This was a tough week. An idol of sorts got knocked off his pedestal, and really just about defenestrated.
When I was in seminary, I had to defend my honors thesis to a committee, which is nothing unusual. What was, in retrospect, funny, was that the highest compliment I got from the committee (other than that they passed me) was a statement from probably the most liberal member of the panel about my style: he said that I speak with a reasonableness, stability, a can’t-we-all-agree-that-this-is-common-sense-ness that he could only compare to conservative columnist George Will. It’s not that I set out to be like George Will, but I admired his style and his content a great deal, and I really appreciated the comparison.
Until this weekend, when the local paper printed the total hatchet job by Mr. Will on Pope Francis.
It’s not at all disconcerting that Will disagreed with Francis. It’s that the George Will I remembered, the George Will I emulated, never resorted to cheap ad hominem attacks, because he could rationally lead you to his point of view. Not this time.
I will admit that I don’t read him as often now, so I can’t tell whether he has migrated toward this cheap and easy belittling of opponents along with the rest of the political pundit culture. But whether this was an off day or a slow decline, it hurts no less than watching Willie Mays in 1973 with the Mets. The Kid has lost more than a step when he resorts to name-calling. Sanctimonious? Shrill? Wooly? Vacuous? Will labels the pope with all four in the first two paragraphs alone. He tries to frame Francis for not footnoting the science behind his arguments (while coming from a position that belittles the consensus of the overwhelming majority of relevant scientists). He then takes potshots at the Catholic Church and equates the pope’s positions as a dying brand trying to adopt the latest fad to maintain relevance. I absolutely honor Will’s right to dissent, but it still seems like a cheap shot. More, it seems much less than I would expect.
The George Will I looked up to not only wrote voluminously on baseball but made cogent points about the positions he advocated. He would have invited Pope Francis to consider the power of free-market capitalism to lift billions out of absolute poverty (a pitch he waves at and fouls off.) He would have shown not only that we have fought back successfully against environmental degradation but that a free market is essential to spur the sort of innovation it will take to do so this time (again, he gives just a feeble swing, which in the process acknowledges human agency in climate change). He would have invited Francis to embrace the greater lights of the Catholic tradition by encouraging systems that capitalize on the divine spirit that lies within our agency. Instead he dismisses him as a neo-Peronist. Strike three.
Say it ain’t so, George.