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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.

pope-francis-600American 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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29 replies to this post
  1. I am an independent and I’m not concerned with how the Pope identifies politically. However, the Pontiff’s simplistic policy prescriptions do bother me. People and poverty are not simple and even well-intentioned policy sometimes causes more misery than it mitigates.

    I don’t know of any country on earth without some level of economic freedom that is able to generate the revenue needed to have a large welfare system and to improve its environment. And we have spent trillions on social services but the rules are often cruel and penalize both marriage and the family. We pay billions for an abysmal school system that only the wealthy or homeschoolers can escape. We have thousands of rules that frustrate self-employment and force the poor to depend on an employer.

    And we simply do not know if new taxes or regulations on energy would lower the output of greenhouse gases in the U.S. enough to impact global warming. We don’t know if adaptation is a better option. We don’t know how many industries would move abroad. We don’t know how much the cost of energy would rise, further hurting the poor.

    And those xenophobes (not my word) are largely unskilled or semi-skilled workers speaking from their own fears of economic insecurity, not hatred of immigrants.They also fear the collapse of our growing entitlement system. Even without adding new recipients to our entitlement system we have no way to pay the tens of trillions of dollars already promised. Systemic collapse will hurt everyone, the poor most of all.

    Sorry to go on so long, but I am also troubled that the Pope is speaking to super wealthy Fidel Castro but not the impoverished Cuban dissidents.

  2. I don’t think that he is a liberal in the since we Americans think of the term. Frankly I disagree with the naive teaching of the church regarding Gov’t and it’s ‘social justice’ function to ‘help’ the poor. I don’t think Gov’t helps the poor, I think Gov’t inevitably traps them/us in a cycle of dependence which now with Health Care has become darn near impossible to escape. I am frustrated with the Church’s inability to see this era of all powerful Gov’t as a very serious threat to the Church itself….

  3. Though the article seems to be an attempt to present a balanced criticism of different reactions to the Pope, balanced in the sense that both liberals and conservatives are criticized, the overall leaning here is that of liberal-leftist view is all wrong while the conservative mistakes about the Pope’s messages are mere misunderstandings. In the end, you still have a good-evil dichotomy between conservatives and nonconservatives which the Pope warned against in his speech to the joint session of Congress.

    Sproviero’s statement ‘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.‘ is as unsubstantiated as it is overgeneralized. First, there is an implied conflation of those on the Left with Liberals. Second, recognizing the intrinsic value of human life is a prerequisite to working for equality. And third, the conservative insistence that free markets must not be interfered with by any efforts to address environmental or wealth disparity and redistribution issues is as utilitarian as it gets.

    Yes, Sprovierro corrected conservatives for their defensiveness of the free market. But his criticisms did not go far enough while he felt free to overgeneralize about nonconservatives.

    As for my view of the Pope and what he said. My conservative Reformed faith tells me to agree with Sproviero when he says that the Pope is human and there is no need to agree with everything he says. But as I’ve done when working with nonconservative activist groups, I celebrate the agreements I can have with the Pope’s political statements. But I disagree with the Pope on some issues as well. I do wish that when he spoke to Congress, that he had challenged them directly rather than making a speech that required no reaction from all the members of Congress other than to smile and nod.

  4. ” Second, recognizing the intrinsic value of human life is a prerequisite to working for equality. ”

    No it isn’t. Slavery is a form of equality and so is death. There’s nothing more “Equal” than a graveyard full of corpses.

    • Slavery is a form of equality? Please tell how.

      And yes, recognizing the intrinsic value of human life is a prerequisite to working for equality.

      As for the graveyard comment, there is an implied context. But even with your reference, when segregation was applied to where one was buried, equality didn’t apply to the graveyard.

      • “Slavery is a form of equality? Please tell how.”

        Slaves are equal in that, generally speaking, their status as slaves makes them equal to each other.

          • My analogy was to Communism. Communist counties really *did* succeed in greatly reducing income inequality among the masses. So, in that sense, the slaves were all equal. But there was great *political* inequality, which turned out to be far more important.

          • Eric,
            I was making no reference to what you refer to as Communism. But suppose we were referring to that, people who were in control were not working for equality.

      • “equality didn’t apply to the graveyard.”

