The Perplexing Politics of Pope Francis

Kathryne Cui, JHU:

Since his election to the papacy in March 2013, Pope Francis has generated criticism, applause, shock, confusion, and examination after re-examination from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. If anything can objectively be said of the Pope, it is that the media loves him – or rather, the media loves that there just seems to be something innately controversial and contradictory about him.

In many respects – aside from highly headline-able and memetic candid statements like Catholics don’t have to breed “like rabbits” – that is either untrue or hasty exaggeration.

He stated that the church should accept homosexuals, but otherwise made no significant effort to differentiate between his and his predecessors’ tones on the subject. This is more vague than contradictory.

Moreover, the timeline of the Vatican works in units like decades and centuries, not congressional sessions. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) gathered thousands of clergypeople to reassess and reaffirm the Church’s role in the changing culture of societies hurtling forward at comparatively alarming speeds. It was the first such council since 1869, when, amid similarly alarming political and social turmoil in Europe, Pope Piux IX convened the First Vatican Council. And that 1869 council was the first of its kind since the Council of Trent 300 years earlier. Statements calling a Vatican document on homosexuality a “dramatic shift in tone” and a “softening of stance on thorny social issues,” and the Pope himself “progressive” should exist in the context of these hundreds of year’s worth of demonstrably glacial progress.

Still, Francis is different. He is the first New World pope, which is not only a symbolic distinction: fingerprints of the political character of Argentina and Latin America are readily visible in his pontifical approach. At least among Americans and American media, commotion over the pontiff sometimes reveals much more about Americans and the rigidly narrow bounds of our discourse than it does any serious contradictions within Francis’ own views.

His singular (among popes) background has deeply informed his views – notably apparent in his criticisms of capitalism. He sometimes seems to confound the paradigm we rely on in the United States to categorize sets of political and social stances; he highlights the shortcomings of American political labels and of our discourse. Therefore, understanding Pope Francis requires basic knowledge of the quite un-American political environment of his early service.

In late 2013, the Pope spoke at length on the violent inequality created by “the prevailing economic system.” Among other choice phrases, he labeled unfettered neoliberal policy (described in all but name) “a new tyranny” and “a financial system which rules rather than serves” while calling for vigorous financial reform by world political leaders. Commentators across the American political spectrum argued themselves into a stupor over whether the new pope was a liberal, a socialist, a flaming communist, still just a regular senile old conservative, or none of the above.

The Economist (not, American but still a strongly liberal publication) referred to his line of thinking as “ultra-radical” à la Vladimir Lenin. American Cardinal Timothy Dolan rejected in an op-ed the notion that the Pope was “endorsing some form of socialism.” Later, the Pope repudiated communism and Marxism while maintaining that he had “met many Marxists… who are good people.”

Mainstream American political discussion regards any explicit criticism of the sacred free market as inflammatory socialist rhetoric. Decrying poverty and inequality is fine, but point out a source, or prescribe anything resembling redistribution, and residual Cold War anxiety swiftly reignites. President Obama, whom many progressives will tell you is not much of a leftist at all, is regardless no stranger to these accusations. As the subsequent controversy shows, Francis made very little effort to tailor his statements to the United States’ minefield of mainstream political discourse, as American politicians who may wholeheartedly share his sentiments must.

In 2014, the Pope reinstated a Nicaraguan priest suspended by John Paul II as punishment for holding office under the leftist Sandinista government, the party opposed during the 1980s by the U.S.-backed contras. More recently, the Pope declared Salvadoran bishop Oscar Romero a martyr, the first step toward Romero’s beatification, a process that the Vatican had hitherto bureaucratically blocked. A right-wing death squad notoriously murdered Romero in 1980. Although widely beloved to this day even outside his denomination, he remains controversial within the Church because of his advocacy of liberation theology, which by some analyses motivated his murder in the first place. Early in his Church career the relatively conservative Francis himself was a critic of liberation theology, but just as he spoke of his acquaintance with many “good” Marxists, the Pope did not demonstrate that knee-jerk reaction against anything more than slightly left of center so familiar in the United States.

The Pope does not consider himself a leftist ideologically. By many accounts he was an establishment clergyman, a conservative, but in a different political context. Like Peronism, Francis confounds our politics, and in the current climate his explicit brand of populism offends our political sensibilities as well. He is a product of the broader context of Latin America, where a diverse array of leftist movements have in modern times always played integral rather than peripheral, concessionary roles. Francis distances himself from socialism and Marxism in name; such explicitly political labels rouse widespread paranoia and anger among his flock, especially among the Christian right in the United States. Labels aside, he is shaped by a political tradition where socialism and other forms of leftist thought manifest as substantial politics and not merely as thin accusations hurled at political opponents. What other conservative could joke that “communism stole our flag”?

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