Pope Francis is no liberal and conservatives must stop insisting he is.
Despite an effort by left-leaning media and political elites to cast the Holy Father as an expositor of their ideological agenda, Francis’ repeated expressions of compassion, understanding, and love should not be misinterpreted as a vehicle to promote the anti-Christian tenets of Western liberalism. Francis’ ideas, like those of his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI, transcend the political labels of secular ideology—his understanding of politics as a moral enterprise rises above the conservative-liberal debate that animates American public policy. It is little wonder why American pundits obsessed with parochial policy squabbles fail to see beyond the confines of narrow partisanship.
Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits instructed the members of his order (and each of us) to “go forth and set the world on fire.” Francis—ever the Jesuit—has done just that, but his actions are not those of a political devotee; rather, they are the efforts of an energetic pontiff looking to advance the spiritual power of the Church, ameliorate the plight of the poor, and ignite the fire of Christ in the hearts of every living soul. While ideologues are driven by secular fanaticism in the search for a terrestrial paradise that can never exist, Francis is driven to sanctify the corporeal world through an unyielding love of God, a desire to help those without hope, and an unrelenting dedication to spread the word of Christ.
With the focus of the media on the Holy Father’s visit to the United States, liberal pundits appear overwhelmingly eager to claim Francis as one of their own, while conservative talking-heads shun his ideas as liberal, or even Marxian. Both sides misunderstand the principles underlying the Pope’s preferences. His skepticism of naked capitalism, his embrace of environmental causes, his extension of forgiveness to mothers who sadly chose abortion, and his condemnation of senseless xenophobia as it relates to immigration policy are not expressions of an emerging papal liberalism; rather, they are principles deeply rooted in Catholicism’s theology of the human person. This theology teaches that each and every person is a child of God, made in His image and likeness. To those who speak only the language of politics, this concept is anathema.
With the left looking to Francis for legitimacy and the right condemning his foray into hot-button social issues as an indictment of his alleged South American-style socialism, labeling Francis as the partisan of a particular political agenda is a crude mistake. His dedication to social justice is not a license for American liberals to claim him as their own, and conservatives should not abandon him as a foe. When did compassion, forgiveness, and social justice become the exclusive property of the sentimental denizens of the left?
From the very beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has challenged Catholics, both right and left, to live humbly, to embrace the poor and to protect the weak. He is a man who has lived in the slums, who eschews the material trappings of his position, and who risks his life and health to walk among his people and defend the values that lay at the very heart of traditional Christianity. While Francis may not be the archetype of an American conservative, his values reflect a deep traditionalism reaching into the far recesses of papal history. He remains a steadfast defender of the Church’s pro-life policies, an advocate of traditional marriage, and a passionate apologist of the Church’s influence across a spectrum of moral issues. Where Francis differs from his predecessors is a matter of optics and media perception—not substance.
Western liberals, in their zeal to expropriate the prestige of the Throne of St Peter in the service of their sentimental humanitarianism, misunderstand the Pope’s view of human dignity and the problem of human suffering. Francis’ views on income inequality, immigration, and the environment each reflect a deep respect for the intrinsic value of individual persons. The American left, on the other hand, imbibing what Pope Benedict called the “tyranny of relativism,” base their views not on the value of the human person, but on utilitarian principles and emotional reactions to perceived injustice. To that end, while the Pope’s values may appear to intersect with those of secular liberals, this is little more than a convenient coincidence. The underlying reasons for agreement on numerous policy issues could not be more dissimilar. For instance, those who define women’s rights as a function of access to abortion clinics have little in common with the Pope’s theology of the human person despite the possibility of having similar views on environmental policy.
American conservatives similarly misunderstand the Holy Father. Quick to condemn Francis’ harsh assessment of democratic capitalism, conservative commentators have too-often demonstrated a proclivity toward imbibing the knee-jerk reaction of labeling the pontiff a socialist. Such criticisms neglect the fact that true conservatism is the rejection of ideology—capitalism included. While the free markets are often a beneficial source of prosperity and freedom in the West, democratic capitalism is not a golden-paved path to earthly salvation. Conservatives would do well to remember that free markets are a means, and not an end. To neglect this idea is to embrace the fundamental error of the left—to take an idea and worship it as the god of earthly salvation.
Pope Francis is not perfect (he is human, after all), and conservatives need not agree with him on every issue. However, before declaring him a committed ideologue, we must recall that he is driven, first and foremost, by a love of God and a love for his fellow pilgrims in this world of sorrows. Conservatives should tread carefully before they condemn the Holy Father as just another liberal hack, and liberals should be mindful that Francis is simply not their comrade in arms.
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