capitalists were then on the side of boosting war, while Pope John Paul II was decisively against it. The pope predicted that American hubris would result in multiple disasters: scapegoating of ancient Christian communities, radicalization of Islam, regional instability for decades, and loss of American credibility.

As Borghesi recounts, about six weeks before the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Novak showed up in Rome to press on Vatican officials the claim that Saddam Hussein’s “possession of weapons of mass destruction” was a menace to American lives (which, of course, was a fabrication). This way, the use of military force would be moral under the Catholic “just war” theory. Vatican diplomats weren’t buying what Novak was selling — and the ills John Paul II anticipated in Iraq came true.

In his book, Borghesi also focuses on the way some Catholic intellectuals falsely projected capitalism onto the Holy See in order to create the perception that the church was aligned with US policy priorities. In this context, Francis became a target because it is quite impossible to misrepresent his economic stands.

What Borghesi does not consider in his book is an issue that bothers American neoconservatives: Francis stands up to the US regarding war and peace. Neocons generally valorize American exceptionalism, the nation’s self-image as a “city upon a hill,” anointed to tell the rest of the world what to do. The pope, on the other hand, sees a multipolar world in which American imperialism is as dangerous as the Chinese or Russian variety.

Borghesi’s physical distance from the United States mainly benefits the book; he writes freely about things that are verboten for the most Catholic commentators who live there. Weigel’s oversized influence on Catholic thought, for example, intimidates potential critics. Borgesi has no such worries.

Perhaps because he doesn’t live in the United States, or because he’s a philosopher, Borghesi does not delve into sinister behind-the-scenes shenanigans. When Novak, accompanied by the US ambassador to the Holy See, audaciously argued that Pope John Paul II was wrong about Iraq, he was on the board of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a foreign policy branch of the US government. Under the guise of democracy promotion, NED has a mixed record of injecting (not always welcome) American views into domestic politics of many countries around the world. Weigel, too, spent about a decade on the NED board.

During the Cold War, the US government developed multiple covert ways to influence world opinion. As documented by Frances Stoner Saunders in The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (1999), even art movements, such as abstract expressionism, and novels, like Doctor Zhivago, weren’t immune to manipulation. More recently, Saunders observed that the “cultural Cold War has never gone away, it’s just shifted from target to target.” One of those targets is now the Holy See, especially when it is not compliant with the American hegemon’s worldview.

As Borghesi explores in The Mind of Pope Francis, Bergoglio is naturally dubious of the US practice in Latin America of supporting strongmen, regardless of their honesty or democratic credentials. As a Jesuit, dedicated to serving the poorest among the poor, the pope has brought forth a formidable critique of consumerism and excessive materialism. Most importantly, as a religious leader who lived in Argentina through a political regime that used armed force against the people, he is a determined foe of militarism — and militarism has become the heart of US foreign policy.

Borghesi sees the neocon opposition to Pope Francis as rooted in American economic nationalism. And, unfortunately, the US economy is tragically tied to war, a reality the pope sees, with much pain, and criticizes — indirectly, but often.

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Victor Gaetan is senior international correspondent for the National Catholic Registercontributor to Foreign Affairs magazine, and author of God’s Diplomats: Pope Francis, Vatican Diplomacy, and America’s Armageddon (2021).

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