Pope Francis: Liberal Leader or Benign Conservative

Pope Francis (right) and his predecessor Pope Benedict Photo credit: AFP

Pope Francis (right) and his predecessor Pope Benedict
Photo credit: AFP

A recent interview with Pope Francis conducted on behalf of America Magazine has been making waves in the Catholic community. The interview highlights what many people see as an important step in modernizing the Catholic Church, a movement that has stagnated during the previous two papacies following John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council.

The Second Vatican Council, presided over by Pope John XXIII from 1962-1965, addressed the relations between the Catholic Church and the modern world. Notably, the Council weakened the papal hierarchy, granted members of the church permission to celebrate mass in vernacular languages, and encouraged lay participation in liturgy. The forward momentum created by the Council, however, was halted by the ascensions of Popes John-Paul II and Benedict. Both were conservatives, with Benedict calling for “a leaner, smaller, purer church.” This stagnation and renewed conservatism of the church has created rifts within the Catholic community, a scenario that Francis might be able to attenuate. In his interview, Francis endorsed the Second Vatican Council, stating “its fruits are enormous.”

Since his ascension, Pope Francis had made a number of comments about atheism and LGBTQ people that have hinted at a more liberal outlook than his two predecessors, and has garnered appeal with Roman Catholics who have more liberal religious and political inclinations, as well as those who approve of religious and ideological pluralism.

In his interview with American Magazine, Francis chastised the church for locking itself up “in small things, in small-minded rules,” citing an obsessive focus on culture war issues like abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. Latching onto these excerpts, a deluge of commentary from both the Right and Left Wing has praised, lamented, and expressed general antipathy towards Pope Francis’ comments.

Francis’s interview often came across as an indictment of the conservative, traditionalist Catholic environments created under John-Paul II and Benedict. “There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective,” Francis said, “but now they have lost value or meaning. The view of the church’s teachings as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong.” He goes on to say, “If a person says he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is proof that God is not with him.” Quotes like these seem to rally against religious dogmatism, and in light of his comments on social issues, seem to suggest a more modern understanding of Catholicism.

Many right-wing pundits and Catholic leaders, have been quick to do damage control on the pope’s comments. American uber-conservatives such as Ave Maria Radio CEO Al Kresta, Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan, Catholic Priest and Fox New contributor Jonathan Morris, President of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights Bill Donohue, and AFTAH’s Peter Labarbera have all come forward to point out that the church has not changed its view on homosexuality, and that the pope did not say anything new or groundbreaking in his interview. LaBarbera went so far as to accuse the Pope Francis of being “naive about the aggressive homosexual agenda.”

Some liberals have also expressed antipathy towards the interview, claiming a few benign comments that amount to less than an endorsement of homosexuality are nothing to be happy about. Others have pointed towards an issue Francis side-stepped in the interview: the role of women in the church. Francis’s discussion of the role of women in the church amounted to “We have to work harder to develop a profound theory of the woman,” a non-stance that rubbed many liberals and progressives in the church the wrong way.

Francis’s views on homosexuality, contraception, and abortion are nuanced enough to be confusing. He says that if someone is, say, gay, once they accept Jesus as their savior they will renounce the sin of homosexuality, and that the church needs only to “heal” people by showing them Jesus’s love. In other words, the church does not need to convince someone being gay or having an abortion is wrong, only that Jesus loves them. Put another way, Francis still believes homosexuality—and abortion—are antithetical to being a good Catholic.

The day after American published the interview, addressing his perceived relaxed stance towards social issues, Pope Francis delivered a strong anti-abortion message, encouraging Catholic doctors to refuse to perform them.

The focus on the Pope’s comments on social issues, however, ignores the bulk of the content of his interview. His comments on homosexuality, women’s reproductive health rights, and contraception only constitute a small portion of the interview that Pope Francis tries explicitly to efface in favor of what he perceives to be the true vocation of the church. “I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess,” he says, “The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials.” His vision of the church is one of the people. It is ironic and unfortunate that the issues Francis tries to efface are the ones the media has latched onto. While Francis’s stances on women’s rights and homosexuality barely register as anything new for the church, more liberal Catholics are also correct in noting that his overall tone seems to suggest a more modern and less dogmatic pope, and there is reason to see Francis as an improvement over his more conservative predecessors.