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James T. KeaneJune 28, 2021
Pope Francis stands apart from U.S. political factions. (CNS photo/Remo Casilli, Reuters)Pope Francis stands apart from U.S. political factions. (CNS photo/Remo Casilli, Reuters)

Pope Francis is not a liberal!

He is not a conservative either. In fact, like most of his predecessors (and many of his brother bishops), Pope Francis does not land coherently anywhere on the axes of American politics. And we should be happy about that.

But that doesn’t stop most of us, including many journalists, from labeling him, in part because using the words “liberal” and “conservative” saves space and intellectual energy. For example, on June 20, an article in The New York Times began with this sentence: “Pope Francis and President Biden, both liberals, are the two most high-profile Roman Catholics in the world.”

I suspect both Pope Francis and Mr. Biden would be amused at the pairing (and Lady Gaga might quibble with “most high-profile”), considering that many think Mr. Biden won the Democratic nomination for president in 2020 by positioning himself as the centrist candidate in a field of avowed liberals. Similarly, Pope Francis was considered for much of his life by many in his own religious order, the Jesuits, to be a traditionalist and a bit of an autocrat: The buzzword on the day after his election among many progressive Catholics was cuidado, or “caution.”

Pope Francis was considered for much of his life by many in his own religious order, the Jesuits, to be a traditionalist and a bit of an autocrat.

Careful readers of America may note that usage of the terms “liberal” and “conservative,” and even “moderate,” in an ecclesial context is a violation of a central editorial principle established by our editor in chief, Matt Malone, S.J., eight years ago. We try not to describe the church in ways that suggest that ecclesial debate is simply an extension of American secular politics. I am getting away with it here because I am denying the value of those labels in reference to the pope.

Of course, saying that Pope Francis is neither liberal nor conservative is not to say that there is no such thing as a political liberal or a political conservative in the Catholic Church, that “there are only Catholics.” A more accurate statement might be to say that any Catholic attempting to live out his or her faith authentically and in accordance with church teachings is not going to fit easily into American political categories.

Pope Francis: Hannity fan or Bernie Bro?

Think of it this way. Those who would call Pope Francis a liberal might note that he is vehemently opposed to legal abortion, calling it a tragic injustice and a capitulation to a “throwaway culture” in which unborn children are labeled “unnecessary.” He has been a public critic of gender theory and gender reassignment surgery, criticizing any ideology that erases distinctions between men and women or promotes the belief that “human identity becomes the choice of the individual, one which can also change over time.” He has reaffirmed the teaching of Pope John Paul II that the church has no authority to ordain women, and he has maintained in his encyclicals that men and women have distinct roles and characteristics that are grounded in their biological sex. He has raised eyebrows over the years with his praise for the “feminine genius” of women and for his description of the women on the International Theological Commission as “strawberries on the cake.” And under his tenure, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith decreed that priests cannot bless same-sex couples.

What is going on here? Is Pope Francis a fan of Sean Hannity?

O.K., think of it this way. Pope Francis has relentlessly criticized contemporary capitalism and wrote in “Fratelli Tutti” that “[t]he marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem, however much we are asked to believe this dogma of neoliberal faith.” He is perhaps the most prominent environmental advocate in the world. Some of his first words on L.G.B.T.Q. issues after his election were shocking to many reporters: “Who am I to judge?” He sharply rebuked Donald J. Trump for his proposed border wall, calling Mr. Trump’s immigration policies “cruel.” He broke with his predecessors when he revised the church’s teaching on capital punishment, saying that the death penalty “is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” He has made it clear he supports universal health care. He opened the door (if just a crack) to the possibility of women deacons. Early in his papacy, he said that “[w]e cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.”

What is going on here? Is Pope Francis the ultimate Bernie Bro?

One might ask the same questions about our emeritus pope, Benedict XVI. Notorious among progressives in the Catholic Church as “God’s Rottweiler” during his tenure as prefect of the C.D.F., he was beloved by Catholic traditionalists. But if those traditionalists in the United States were Republicans, they probably did not like (or ignored) the fact that he was the most environmentally friendly pope in history, often called “The Green Pope” for his support of government legislation and policies to curb environmental devastation. Similarly, those who remember him as a doctrinal enforcer sometimes forget that he also once wrote the following:

Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. Conscience confronts [the individual] with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official church.

Read that again. Joseph Ratzinger wrote that in 1968. What is going on here? Was Pope Benedict XVI actually Hans Küng in disguise?

