June 29, 2021 Editor

Pope Francis is not a liberal! (He’s not a conservative either.)

by James T. Keane

June 28, 2021

photo above: Pope Francis stands apart from U.S. political factions. (CNS photo/Remo Casilli, Reuters)

WN: I have a brother who endlessly pegs/dismisses me as a “liberal.” Perhaps he indeed knows me better than I.

At minimum, though, I embraced a credo that long since eschews self-appropriation of such categories, finding them not only unhelpful but harmful. (I find too “progressive” as label often offensive–as if all others are ipso facto “non-progressive.” Balderdash!)

Once one is categorized, the humanity of such is squeezed out, if not effaced, and that particular person reduced to a statistical integer rejected or embraced for and by whatever cause. While years ago I might have fitted into variously one of such simplistic categories, by God’s grace, however inconsistently, I aspire to be rather just a “Jesus Follower.”

Dorothy Day used to say: Don’t call me a saint! I won’t be dismissed so easily! Indeed this obtains in all reduction/dehumanization to mere “category.”

That’s about my little world.

The article highlighted below is about a worldwide calculus in relation to Pope Francis. It is hugely insightful, and eminently imitable by Christians of all stripes, by people of goodwill across the globe.

As the article states:

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.



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.”

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.

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.

Please click on Pope Francis: Neither Nor

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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.