Is Pope Francis a Liberal? A Protestant’s Perspective

American liberals are positively gleeful at the thought that Pope Francis might be one of their own politically – and (Protestant) conservatives are dismayed at the possibility. This is, unfortunately, much too narrow a lens through which to see the pope, but it is done, and the question must now be dealt with.

Much of the outcry or cheers – depending on where one stands – come from non-Catholics who have read misleading headlines and leapt to conclusions about what was actually said. Headlines like “Pope Francis says evolution is real and God is no wizard,” which misconstrue his point.

Similarly, conveniently worded headlines have appeared about his statements concerning the extending of Holy Communion to homosexuals and divorcees and merits or demerits of capitalism. The Daily Beast, the Guardian and others are warning of a possible schism over these issues, the likelihood of which is almost certainly overblown. Let’s take a look at some of these topics.

First, Francis said, “God is not… a magician, but the Creator who brought everything to life. Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.” He further stated, “[God] created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfillment.”

Does this indicate that he is breaking with orthodox Christian teaching? If that is an accurate theological statement, it’s 60 years too late. The Catholic Church has accepted the possibility that Darwinian (or some sort of) evolution is both scientifically accurate and consistent with the existence of God since Pope Pius XII. (Incidentally, the Big Bang was first proposed as a theory by Belgian priest and scientist Georges Lemaître in 1927)

In keeping with the Church’s determination at that time, Francis flips the argument the other way. Far from requiring a person to cease believing in God, the Bible, the Church, what have you, accepting evolution simply reiterates the need for him, because again, “evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.” Extending that consistency to the arguments of those who reject evolution as too unlikely, the Church would suggest that God-designed-and-initiation evolution is in no way impossible.

Within this view, Genesis 1 would not be considered a literal retelling of creation. (This is a question that is beyond the purview of this piece and, frankly, my knowledge.)

Second, as a product of last month’s synod – over which Francis presided, but in which he did not actively debate – the bishops who attended released a preliminary document, “calling for the church to welcome and accept gay people, unmarried couples and those who have divorced, as well as the children of these less traditional families.” The most talked about issue raised is the admitting of the divorced and remarried to Communion, which reportedly has split the bishops; they left it open to further debate.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this about the Sacraments: “The purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify men, to build up the Body of Christ and, finally, to give worship to God. Because they are signs they also instruct. They not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects they also nourish, strengthen, and express it. That is why they are called ‘sacraments of faith.”

From my Protestant perspective, it is very possible to argue that one result of the synod is a recognition that a shift in emphasis should occur from the sacraments as a sign or as a presupposition of faith and to the nourishing and strengthening of faith. In other words, for those who are “living in sin,” it might be taken as a shift in emphasis from the sacraments as a reflection of holiness towards their influence in making their partakers more holy (and therefore less sinful.)

Some American Catholics might find this question behind the times. I have been told by Catholics I know that a number of churches here already offer communion to divorcees. Indeed, the New York Times writes, “In the United States, many parishes quietly welcome gay couples, in the church’s own ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach.”

“But there have been reports of gay couples denied communion; gay parishioners evicted from choirs and parish councils; gay teachers and professors dismissed from schools; and gay children refused admittance to parochial schools.”

This is the type of thing that more liberal Catholics are looking to change. Those who are hopeful that this synod or this pope is the one they’ve been waiting for should keep in mind, this is the same Pope Francis who also declared that “children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother” and the document produced “should not be overvalued as a document of reference. It’s merely a working paper.”

The third area to consider is economics. It is here that I become a little uncomfortable with Francis’ words. John Paul II was famously of huge importance to the triumph of the First World over the Soviet states and communism. Today many are worried (or giddy, depending on their views) at the possibility that Francis might be a sort of Marxist/communist/socialist.

In reality, his speeches on the subject of economics tend to be a mix of compassion for the poor, anti-consumerism and a misunderstanding of how the free market works and how power in such a system is acquired and weilded, all sprinkled with some Marxian language about inequality.

The last bit here is not surprising considering that Francis – or Jorge Bergoglio, as he was born – was an Argentinean cardinal before becoming pope. In Latin America, Marxist economics is the very air one breathes and Liberation Theology is much more common than in the United States. The surprise is not when someone who grew up in Latin America uses words that sound like Marx, but when he or she doesn’t.

Here is a good example of that mixed bag:

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “Thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

This is an excellent call to change our priorities and care for those in need, followed by a reference to the competition innate to the free market as “survival of the fittest” and a cause of inequality.

The reality is, as AEI’s James Pethokoukis responded, “that innovative free enterprise is the greatest wealth generator ever discovered and the economic system most supportive of human freedom and flourishing.” It is in fact competition that has offered the greatest increase in standard of living and opportunity to people of every economic situation. All other systems have failed in this regard.

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.

Francis is correct to criticize “a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.” It is a dangerous misreading of human nature. He is wrong to criticize the free market as though there is a system that better deals with our fallen states.
But when he turns from capitalism to consumerism, he is spot on:

To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

Now, from a precedent standpoint, critiquing capitalism might be one of the least “liberal” things he has done. And though I tend to think that it is Francis’ economic views more than his familial or social views that deserve a response, it is the latter that seems to be creating more of a rift within the Church. This makes sense, however, when you consider the relative importance each has on the practices of the Church itself. The pope’s economic views have no bearing on salvation according to the Church, though what the pope says about the subject is influential and important to how general Christian opinion on the subject is perceived.

Most of what Francis has done and said looks to be based in precedent and perhaps represents a shift in focus or emphasis on certain issues, so from an outsider’s perspective like mine, charges of “liberalism” seem overblown. Still, he does not appear as conservative in the narrow political or social senses as John Paul II or Benedict XVI.

So is Pope Francis a sort of liberal conservative who speaks a little Marxian? Perhaps, but attempting to define him this way is less helpful at helping us arrive at the truth than it is at showing the folly of trying to narrow one’s understanding of the pope to only the Left-Right spectrum. He isn’t a political commentator or a politician and, no, he is not the Catholic Church’s Barack Obama.