Jane Fonda and Pope Francis

“The last time Ms. Fonda’s Foundation made a charitable gift, reports the Smoking Gun website, was in 2006, to the tune of $1,000.  The Foundation itself has $800,000 in assets…Ms. Fonda isn’t exactly the world’s first cheapskate limousine liberal: Think of Bill Clinton claiming a tax deduction for donating his underwear.”  Bret Stephens

Of Jane Fonda and Pope Francis

The pontiff understands the power of moral example. Today’s liberal high priests do not.

Bret Stephens, The Wall Street Journal, December 17, 201`3, p. A 15
In the same week that Pope Francis was named Time’s Person of the Year, word arrived of the charitable contributions made by the Jane Fonda Foundation. Grand total for the years 2007 to 2011: zero dollars. The last time Ms. Fonda’s Foundation made a charitable gift, reports the Smoking Gun website, was in 2006, to the tune of $1,000.

The Foundation itself has $800,000 in assets. Ms. Fonda’s representatives insist she’s made larger gifts, particularly through her family foundation, which in 2011 made about $350,000 in contributions from $7.2 million in net assets. But even that’s not quite 5%, the legal minimum required to remain a private foundation.

Ms. Fonda isn’t exactly the world’s first cheapskate limousine liberal: Think of Bill Clinton claiming a tax deduction for donating his underwear, or the $353 Al Gore gave to charity in 1997. But the contrast between Francis and Fonda is worth pondering as liberals cheer—and conservatives try, uneasily, to explain or ignore—the pope’s recent denunciation of economic concepts championed by this newspaper.

Here is what the pope wrote in his 50,000-word apostolic exhortation, published last month:

“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories, which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

Two thoughts. First, I’m glad the only economics ministry the pope runs is the Vatican’s. The trickle-down theories he simplistically denounces have done more to bring people out of poverty than any government program or charitable institution in history, including the Church.

Second, I don’t begrudge Francis his views. After a life of tending to the poor in the villas miserias of Buenos Aires, he’s earned them. The same can’t be said for Ms. Fonda, Mr. Clinton, Mr. Gore—or, for that matter,Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren and other high priests of liberal cant and leftist hypocrisy.

In life, it means something—not everything, but something—when you walk the talk. Francis electrifies non-Christians like me because so much of what he says seems to be concerned above all with getting the theological fine print out of the way, of putting the deed before the word, of “[going] with Christ to the peripheries.” That means the shanty towns, the hospices, the refugee camps, the juvenile prisons.

Has Sen. Warren ever been offered a meal in a slum she feared would make her sick, but eaten it in simple gratitude for the gesture? Just wondering.

Francis also electrifies because he seems to understand that it is not enough to account for the Church’s moral failings by citing St. Paul’s line about holding “this treasure in jars of clay.” Catholic ministers can be sinners like the rest of us, but the Church’s jars of clay need not be stuffed with a German bishop’s $20,000 bath tub, or by a Vatican Bank that is a model for the corruption Francis denounces in his exhortation, or by cardinals who denounce the “grotesque subversion” of homosexuality right until the moment they own up to making passes at priests and seminarians.

In other words, he knows that personal example matters, both in its own right and especially when it comes to persuasion. Can the same be said of Harry Reid exempting members of his staff from ObamaCare coverage? Or Al Gore living in a mansion that in 2007 consumed 12 times more electricity than the average neighborhood home and later selling Current TV to the government of Qatar? Or Sen. Warren earning hundreds of thousands of dollars by defending Travelers Insurance and other corporate giants in class-action suits? Or columnists who declaim against the dangers of income and social inequality while enjoying tenured jobs at Ivy League schools?

Yes, we know that Al bought indulgences—aka carbon offsets—for his Nashville manse, and that Qatar, with the world’s highest per capita carbon footprint, just happened to be the right buyer for his failing channel. We also know that Harry just “followed the law” that he helped craft and nobody else can understand, and the former Cherokee Indian was just doing what lawyers do, and the former Enron adviser never apologizes for anything. There’s always an excuse for everything, especially when bathed in piety, secular or religious. But the difference between a Fonda and a Francis is that this pope doesn’t seem interested in making excuses.

The world will always have its share of hypocrites in high places, and Lord knows conservatives aren’t exempt. Still, liberals wondering what went wrong for them politically this season should look beyond the technical and managerial incompetence and the flaws in the policy design. The people who represent liberalism today are an unattractive bunch. They need their own Francis, leading their own moral renewal. Barack Obama isn’t it.

Write to bstephens@wsj.com


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