Pope Francis Is Not ‘Progressive’—He’s a Priest

How to read the pontiff as he visits the United States of America

Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters / Kim Seidl / Shutterstock / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

“The next person who tells me Pope Francis is a Democrat—I’m going to punch them.”

Perhaps Christopher Hale, the executive director of a small Catholic non-profit in D.C., puts the point a little more bluntly than most Catholic priests and scholars. But his frustration is widely shared.

With Francis preparing to visit the United States for the first time—not just in his papacy, but in his life—the media is preparing for much pope’ing on controversial topics like poverty, climate change, marriage, and abortion. Americans are often tempted to read Francis as a “progressive” pope who has tossed out the conservative playbook of Church leaders past. After all, he’s thrown down scathing critiques of global capitalism, pushed for radical reform on climate change, and shifted the Church’s tone on issues like homosexuality, divorce, and abortion. So as pundits map his views, many conclude that he’s pushing the church into uncharted territory. But as a 15th-century Vatican cartographer might have put it: hic sunt dracones.

Specifically: Francis does not fit neatly into American categories. To understand him and his agenda, it’s more helpful to look at America through his eyes than to look at him through an American’s eyes, for even the most familiar U.S. issue may seem very different to this Argentinian Jesuit. As the pope makes his way from Cuba through Washington, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia, here are a few things to keep in mind.

First, the American political spectrum is truly idiosyncratic. This is a country where a Democratic congressman can loudly oppose the death penalty on moral grounds, but can’t risk really opposing abortion; a Republican might care a lot about the poor, but woe unto her campaign coffers if she suggests raising taxes on the rich. “Francis, like all the other popes, like the Catholic Church, simply doesn’t land comfortably on either side of the political divide in the U.S.,” said Vincent Miller, a professor of theology at the University of Dayton. “But it’s not simply that on questions of sexuality and human life he agrees with Republicans and on questions of economics he agrees with Democrats. The whole system is so skewed.”

Second, although some read this pope as a rebel within a broken Church, no pontiff can single-handedly overhaul Church teachings on any issue, nor has that ever been Francis’s intention. There is no doubt Francis is a reformer: He has cleaned up Church finances and reorganized the Roman Curia, the Vatican’s bureaucracy. In October, bishops will also gather in Rome for the second of two synods on the topic of family, which may yield changes in how the Church deals with married priests and divorcées. But as with anything in the Church, it’s reform in increments, always in continuity with what has come before. Francis’s style may be different from that of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the two popes who preceded him. But this pope has made painstaking efforts to show how his work is a continuation of theirs, rather than something totally new.

Francis does not fit neatly into American categories.

Finally, Francis is fundamentally a global pope. He is not coming to the U.S. to address it as a voting bloc, like some politician traveling to a recalcitrant county to court constituents. The most vibrant and fastest growing parts of the Church are in Latin America and Africa, not North America and Europe. Moreover, the United States is sort of like the Death Star in Pope Francis’s understanding of global politics.

In his first solo encyclical, Laudato Si, he takes aim at countries in the global north—cough, cough—that generate waste and lead consumptive lifestyles at the expense of the world’s poor. American Catholicism is richly varied, historically fascinating, and a non-insignificant portion of the global Church. But with all due respect to the firms out there that have fretted over the dips and turns in Francis’s U.S. popularity in the lead-up to the trip, the pope doesn’t care.

These are not particularly unique insights; after all, the hints are right there in Francis’s job description. The pope is the successor of Saint Peter, the leader of the world’s largest body of followers of Christ. He comes to the United States not as a politician, but as a pastor. As the country receives a pope who is known for going off script and freestyling his ministry, only one thing is truly sure to happen: Prepare for some preaching, America.

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With all that said, what are some useful ways to understand this pope in the American context? With a figure as complicated as Francis, it’s impossible to answer that question fully with anything but a book or 12. But here are a few aspects of his history and pastoral priorities that can serve as a guide to his words and actions while he’s in the U.S.

