Something for everyone.

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Pope Is a Smart Politician

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times, a correspondent and editor for the Economist and a senior editor at the Atlantic. He previously served as an official in the British finance ministry and the Government Economic Service.
Read More.
a | A

In listening to the pope's address to Congress, I was initially most interested to hear what he would say about capitalism. Would he remind the U.S. Congress that the unfettered pursuit of profit is "the dung of the devil"? Or would he be blunt?

Pope Francis

As his engaging and carefully calibrated talk went on, it became clear he wasn't looking to offend. For the purposes of this event, business wasn't the dung of the devil. On the contrary, it could be a "noble vocation." Good to have that cleared up.

Shrewd papal triangulation drew attention to the more theatrical aspects of the event. How would the Holy Father read his audience, and how would his audience react? Would there be alternating cheering ovations, in the familiar pantomime style -- with moments of hesitation as the leaders of the nation work out what they think by looking at their neighbors? That would be unseemly, but these habits can be hard to break.

The pope could have made any such restraint impossible, had he misjudged the occasion. The left has embraced Francis because he's been unusually outspoken on economic issues. The fact remains, in political terms he's both an extreme social conservative and an extreme economic progressive. This gives Democrats and Republicans alike a lot to cheer and a lot to cringe away from. It would be as easy for both sides to despise him as it is for them to adore him.

If the pope had described in plain terms his positions on, say, abortion and income redistribution, or gay marriage and climate change, he'd have tested congressional decorum severely. He decided to tread gently. Sounding more like an Archbishop of Canterbury than a Bishop of Rome, he called for less polarization and more pragmatism. So most of the applause was bipartisan. Even his remarks about the sanctity of life drew appreciation from all sides, because he carefully neglected to mention when he believes life begins.

In this way, he enabled everybody to honor the occasion by being not just pleased but overjoyed by what he said. Democratic Representative Patrick Murphy tweeted: "Hopeful that Congress takes the Pope's message on poverty to heart and acts to address income inequality." Republican Senator Ted Cruz tweeted: "A beacon of righteousness and dignity, @Pontifex has been a steadfast voice for the virtue of life, marriage, and religious liberty."

Lavish praise on the pope for the things you agree with, and pretend not to notice views that enrage you when anybody else expresses them. If only presidents could inspire such generosity. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Clive Crook at ccrook5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net