Pope Francis in the United States: Why he isn’t the liberal rock star American Catholics think he is.

Why Pope Francis Isn’t the Liberal Rock Star American Catholics Think He Is

Why Pope Francis Isn’t the Liberal Rock Star American Catholics Think He Is

Read this first.
Sept. 20 2015 9:04 PM

The Patron Saint of the Left

Why Pope Francis isn’t the liberal rock star American Catholics think he is.

Pope Francis leads prayer in Saint Peter's basilica in the Vatican on Sept. 1, 2015.
“Cool” Pope Francis leads prayer in Saint Peter's basilica in the Vatican on Sept. 1, 2015.

Photo by Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images. Photo Illustration by Holly Allen.

Pope Francis is coming to the United States, and liberal Catholics are thrilled. Vice President Joe Biden is praising the pope’s moral leadership. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a leading abortion rights advocate, has sent the pope a list of topics to address. For many Catholics, the euphoria extends to family and sexual issues on which Francis has signaled new tolerance. A majority of American Catholics, according to a Pew survey, predicts that within the next 35 years, the church will approve contraception and married priests. Thirty-six percent expect the church to recognize same-sex marriages.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Some of these people think the pope shares their respect for moral diversity and individual rights. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, claims that Francis disagrees with opponents of same-sex marriage and that he believes the church “should not interfere spiritually in the lives of gays.” Bill de Blasio, the Catholic mayor of New York, says his fondness for the church has been rekindled by Francis’ outreach, particularly a “seismic moment” two years ago, in which the pope, responding to a question about gay Catholics, asked: “Who am I to judge?


These liberals misunderstand the pope, because they don’t understand a tension in their own thinking. Politically, Francis isn’t liberal. He’s progressive. We use these terms interchangeably, but they’re different. Liberalism is fundamentally about doubt: You have your view, I have mine, and we agree to disagree. Progressivism is about confidence: Your view is wrong, mine is right, and I’m going to change the world accordingly. Francis is confident, and he’s not afraid to use political power to achieve his aims. As he puts it, “A good Catholic meddles in politics.”

Temperamentally, Francis does have liberal tendencies. He regrets the authoritarian way he governed as a young Jesuit leader. He wants to be open and collegial. He accepts criticism, seeks dialogue, and tries to learn from it. When Catholics disagree, he tries to focus them on respect, love, and mercy.

But if you look at his record, you’ll see limits to his openness. Take homosexuality. The quote that endeared Francis to liberals was: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Francis later explained his question this way: “When God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person.” The key word here is existence. Francis was forswearing condemnation of the whole person, not judgment of homosexual behavior. He was repackaging what conservative Christians have always said: love the sinner, not the sin.


Illustration by Holly Allen

Francis has never called into question the church’s fundamental teaching: that while people “who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies ... must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity,” they are “called to chastity” because “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” In fact, Francis has affirmed that “children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother,” and he has condemned efforts to “redefine the very institution of marriage.”


The Catholic catechism also forbids divorce. It says that if you get divorced and remarry, you’re “in a situation of public and permanent adultery.” In some congregations, that means you can’t take Communion. Last month, to ease the pressure on these parishioners, Francis delivered new instructions to priests: “People who started a new union after the defeat of their sacramental marriage are not at all excommunicated, and they absolutely must not be treated that way.” This month, he made it easier for couples to get their marriages annulled by the church so they can get remarried without being treated as adulterers. But they still have to go through a church trial. If they don’t, the pope says, their new unions “are contrary to the sacrament of marriage.”

Under Catholic law, abortion warrants instant excommunication. It’s considered so evil that in many countries, only a bishop can forgive it. Three weeks ago, Francis made an exception: Beginning in December, women who have had abortions can be absolved by priests. But the offer is valid only for a year, and only if you confess and repent. In addition, the deal isn’t new: Fifteen years ago, Pope John Paul II offered women the same terms. And Francis’ bottom line is the same as John Paul’s: Abortion violates “the right to life from conception.”


Illustration by Holly Allen

Francis’ concessions on these three issues aren’t meaningless. They’ll make life easier for some women, gay people, and divorced couples. But in each case, he has avoided challenging the catechism. He’s offering just enough, procedurally or rhetorically, to lure wayward sheep back into the church, where their errors can be corrected. That’s his goal. Communion, he explains, “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

Francis isn’t trying to solve liberals’ pet issues. He’s trying to get rid of them. He said as much in an interview two years ago: “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent.” Not equivalent is his way of saying that he’s not particularly interested in enforcing sexual or family morality. If you want to know what interests him, look at what’s on his schedule in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia this week: sessions with immigrants, laborers, prisoners, and homeless people. Pope Francis is a social justice guy.


Social justice is a long Catholic tradition. Popes have talked about welfare, labor conditions, and the moral boundaries of capitalism for more than a century. Many people on the secular left don’t know about this tradition. They associate the church with the political right because John Paul stood with President Reagan against communism, and later, Benedict XVI stood with President George W. Bush against social liberalism. The average American liberal has probably heard that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is fighting to block contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act. But that same liberal has forgotten—or never knew—that for decades, the bishops have supported national health insurance.

