Institutions Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

So Francis ISN’T a liberal?

#28 – Our Pope: Francis by Jered Klodt, Cavalier AFS, N.D. (Charcoal) – “A portrait of Pope Francis done in charcoal with white chalk highlights on 11″x14″ pastel paper.”

Pope Art Contest EntriesBack in June, the youthful new editor of America, Matt Malone, S.J., created an Index Prohibitorum Verborum for the sake of the greater ecclesiastical good.

The church in the United States must overcome the problem of factionalism. This begins by re-examining our language. America will no longer use the terms “liberal,” “conservative” or “moderate” when referring to our fellow Catholics in an ecclesiastical context.

So there was some snickering last week when America was obliged to quote Pope Francis doing just that in his now world-famous interview. Because he had an authoritarian manner in his early ecclesiastical days he was “accused of being ultraconservative,” he said, “but I have never been a right-winger.” You may believe that there is neither right- nor left-winger, neither conservative nor liberal, not ultramontane and conciliar in Christ Jesus, but that doesn’t mean you deal with factionalism in your church by refusing to name the factions.

Yes, it’s true that “liberal” and “conservative” mean somewhat different things in American political and Catholic ecclesiastical discourse. Catholic conservatives can usually be depended upon to oppose the death penalty and support comprehensive immigration reform. Some of the most left-wing Catholics I know are staunchly pro-life and opposed to assisted suicide. Still, the contrast between the political and the ecclesiastical usage is not as great as is sometimes made out — and if the behavior of the more outspoken American bishops in recent years is any indication, it’s been getting smaller.

As for me, I have been reprimanded (to make a Franciscan admission) by some moderates for using one of the forbidden terms to characterize His Holiness himself. Liberal. Actually I was quoting a conservative, but, mea culpa, I did write, “Roll over, Benedict, and tell JPII the news.” Rolling over at WaPo, Melinda Henneberger expostulated,

No, no, no: What Francis is saying is not that liberals are up in Rome right now and conservatives are down – haha, now see how you like it! — but on the contrary that labels and tiny little boxes have no place in a faith that is so much bigger than that. Francis is not a ‘right-winger,’ but he’s not a winger at all.

“I’m not exactly sure what it means for Francis to be considered ‘liberal,’” writes Fordham prof Charles Camosy over at Catholic Moral Theology.

I’m reasonably sure what it means, so let me count the ways.

1. Francis has emerged as the most vehement papal critic of capitalism since Leo XIII. (See, most recently, his extempore comments in Sardinia yesterday.

2. In his reaction to the possible bombing of Syria, he revealed himself as all but pacifist, giving no indication that he believes there can be just wars.

3. He seems bent on opening the door of the church to the divorced, and possibly to changing the rules on priestly celibacy.

4. He declines to pass judgment on homosexuals.

5. He believes the church should focus less attention on abortion, gay marriage, and contraception.

6. He washes the feet of the poor, including the Muslim poor.

7. He is open to letting Catholics say the Latin Mass, but is prepared to countermand his predecessor’s blanket approval of doing so where he sees it as being exploited for ideological purposes.

8. He urges a turn away from top-down authoritarianism, rejecting the view “that ‘thinking with the church’ means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church.”

9. He has declared his opposition to Catholic “restorationism.”

10. He doesn’t want the offices of the Roman Curia to be “institutions of censorship” and opposes the practice of sending “denunciations for lack of orthodoxy” to the Vatican.

Is Francis opposed to abortion and prepared to say so? Yes he is. Has he signaled that he’s not interested in having women priests? Yes he has. So does the fact that he’s not on board with Catholics for Choice and Roman Catholic Womenpriests mean he’s not a liberal?

I don’t think so.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

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