A few days ago there was a Twitter spat between Jordan Peterson (3.9 million followers) and Pope Francis (18.9 million followers, not including the 1 million assumed-to-be Latin Mass supporters who follow him on his Latin account). 

The news of this may fill you with delight or horror; or both. The Pope’s Twitter account usually contains a collection of short pieties which are intended to cheer the soul and not tax the mind. But on this occasion, Professor Peterson’s mind was not cheered (the jury is still out on his soul). He took issue with the Pope replacing piety with politics.

What had the Pope written to provoke the world’s most popular psychologist to lay down a Twitter challenge? 

“#socialjustice demands that we fight against the causes of poverty: inequality and the lack of labour, land, and lodging; against those who deny social and labour rights; and against the culture that leads to taking away the dignity of others.”

To which Professor Peterson (never short on self-confidence) replied: “There is nothing Christian about #socialjustice. Redemptive salvation is a matter of the individual soul.”

Not surprisingly, an agnostic professor of psychology lecturing the Pope on his faith produced a tidal wave of social media reaction. Those commentators who have not much interest in the Pope from day to day, but a great deal of animus towards Peterson, mocked him mercilessly for what they assumed to be hubris. How dare an agnostic pop-psych professor tell the Pope that he has got the faith wrong?

 A tweeter called “George” summed it up for the anti-Peterson brigade tweeting in confident riposte: “I don’t know what’s funnier, you trying to lecture the Pope on what Christianity is, or that you’re loudly proclaiming that acting like Jesus is wrong.”

Scoffing broke out all over; and the Twitter mob was very much with George.

But taking George at his word, and looking back of the actions and priorities of Jesus, there is prima facie evidence that Jesus was neither a socialist nor even much of a social justice warrior.  

In Matthew 26, when Jesus observes that “you will always have the poor with you”, it doesn’t lend itself to a slogan for social reform. His words “insofar as you did this for the least of these my brethren you did it unto me” were taken by the early Church to refer to solidarity with persecuted Christians suffering for their discipleship, rather than a motto encouraging the formation of a second century socialist league.

But beyond swapping Bible verses, is there any other evidence that the Pope’s endorsement of political movements that tilt against poverty, inequality and labour rights is problematic for Christianity?

Although Peterson is not yet a Christian, it looks increasingly like his rosary-praying wife is beginning to practice Catholicism. She may well have pointed him to some of Pope Francis’ predecessors who passionately denounced socialism as being incompatible with Catholicism. Despite the present Pope’s political preferences, the historic papal mind is not well-disposed towards left wing utopianism.

In his Encyclical Humanum Genus, April 20, 1884, Pope Leo 13th warned that socialism was planning the deliberate overthrow of the Church.

St Pius 10th  (1903-1914) foresaw the dystopias that socialism, wherever it would be imposed, would cause:  “But stranger still, alarming and saddening at the same time, are the audacity and frivolity of men who call themselves Catholics and dream of re-shaping society under such conditions, and of establishing on earth, over and beyond the pale of the Catholic Church, ‘the reign of love and justice’ … What are they going to produce?”

Pope Pius 11th (1922-39) pointed towards the conceptual contradictions the premise of socialism were based on: “Socialism, if it remains truly socialism, even after it has yielded to truth and justice on the points which we have mentioned, cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church because its concept of society itself is utterly foreign to Christian truth.”

And indeed, socialist governments have relentlessly pursued policies that undermined the concept of family. The left-leaning state invariably has growing ambitions to replace not only God, but also the family, while pursuing policies that undermine both traditional roles of motherhood and fatherhood.

On the other hand, Catholic Social Teaching has a long and intense history of interaction with the body politic, and a history of giving expression to a variety of different ways to give some political and social leverage to the injunction to “love thy neighbour”.

But why should Peterson bother to go head-to-head with the Pope over social justice? 

Although he has been accused by the Left of representing the “Alt-Right” (whatever that is), he has been careful to explain in public that the Left and Right need each other in a mature body politic; the Right to conserve, the Left to reform. These are not the observations of a partisan political allegiance. And he has been as excoriating with criticising the dangers of an unrestrained Right as he has that of the Left. 

But Peterson was propelled into the public square by his resistance to the ambitions of the new Left which were to impose trans pronouns and criminalise free speech.

Whereas in the second half of the twentieth century, when Pope Francis’ generation were caught up in a competition with the Left to express love of the neighbour, the totalitarian regimes the Left had created were hidden behind iron and bamboo curtains. The quest for equality had created the lethal ruthlessness of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and the 90 million casualties of Mao’s cultural revolution, but none of this impinged on the freedom of speech and action in the West.

Peterson has railed against the ignorance of history that seduces the idealistic young with the promises of social justice without their grasping that coercion always removes free thought, free speech and free action. 

But the main thrust of his critique of social justice has been to reinforce what the present Pope’s predecessors saw so clearly, which is that the aims of the Left are undeliverable and diverge from the priorities of the Church at the most critical points.

Equality sounds deeply desirable, but Peterson reminds us that the Pareto curve demonstrates that despite Marx’s idealism, equal effort and distribution are unachievable; the popular desire for equality of opportunity is never the same as the Left’s determination to achieve equality of outcome – by force when necessary.

Critics laughed at Peterson’s lobsters, but his point was more serious. Hierarchies (embodied in the most ancient of biological structures) look unattractive, but they deliver competence quite as much as they offer status, and without competence there is no defence against anarchy. 

Compelled speech and restrictions on what can be said prevent individuals from discovering what they believe as they frame experimental thoughts with words. Peterson insists we need the freedom to experiment with words without being silenced by thought crime imposed as hate speech. And no one needs freedom of speech more than a Church on fire with evangelisation. 

But perhaps the most serious point of divergence between Peterson and the present Pope was Peterson’s reminder that Jesus’ priorities were expressed in terms of salvation of the soul in the face of our impending judgement, and not the redistribution of wealth, opportunity, and the outlawing of slavery throughout the Roman empire. In case we should mistake the rights of the body for the pre-eminence of the soul, Luke reminds his gentile listeners that the “poor” in Hebrew thought is almost always shorthand for the “poor in spirit”.

One of the greatest theological errors of the last century was the seduction of Liberation Theology, an intellectual experiment driven pre-eminently by the Jesuits. Perhaps Peterson’s Twitter intervention with Pope Francis represents a reminder to the more elderly hierarchy of the Church today that a programme of social justice seldom comes free from a totalitarian price tag. 

When Peterson has been attacked by journalists irritated by his worldwide influence, Peterson points out the repeated conversations he has with people whose lives have been transformed by his influence and analysis. The numbers are enormous and constitute a genuine movement of societal renewal, with people saved from hopelessness and despair. This renewal movement began in the mind.

It would be strange if he did not try to remind the Church that if real personal and societal renewal can be ignited by a refreshed mind, it might be even more inspired by a renewed soul.

God’s people have often had to rely on eccentric sources to rediscover God’s better way. If Balaam could take advice from an opinionated ass, perhaps a pope can be helpfully informed by a loquacious pop psychologist.