Today, all over the world, the acceleration of economic inequality and insecurity is reviving the political left. Francis is part of the change. He’s the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere. He studied with liberation theologians. He has appointed cardinals from poor countries. Two years ago, at his installation Mass, he promised to serve “the poorest, the weakest, the least important.” In speeches and interviews, he decries rampant capitalism. He talks about trade agreements, financial speculation, trickle-down economics, austerity, and youth unemployment. A quarter-century after John Paul lectured the European Parliament about secularism, Francis returned to the same venue with a very different lecture, focused on poverty and unemployment.

Francis doesn’t just raise these issues. He soaks them in Christian language and imagery. He describes the unbridled free market as a “cult of money,” “new idols,” “the golden calf,” and “the dung of the devil.” He speaks of a twisted mentality that “sacrifices human lives at the altar of money.” He tells Christians that poor people are “at the heart of the Gospel,” that working toward economic fairness is “a commandment,” and that “our faith challenges the tyranny of Mammon.”

His crusade against profit, in turn, has broadened into a crusade against environmental destruction. Three months ago, Francis combined the two issues in his first encyclical, “Laudato Si.” He covered several topics—climate change, deforestation, biodiversity, pollution, water—but his message was relentlessly moral. By and large, he argued, wealthy countries cause the destruction, and poor countries suffer the consequences. He advocated “integral ecology,” a Catholic philosophy that would manage economic development to serve human needs. In speeches and interviews, he implored world leaders to “be protectors of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.” He declared a World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. He summoned politicians to a Vatican conference to enlist their aid against climate change.


Francis has elevated other issues, too. Long before this summer’s migrant crisis, he pressed European and American leaders to aid immigrants and refugees. He ordered the church to house migrants in vacant convents and monasteries, explaining that these buildings “are for the flesh of Christ, which is what the refugees are.” He has campaigned not just against capital punishment, but also against solitary confinement, pretrial detention, and the “hidden death penalty”—life imprisonment without parole. He has even castigated businessmen who “call themselves Christian” but manufacture guns.

These expansions of the Vatican agenda are progressive, not liberal. They’re clear, confident, and heavy on government action. Francis isn’t interested in your alternative theology or your putative right to bear arms. In “Laudato Si,” he dismisses Christians who interpret the “dominion” language of Genesis as authorization to exploit nature. “This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church,” the pope writes. He also rejects population control, the socially liberal cure for an overworked planet.

If your politics incline to the left, you probably like Francis’s economic agenda better than Benedict’s family-values agenda. Right-wing attempts to impose values through law are notoriously clumsy and counterproductive. But Francis’ left-wing ideas can be just as crude. By his own admission, he doesn’t understand economics and has no clear solutions. He rejects cap-and-trade environmental remedies as too technical, too capitalistic, and insufficiently “radical” and redistributive. He scorns scientific fixes, saying they divert us from “ethical considerations” and “deep change.” Progressive moralists turn out to be a lot like conservative moralists: Their piety clouds their practicality.


Illustration by Holly Allen

On that score, let’s cut Francis some slack. He was elected to be the pope, not the world’s chief economist or engineer. He might not be the best judge, technically, of how to approach all the issues on his agenda. But he has chosen those issues well. Poverty and environmental destruction cause far more harm to far more people than the church’s policies on abortion, divorce, and homosexuality do. That may sound callous, but it’s true. And the pope is arguably the last guy from whom you should expect liberalism. What popes can do, better than almost anyone else, is focus the world’s attention on certain issues. If you have to choose between a progressive pope and a liberal pope, take the progressive one.


Did Francis have to choose? Probably so. He doesn’t work for American liberals or even for American Catholics. A pope must think about the global Catholic community, and that community is divided. In the United States, a Pew survey found that most Catholics support same-sex marriage. But in Latin America, Pew’s researchers found Catholic majorities for gay marriage in only three of 19 countries. Most American Catholics think that the priesthood should be open to women and that priests should be allowed to marry. Most Latin American Catholics don’t. A broader poll of more than 12,000 Catholics worldwide, taken more than a year ago for Univision, found that on every question—abortion, contraception, divorce, homosexuality, female priests, married priests—Catholics in Asia and Africa were far more conservative than those in the United States and Europe.

On economic questions, the gap is reversed. In the United States, fewer than 50 percent of white Catholics say it’s the government’s responsibility to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves. In Latin America, roughly 90 percent of Catholics say it’s the government’s job to take care of very poor people who can’t take care of themselves. In African countries where most Christians are Catholic—Guinea-Bissau, Rwanda, and Uganda—more than three-quarters of Christians say it’s the government’s job. Look back at older surveys, and you’ll see the same pattern: Nearly every other country outpolls the United States in support for government aid to the indigent.

Politically, Francis made the smart call. He’s appeasing Western liberals with limited procedural concessions while spending the bulk of his capital on an economic agenda that resonates with ordinary people everywhere else. He also made the smart call from a doctrinal standpoint: It’s far easier to square the catechism with progressive policies than with liberal ones. But the simplest explanation is that on the basic question of which way to go, Francis wasn’t calculating at all. He got his job because he really does think like most of the world’s Catholics. He’s egalitarian, down-to-earth, and judgmental. And they love it.


Illustration by Holly Allen