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Conservatives squawk over pope's tweet on inequality

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Analysis

Another week, another communications controversy for Pope Francis?

That's how it was looking after a three-word tweet from Pope Francis -- in Latin -- about inequality left some conservatives dazed and confused over Catholic teachings on economics. They were still digesting last week's news about the pontiff's call to an Argentine woman that left them wondering whether Rome was going wobbly on the sanctity of marriage.

The latest dust-up began routinely enough, with a Monday morning post to Francis' Twitter feed that said: "Iniquitas radix malorum."

"Inequality is the root of social evil" is how the English translation ran, and that tracked closely with other language versions.

It's the 21st-century equivalent of the New Testament admonition that "the love of money is the root of all evil" in an age when critics say the globalized capitalist system is rigged against the poor.

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In the American context, however, Francis' statement was like tossing a match onto a field of dry hay.

Religious conservatives in the U.S. were already anxious over the pope's efforts to reorient the Catholic agenda toward a priority on social justice for the poor. And political conservatives are especially worried that Francis' frequent blasts at income inequality are playing into the hands of President Barack Obama and the Democrats, who have also made the wealth gap a major talking point.

Add in the current agita on the right over the notoriety of French economist Thomas Piketty's best-selling book on the income divide, Capital in the 21st Century, and whoosh, instant social media wildfire.

"Seriously, though, what was up with that tweet by @Pontifex? Has he traded the writings of Peter and Paul for Piketty?" tweeted Joe Carter of the Acton Institute, a Catholic-run, libertarian think tank. "Hate and apathy are the roots of social evil," he added as a counterpoint.

"So, if we achieve maximum redistribution of resources, we will have eliminated 'social evil,' whatever that is?" wrote Rod Dreher in a rather snarky post at the American Conservative. "Yes, and that's why the Soviet Union was the Garden of Eden."

"Piketty gets a blurb," tweeted Matthew Schmitz, deputy editor of the conservative journal First Things.

At Catholic Culture, a conservative news site, editor Phil Lawler called the pope's tweet "a fairly radical statement" and as "a piece of economic analysis a very simplistic one." He added that Francis probably doesn't know what's going onto his Twitter feed anyway, and the pope definitely does not speak English.

"So we can be sure those aren't his exact words," Lawler said, echoing previous conservative efforts to downplay or explain away some of Francis' more provocative statements.

Yet Vatican officials have said that in fact, Francis personally approves all of his tweets and did so in this case, as well. Moreover, they noted that the tweet is taken directly from Francis' blockbuster exhortation from last year, "The Joy of the Gospel" (see paragraph No. 202).

So what explains the high anxiety?

One reason is that Catholic conservatives were already on edge after trying to sort out what exactly Francis said to an Argentine woman he called to discuss her irregular marital situation and whether she could receive Communion. It seemed the pope told her she could, and many worried that this sent the wrong signal, and that Francis should stop communicating so casually via cold calls and social media.

"Another unnecessarily ambiguous therefore controversial papal statement," Dreher tweeted after Monday's message from Francis. "Twitter bad for clear papal communication."

A second factor is that many Christian conservatives, especially non-Catholics, are not intimately familiar with Catholic social teaching, which is what Francis was expounding.

For example, Francis' inequality tweet immediately prompted several queries from Mollie Hemingway, a Lutheran commentator and writer for The Federalist, a website of conservative commentary, who said she didn't understand what Francis was saying. That prompted an extended Twitter seminar by Michael Peppard, a Catholic theologian at Fordham University, who tried to school Hemingway in the basics of Catholic thinking on economics.

A third reason for the controversy is that Francis stated the case so categorically that even liberal Catholics such as Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne were surprised.

"We are more accustomed to hearing popes talk about personal virtues and vices as the root of all evil and not to hear someone talk so clearly about structural sins," said Dionne, who is also a scholar at the Brookings Institution, which just produced a report on social justice and the future of religious progressives in U.S. politics.

"Although his tweet in consistent with Catholic social thought, I think it struck people because of the forceful stress on inequality, as opposed to a more general critique of social injustice that they often hear from religious leaders," he said.

Not everyone is buying that view, however. As a commenter on Dionne's tweet put it: "What a foolish thing for (Francis) to write. I would not mind at all if he kept quiet and stayed off social media for the next year."

That's not likely. Francis was back at it again Tuesday, though this time on what is presumably safer ground: original sin.

"Who among us can presume to be free of sin?" the pope wrote in under 140 characters. "No one. Let us ask God to forgive our sins."

So far, Christians don't seem to be questioning the pontiff on that score.

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