        My point here is that the residents of a graveyard are equal in the only sense that really matters – they’re all dead. It doesn’t much matter to a corpse what size his tombstone is.

        • Eric,
          I understand your point, but as with what you said about slavery, your objection to what I was saying about the intrinsic value of human life being a prerequisite to working for equality seem inadequate. For when one works for equality, one isn’t working so that those in the same class recognize their equality with each other, it so that those in different classes will recognize the equality of all others.

          • My point is that “Equality” isn’t necessarily a good thing, especially if “Equality” means everyone is equally miserable.

  5. I appreciate this commentary, Sir, and note the attribution that our Pope is to “…ignite the fire of Christ in the hearts of every living soul.”
    How, though, does one reconcile the fact that Pope Francis did not once mention our Lord Jesus Christ during the only Papal address in History to the entire Congress?
    Pray for our Pope, our Bishops, Priests, Deacons, and Religious.

  6. The difference between the Pope’s urgings and a politicians prescriptions may appear small, but they are polar extreme. The Pope is appealing – an appeal which requires constant reminders – to our hearts and our judgement to do good. The political class seeks legislation to force us into disinterested acts or supposed good activities. The former is persuasion through the word; the later is persuasion through fear of muscle and the gun. The former is personal and palpable. The later is abstract and invariable corrupt.

  7. With the left looking to Francis for legitimacy and the right condemning his foray into hot-button social issues…

    I somehow missed the Pope’s “foray” into the hot-button social issue of gay marriage before Congress. I also missed the foray into abortion, excepting the benign respect for life at all stages of development. Last year, some 35 inmates were executed in the United States while over 800,000 babies were murdered via abortion. So, in a remarkable misplacement of emphasis, the Pope concentrates his fire on capital punishment while giving abortion an indirect finger wag. Sorry, but that’s extremely disappointing.

    With respect to the Left-Right misdiagnosis of the Pope’s sermons, if a preacher is repeatedly leaving the impression that he is endorsing the policies and beliefs of those he actually disagrees with, the problem is with the preacher, not the listener. When Christ spoke to the Pharisees and Sadducees, they never left with the feeling that He endorsed their errors. For example, his remarks about immigration leave liberals with the impression that he endorses open borders and amnesty. If the Pope really does endorse those things, he’d better institute that policy at Vatican City before taking the mote out of another country’s eye. If he doesn’t advocate that, then he needs to communicate more effectively. If you tell your child to clean his room and your child thinks you’re telling him to not clean his room, do you ignore that?

  8. He seems to be an advocate of the social gospel of liberal theology, rather than the Biblical gospel, that Christ died and rose again that those who repent and believe will have eternal life. He may believe it, but he doesn’t preach it. His priorities are wrong.

  9. “But suppose we were referring to that [Communism], people who were in control were not working for equality.”

    Sure they were. Material equality at any rate, and as I said, they largely achieved it. But, as many people (Churchill and Thatcher, to name just two) have pointed out, all Communism did was make people equally poor.

  10. “Eric, If everybody had the same, why would you be miserable?”

    Since when is my happiness dependent on what other people have?

  11. “There are several ways of implementing equality”

    I would much rather implement freedom. Freedom is much more important than equality.

      • There’s nothing wrong with privilege as long as it’s earned. In the military, for example, you might start out at age 18 as an enlisted man, then go to college (often paid for by the military) and then be commissioned as a junior officer, and then, after a long career, possibly end up as a general or admiral, positions of considerable privilege. The idea that “Equal” means everyone has to be the same reduces humans to the level of insects. We don’t want that.

      • Eric,
        But some privileges can’t be earned. For example, to own slaves is a privilege that can’t be earned. For one group of people to rule over others simply because they are different in economic class or race is a privilege that can’t be earned.

  12. Liberals and conservatives should remember that the Pope is first and foremost the Vicar of Christ and the shepherd of His flock on earth. His priority is the Catholic people and their journey to salvation. Regrettably the Pope has alienated devout (“rigid”) Catholics and those seeking to understand and uphold Church dogma in light of modern ideologies (and dare I say, heresies?). I’d rather have him address such issues within the Church first, lest one precious soul should be led astray. Social justice is secondary to our primary duty: love of God and faithful adherence to His commandments.

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