Every time I see a new article published on Pope Francis, I cringe because I assume it’s going to be bad. Not bad like the litany-of-sex-abuse-allegations bad that we saw a couple years ago, but bad as in no-one-can-describe-the-pope-accurately bad.
Since Pope Francis’s election on Mar. 13, 2013, the English-speaking media has regularly mischaracterized the pope’s positions, papacy and efforts, both by mangling basic Catholic vocabulary and by projecting political positions onto Church politics that are hopeful at best. If you think Pope Francis is a liberal or a progressive, you are wrong.
I wish this problem were restricted to bloggers, but public media sources like National Public Radio (NPR) — which claimed the Synod on the Family was changing doctrine in the lead of a story on Oct. 5, which was later redacted — have gotten the vocabulary wrong. So have Catholic sources such as National Catholic Reporter, which hailed the synod’s document welcoming gay and divorced Catholics as “revolutionary.”
It would be bold to say I’m setting the record straight, but that’s what I’m going to attempt to do.
Conservatives and Liberals
First, a little background on the Catholic Church and political theory. In the modern age, there has been no singular Catholic political philosophy. It’s been a widely varying discussion for the past five centuries at least, and with two main traditions of thought if you keep definitions of what’s included loose. There are writers concerned with authority and sovereignty — Jean Bodin, Joseph de Maistre, Donoso Cortés and Carl Schmitt — and those concerned with social issues — Thomas More, Robert de Lamennais, Pope Leo XIII and Latin American liberation theologians.
Regardless of how many of these thinkers were later appropriated or how the later ones actually affiliated themselves, the tradition itself demonstrates something: distinctions used by Catholic thinkers predate bipartisan politics, which emerged in the time of the French Revolution. Catholic thought should be beyond right and left and beyond conservatives and liberals.
To say that the Church’s position is conservative or liberal in the sense we use in the U.S. most of the time is a severe mischaracterization, to say the least. And worse is to say there are “liberal/progressive Catholics” and “conservative/traditional Catholics.” That presumes that there are either 1) different types of Catholics, or (2) that the gospel isn’t political, meaning Catholics are free to choose a comprehensive political position. Both are wrong.
First, the unity of the communal faith is primary and political parties come second, so there should simply be Catholics — no adjective before. It’s one, universal faith, not a set of propositions, some of which are optional. Second, the gospel has political implications, but how that’s implemented is always up for discussion according to local problems and customs. Doctrine, yes, but also mercy.
I will concede one point. Some Catholic political thinkers believe the gospel is compatible with liberalism or with democracy or with monarchy. As thinkers such as St. Augustine have demonstrated, this is entirely possible, but with a strong qualification. The gospel may be able to work with these political systems, but it does not endorse any single one.
Hence, there shouldn’t be “liberal Catholics” or “conservative Catholics,” just Catholics who believe one or the other is the “best” of the available options.
The Pope’s Purpose
Francis is keyed into this, and you don’t have to dig through long Church documents to see that. In his closing address at the synod, he has harsh words for “traditionalists” and “progressives and liberals.” Both experience temptations to “hostile inflexibility” and to “a deceptive mercy … that treats the symptoms and not the causes and roots,” respectively. These are his words, not mine. Yes, Francis is trying to plot the moderate course through today’s political milieu, but he is also acknowledging a fundamental aspect of the Catholic tradition: its age and tradition resists the superficial characterizations of post-revolutionary politics.
The synod’s documents and Francis’s approach cannot be revolutionary in the strict sense of the word. Neither the pope nor the bishops are trying to overthrow anything. Some particularly egregious commentary has come from ThinkProgress, a “progressive” and critical news source in its own words. A Dec. 11 article, “Pope Francis Has Done More Than You Think In 2013,” describes the pope’s statements on homosexuality and economic inequality as “relatively liberal.”
The article pitches his initiatives as in-line with progressive values, but that’s a superficial judgment. The Church has been “liberal” — if that means caring for the poor and that excessive wealth is problematic — since Jesus’s own ministry. But the poor and simplicity have their own meaning in Catholic terms. Francis may be on-board with some things liberals also value, but he will not ever be a liberal.
Francis isn’t fooled into either conservatism or liberalism. His political position is Catholic, whether you like it or not.
Part 2 of this piece will be published next week.