Letter from Rome: What kind of liberal is Pope Francis?


Dear friends of Istituto Acton,

Some things in Rome never change. These include the hordes of tourists cramming St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums (or so my tour guide friends tell me), the slow but steady increase in professional and academic activity as the month of October approaches, and political drama involving Silvio Berlusconi. I could also add the lack of economic growth and generally dire prospects for the future, unless, that is, you’re catering to the aforementioned tourists. But somehow Rome still manages to survive.

Another reliable occurrence is that a papal interview will create a stir, especially when the Pope wades into matters concerning human sexuality. This goes double for Pope Francis, whose interview was simultaneously released in La Civiltà Cattolica and other Jesuit publications around the world, including America magazine, on September 19. Since then, I’ve heard from friends asking me for my thoughts about what he had to say, especially regarding those who are “obsessed” with abortion, contraception and homosexuality. I’ve also been asked how to interpret some of his statements on the less alluring but equally important topic of economics, in particular those made during his September 22 visit to the Italian island of Sardinia. The Catholic left couldn’t be happier, or so it appears.

But first some general impressions on the overwhelmingly positive reception of Pope Francis these past six months. Talking with ordinary Romans, from the barman to the dry cleaner to the taxi driver, it’s obvious that Francis has reached the hearts of people in his diocese in ways that Benedict XVI (certainly) and John Paul II (perhaps) never did. No doubt some of this is due to Francis’s eschewing of some of the more monarchical trappings of the papacy and his homespun ways of addressing the crowds. He can talk about God, the sacrament of confession, and the devil in ways that people understand, clearly showing a more pastoral than intellectual approach compared to his immediate predecessors. While unfair to Pope Benedict as a world-class theologian who expressed himself in extraordinarily lucid ways, the “new style” seems necessary when speaking to the unchurched, a number that has been growing for the past several decades in North America and Europe. Whether this popular enthusiasm will result in people practicing the faith more regularly and attempting to live more Christian lives is another question.

In fact, it’s this connection between practicing the faith, i.e. following the rules of the Church regarding, for instance, Sunday mass attendance and especially sexual morality, and living a Christian life that seems to have some people perplexed about Pope Francis’s remarks. On the one hand, he criticizes a “self-referential” and “small-minded” Church, by which he seems to mean one that overemphasizes its own rules at the expense of charity and mercy. On the other hand, Francis calls himself a “son of the Church” who has neither the desire nor the ability to change Church teaching on fundamental matters. (The one area he has said he’s willing to explore is the situation of divorced and re-married Catholics, one that John Paul II and Benedict XVI also said may be re-examined.)

This apparent division between the “spirit” and the “law” of Christian life is indeed a common but serious one that has most likely contributed to the decline in Church attendance and general practice of the faith. If I think I can skip Sunday mass for no good reason and still be “ok” with God, why should I make the effort to go in the first place? One hour a week for God becomes too burdensome and, from there, it’s probably one or two steps to cohabitation, contraception, etc. and before I know it, I’ve joined the ranks of the non-practicing and am on the verge of being unable to explain why I call myself Catholic at all. But, hey, I’m sure God will understand, won’t He? Rather than create a mess by opposing “spirit” and “law,” we ought to be looking for ways to integrate them.

Much of the controversy over the Pope’s interview reminds me of several Gospel passages, where Jesus is criticized by the Pharisees for healing people on the Sabbath, dining with sinners, not condemning the adulteress, and so on, and especially of the parable of the prodigal son and the elder brother who’s upset that his father never threw a feast for him. In all these cases, Jesus emphasizes mercy over justice in order to draw us closer to Him instead of remaining attached to our prideful selves. God’s justice would rightly condemn us all, while His mercy offers us a chance at salvation if we’re humble enough to seek it. But in no way does Jesus say that justice is useless or unnecessary.

As Pope Francis keeps reminding us, mercy is at the heart of Christ’s message, yet mercy can’t exist without, nor can it negate, justice. There’s no sense in forgiving someone for something that’s not wrong. And if there’s no objective measure of right and wrong, don’t we live under the “dictatorship of relativism”? (Yes, that is Pope Francis, not just Pope Benedict, talking.) So while some dissidents may think Francis wants to get rid of all those hard-to-keep, outdated rules of Christian morality and thereby eliminate the concept of sin as such, I’d still bet that he is on the side of “go and sin no more.” Janet Smith points out that Pope Francis may have unfairly caricatured those who have dedicated their lives to fighting abortion and other deeply unjust, damaging practices in order to bring others to Christ, while underestimating the timidity of many pastors and bishops on these issues. This is unfortunate and calls for clarification and action from the Holy Father. But our real outrage should be directed to others who seek to turn Church teaching on its head.

Church teaching is clear when it comes to non-negotiable issues such as abortion. On prudential matters such as the best way to create jobs, faithful Catholics can and often do disagree. So when the Pope told workers in Cagliari the indignity of unemployment “is the result of a global decision, of an economic system which leads to this tragedy; an economic system centered on an idol called ‘money,’” we may respectfully raise a few basic economic questions. There’s no question that money is actually an idol for far too many of the rich and powerful, with disastrous consequences for themselves and the poor who are striving to improve their living conditions. These are primarily the rich who hoard their money and capital for themselves, a.k.a. misers. But how about the rich and powerful who want to invest in new but unproven ventures? If we want jobs for the poor so that they can have the dignity of work, how can we do this without investments of money and capital? Don’t the poor need capital and therefore capitalists just as much, if not more, than the idle rich? As other popes have said, exclusion from the global economy is the main cause of poverty in the modern world, so what we actually need is more, not less, business.

Pope Francis undoubtedly believes what he says about the indignity of work and the idolatry of money. Being more familiar with Argentina than anywhere else, he has seen first-hand what “crony capitalist” arrangements that lock out competition, and hence new opportunities that could benefit the poor, look like. An economic system not based on money and capital would have to be based on something else, such as a barter or feudal economy. These alternatives may or may not claim to place “human beings at the center,” but one thing they do not do is offer the poor the same chance to become non-poor and even wealthy. Instead of blaming the instrument of money, I would prefer encouraging Christian capitalists and businesspeople to do their jobs well because by doing so, they make possible the kinds of jobs that Pope Francis wants for the people of Cagliari and beyond.

In the context of speaking about his authoritarian tendencies as provincial general of the Jesuits, Pope Francis admitted he “has never been a right-winger.” If by right-winger, he means forcing others to do what he says in the name of social justice, he’s describing a Peronista, which no sane person should want to be. Outside of Latin America, however, there’s another kind of “right-winger” who promotes economic freedom while also believing that Catholic teaching, moral and otherwise, is true. I should know because I am one. Perhaps the confusion has to do with how one understands the admittedly complicated relationship between human freedom, political order, and God’s plan for each and every one of us. Maybe political terminology dating from the French Revolution is the problem. Or can’t Catholics be truly liberal, after all?

Kishore Jayabalan
Director