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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  • Yes, he praises the “Religion of Peace” as 100,000 Christians are slaughtered in the Middle East each year. By whom? He neither speaks out nor condemns those who murder, harass, and subjugate all religious minorities.

  • Same old same old. The Vatican has just defrocked and excommunitated a priest for supporting women’s ordination. And that is the bottom line: the ongoing culture war between “traditional societies” and modernity. And one central mark of “traditional societies,” which the RC church is committed to supporting, is sex roles. Asked about women’s ordination this “liberal” pope has said “that door is closed.” Yeah, yeah, all that nice stuff, and his cute, grandstanding “humility”–but when it comes to women it’s the same old story.

  • I have found out the inherent fallacy in your reasoning and your understanding of the Catholic faith. The problem is you see concepts and categories largely from a faith tradition that baptized the classical liberal/post enlightenment tradition. The Catholic faith did not do this. The criticism of the excesses of capitalism going back to Leo XII have nothing to do with and embrace of liberalism but rather Thomism and medieval scholasticism with its understanding of justice and freedom also at variance with liberalism. Nowhere has Pope Francis abandoned the just war tradition. It is the liberals of this age who have whether they be George Weigal or the administration. Washing the feet of the poor is nothing new. The Pope is not against Latin or traditional practices. He reads his breviary in Latin and regularly attends adoration of the Blessed Sacrament two things not on the high list of liberals. If you really want to understand what makes the Catholic Church tick theologically, you better start reading your Aquinas not John Locke or any liberal Protestant theologian. The Scriptures, the Councils, Augustine and the Aristotelian-thomistic tradition is a much better lens in which to assess the Catholic faith. For this Pope, Ignatius is paramount and I am not talking about how Jesuits have largely interpreted him since Vatican II. After this, you may be able to understand why 99% of the time, your interpretation of Catholicism is off.

  • Dear Mr. Silk:

    The Holy Father was referring to Argentine politics, not the church, when he said that he was never a right winger. Unfortunately, this fact has been almost entirely overlooked in the media accounts. Thank you for reading America.

  • Here is what Pope Francis said about gay marriage in Argentina:

    In the coming weeks, the Argentine people will face a situation whose outcome can seriously harm the family…At stake is the identity and survival of the family: father, mother and children. At stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance, and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God. At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts.

    Let’s not be naive: This is not a simple political fight; it is a destructive proposal to God’s plan. This is not a mere legislative proposal (that’s just its form), but a move by the father of lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.

  • Doesn’t matter if a pope is liberal or conservative, the teaching on male only clergy is a doctrine of the Church, it cannot be changed. Pope John Paul II made this explicitly clear in his letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.

  • But was he bound do both defrock and excommunicate this Australian priest? Anyway, who cares? I grant you that this is the RC church’s unalterable position. While the church goes back and forth on a range of issues one of the non-negotiables is sex roles. And that is why the RC church will eventually wither away in the Global North.

  • There’s nothing abnormal or “different” Francis says. The past two popes stated very similar “off the cuff” comments, what many wayward Catholics would call “liberal”. I wasnt alive yet but I’ve read the liberals were trying to push the exact same narrative with blessed Paul II… that is, untill he started sounding all “annoyingly Catholic”. The proabortion and homosexual mafia will NEVER be reconciled with the Church until they repent and prayerfully submit to her (the Church’s authority. But this doesn’t mean that they arent loved by our lord either. Us Catholics dont “hate” anyone, especially those suffering through same-sex attractions. The catechism is very clear they should not be marginalized or discriminated against. However, their lobby, if they are affiliated is problematic to the body of Christ. Same-sex marriage is an impossibility and the act of sodomy is inherently evil while the attraction itself is inherently disordered…again, direct Catholic teaching. Its grave matter, but we are still called to love these folks. They are sinners as all of us are also. But again, the entirety of the person is looked at… not their lobby. The lobby, incidentally is tied with the eugenic-based abortion lobby. The confused and suffering woman and man (usually) are hurt, confused, and regretful..(I know from experience. The person, again should not be marginalized, and is loved by God but the soul of the unrepentant is in danger. The powerful abortion LOBBY, who pray upon these people confuse us with words like “choice” and “reproductive health care”. Their work, along with other lobbies are tied to the diabolical. Abortion lobbies are closely related to eugenic racism (Margaret Sanger)-an image of an aborted fetus will erase any doubt. Long story short, hate the sin, love the sinner. This is typical Catholicism. Lastly, regarding woman’s ordination… our Lord chose twelve male apostles. Also, when the sacrifice of the mass is represented, the priest represents Jesus, a man. Its a physical impossibility for a woman to do this. The woman who feels marginalized about this should also be loved. But again, the LOBBY is the problem. Dissident publications like National “Catholic” Reporter, with their schismatic statements cannot be reconciled with the Church. Groups that claim to be Catholic “Catholics for choice” (abortion) are heterodox and prey upon the confused. There is nothing Catholic about them. So… in summary, regardless what the aforementioned sinister groups attempt, with misquoted statements, and buzzwords regarding the holy father, God willing, they will never change the narrative. Thre are souls at stake, and yes, even the specific members arre loved by our Lord. Lastly, I’m convinced that the lobbies will lose their affection for Francis as soon as they realize he is indeed Catholic

  • Dear Father Malone,

    So far as I can see, the Holy Father was referring to himself in an ecclesiastical context when he said that he was never a right winger. (“My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative.”) Anyway, thank you for reading my blog.

  • …And he said that the moral teachings of the Church aren’t going to change, and he wishes that some people would stop demanding that they do–because, after all, the teachings of the Church are about more than the causes that liberals promote.
    The liberal spin on those remarks was, “He doesn’t care about morals!”