Catholic doesn’t always square with American, and vice versa

The examples given above are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the vast divide between American perceptions of papal and ecclesial politics and the reality of what the church teaches. Like his predecessor, Pope Francis will sound like Mr. Hannity at one moment and like Mr. Sanders in the next breath. And to him and to many other bishops, there is no contradiction there.

This is in part because the Catholic Church is not a democracy, nor does it resemble any governmental system other than a monarchy. The church is operating out of a legal, ethical and theological framework that has existed in more or less its current state for 17 centuries. Questions of political import tend to be interpreted through a different calculus by church leaders.

Pope Francis may take great care to listen to the opinions of Catholics from all walks of life, but they are not going to re-elect him and they are not going to block his legislative proposals; the same is true for the non-Catholics with whom he interacts on the level of state diplomacy. His discernment—and that of the church as a whole—can take “the long view” instead of focusing on immediate political ramifications. To paraphrase the old Hebrew National slogan, he answers only to a higher authority.

His discernment—and that of the church as a whole—can take “the long view” instead of focusing on immediate political ramifications. To paraphrase the old Hebrew National slogan, he answers only to a higher authority.

It is also true that the concerns of a pontiff of a global church are markedly different from the concerns of the average American, politician or not. Americans, Catholics included, are notorious elsewhere for assuming that the world revolves around them. A common joke among staffers at the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments is that they receive many complaints about local liturgical abuses—more than 90 percent of them coming from the United States. We have a hard time realizing that to most of the world, the major “Catholic countries” are more likely to be Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines and even the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A third—and perhaps the most pertinent—reality is that no civilization anywhere at any time has been entirely sympatico with the teachings of the Catholic Church. To do so would be impossible, and even political proposals like integralism that call for a closer alliance between church and state often seem like little more than nostalgia for a Christendom long past and often misremembered.

Further, as any historian can attest, Catholicism exists and has thrived historically in the United States not in spite of its lack of authority over civil society but because of it. The state does not appoint bishops, and the bishops do not run statehouses; Catholics are free to practice their religion, and the majority of Americans are free to ignore what the Catholic bishops say. We forget at our peril that marriages between church and state, even in the 20th century (Remember Generalissimo Franco in Spain? Read anything positive about Catholicism in Ireland recently?), have often resulted in a loss of faith correlative to the gain in political power.

Agreeing to disagree

This reality, that the church and the state cannot and will not ever align exactly, does not just create a disconnect between the pope and modern politics; it affects every single member of the church around the world.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has loudly inserted itself in American political news in recent weeks with its plan to draft a document on “Eucharistic coherence” that may or may not include guidelines on denying pro-choice politicians Communion, a move that would obviously affect Democratic political candidates more than their pro-life Republican counterparts. But what is less known is that the bishops’ conference has also been publicly calling for the abolition of the death penalty for a quarter of a century, a position contrary to that of almost every single Republican politician, Catholic or not. Why? Because the Catholic Church does not (should not?) think of abortion and the death penalty as two separate issues: They are both part of the fabric of being pro-life from conception until natural death.

The church and the state cannot and will not ever align exactly.

More than a few critics of the U.S. bishops in the late 1970s and early 1980s called the U.S. bishops’ conference “the Democratic Party at prayer,” in part because of the bishops’ leftward tilt on economic issues that reached its high-water mark with the 1986 publication of “Economic Justice for All.” The bishops were of course just as opposed to legal abortion then as they are now, though certainly the prominent Democratic Catholic politicians of the time (including Ted Kennedy, Geraldine Ferraro and Mario Cuomo) were pro-choice. Perhaps abortion just was not as much of a priority for the bishops at the time. It did not mean they always agreed with the Democrats.

These days, the aforementioned plans of the U.S. bishops to find some way to censure Mr. Biden, Nancy Pelosi and other pro-choice Catholic politicians has led Michael Sean Winters to turn the phrase on its head: Now it is Archbishop José Gomez and his colleagues as “the Republican Party at prayer.” Archbishop Gomez, like many of his fellow bishops, was an ardent opponent of Mr. Trump’s immigration policies, going so far to call the immigration issue the “human rights test of our time.” (Almost the pre-eminent priority, one might say.) But since the Covid-19 pandemic and the election of Mr. Biden to the presidency, immigration might seem like less of a priority for the bishops at the moment. It does not mean they always agree with the Republicans.

At the end of the day, are some popes more “liberal” than others on both the political and ecclesial level? Sure. Are some bishops more “conservative” on political and ecclesial issues than others? Yes. Should the church be active in secular politics? Of course. But just remember when you use our political labels with regard to Pope Francis, he would have no earthly idea what you’re talking about.

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