As Pope Francis visits the U.S. this week, religion experts have been driven to distraction by the drumbeat of “liberal pope” articles.
“The next person who tells me Pope Francis is a Democrat—I’m going to punch them,” Christopher Hale of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good told my colleague Emma Green, in an article—one of many making a similar case—headlined, “Pope Francis Is Not ‘Progressive’—He’s a Priest.”
But this is an absurd distinction. There are plenty of progressive priests, just as there are plenty of conservative ones. Priests can and do have ideologies, just as politicians have religious convictions. (And unlike a rank-and-file priest, Francis is a head of state who conducts foreign policy.) And there are, in fact, reasons why Francis strikes political observers as having a lot in common with American Democrats.
Religion writers never tire of reminding us that, as revolutionary as Francis may appear, he actually believes the same things as previous popes. Like his predecessors, Francis is a social conservative who opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. And like Francis, previous popes opposed war and called for helping the poor. If this pontiff seems different, these writers insist, it’s because media outlets have amplified certain stances while downplaying others, or because he has shifted the Church’s emphasis without changing its doctrine.
But what makes Francis different is really a matter of which Catholic beliefs he has elevated to the level of communal concerns—public policy—and which he has framed as individual choices. To Francis, sharing wealth and fixing global warming are matters that governments should address, while not committing homosexual acts or having abortions are individual choices he endorses. (As he famously put it: “Who am I to judge?”) This is quite different from the American Catholic church, which has poured its political energy into laws banning gay marriage and restricting abortion. (The church, often through the Knights of Columbus, was one of the largest funders of anti-gay-marriage ballot initiatives, particularly post-2008, when the Mormons largely stopped funding them.)
The pope’s speech at the White House on Wednesday fit this framework. When it came to religious liberty, a hot-button issue for American conservatives, Francis extolled its virtues in the abstract. But in the case of climate, Francis called for government action: “Mr. President, I find it encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution,” he said.
Francis is not an American politician, but his perspective on the state’s role in these issues lines up pretty well with that of most American Democrats. To greatly oversimplify, Democrats believe the U.S. needs to regulate the economy and the environment, while allowing people to make their own choices about whom they marry and whether to have an abortion. Republicans—again, oversimplifying greatly—think people should generally be able to do what they want with their money and their carbon footprint, but social behavior should be regulated by the state. Francis aligns more with Democrats than Republicans on other issues: He favors immigration reform, played a major role in the Obama administration’s détente with Cuba, and supports the Iran nuclear deal. No wonder the president and other American liberals are trying to claim him—and conservatives see him as a threat.
Through his activism, Francis has significantly raised the Church’s profile on issues with which it wasn’t previously associated in American politics—issues chiefly championed by Democrats. But Francis’s major impact within the Vatican, as Emma noted, has been as a reformer, reorganizing the Vatican bureaucracy and cleaning up its scandal-ridden finances. It’s in this regard that Francis most resembles Obama, who campaigned in 2007 on a promise to heal America’s divisions and disrupt the entrenched and corrupt political system.
Francis, unlike Obama, actually did it: He’s cleverly leveraged his massive popularity to overcome systemic inertia and entrenched opposition, marginalizing his critics and bringing about sweeping changes many insiders had believed to be impossible.(Then again, when the Pope convenes his Synod of Bishops in October, he may, like Obama, discover the challenge of pushing his favored reforms through a factious legislature.) In many ways, Francis is the politician Barack Obama tried and failed to be.
So yes, Francis is a priest. He’s also a progressive, a politician—and an uncommonly good one at that.