The Pope’s Latin American Past

When he was elected in 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio became the first-ever pope from the Americas—or from the Southern Hemisphere. The Argentine came of age during the rule of Juan and Eva Peron and was a young priest during the violent, politically unstable decades that followed. Insofar as this pope is a political figure, he was shaped by the push-and-pull between the Church and communism during his decades in Argentina.

In the 1960s and ’70s, a movement known as liberation theology gained traction among Church leaders in Latin America. The bishops there had their own leadership council, known as the Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano, or CELAM. In 1968, that group met in Medellín to affirm that the Church has a “preferential option for the poor”—in other words, that the poor should be at the center of Catholic teaching and ministry. Their main conclusion at this meeting, said Miller, was that “Latin America is being exploited by first-world economies as a source for the raw materials for first-world affluence.”

Fifty years later, this idea would become the center of Pope Francis’s first solo encyclical on the topic of climate change, Laudato Si. Francis speaks of this issue in the context of the entire global south, but “that concern about justice—that in order to preach the gospel, you have to confront the injustices of the large structures of the world—that’s a fundamentally Latin American insight,” Miller said.

In the years following this meeting in Medellín, certain strains of liberation theology became more politicized, and some Vatican leaders came to view it as overly Marxist. This was particularly true during the papacy of John Paul II, who came from communist Poland and saw firsthand the destructive effects of Marxist politics. In the early ’80s, he asked one of his cardinals, Joseph Ratzinger, to issue an “Instruction on Certain Aspects of the ‘Theology of Liberation’”—Church-speak for a theological smack-down. As Ratzinger wrote, there were “risks of deviation, damaging to the faith and to Christian living … brought about by certain forms of liberation theology which use, in an insufficiently critical manner, concepts borrowed from various currents of Marxist thought." Ratzinger, of course, later became Pope Benedict XVI.

“That concern about justice—that’s a fundamentally Latin American insight.”

Bergoglio, meanwhile, was helping to chart something of a middle path in Argentina. He was involved with the preparations for a 1979 CELAM meeting in Puebla, Mexico, which “affirmed the option for the poor while definitively rejecting the Marxist-influenced version of liberation theology,” writes the church historian Austen Ivereigh in his book on Francis, The Great Reformer. In a way, it was an attempt to make liberation theology more moral and less political—and indeed, around this time, certain Jesuits accused Bergoglio of being “too concerned with feeding the poor and not enough with asking why they were poor,” Ivereigh writes. But this idea—that the Church should be a Church for the poor—was key to his formation. It’s why, as the head of the Society of Jesus in Argentina in the 1970s, he sent priests into the poor barrios, or slums, to do outreach. And it’s why, many years later as pope, he constantly talks about the poor.

All of this is deeply tied to Bergoglio’s Jesuit background. He had spent decades living in Argentina under the leadership of Father Pedro Arrupe, a Spanish priest who empathized deeply with the aims of liberation theology. When Arrupe took over the Society of Jesus in 1965 following the close of the Second Vatican Council, he faced the task of “renewing” the order, whose membership had fallen off precipitously in the 1970s, according to Ivereigh. Arrupe chose a theme that would stick with Bergoglio throughout his Latin American ministry and into his papacy, Ivereigh writes: “They were called to stand with the poor in their desire for justice and peace.”

The Pope as a Political and Economic Thinker

When the pope draws on his Latin American past to talk about the poor, to American ears, it can sound like a radical and new position for the Church. But this may be another quirk of U.S. politics; John Paul II and Benedict XVI were also both economic reformers who advocated for the poor. “This gets to one of the most fundamental reasons [why Francis is] so hard to understand in the U.S. context,” Miller said. “We have this culture-war frame that has built up over the last 40 years, which has very carefully portrayed Catholicism as a bearer of conservative personal and ethical and medical moral values, and has downplayed John Paul II and Benedict’s radical critiques of free-market fundamentalism and militarism. Both were very outspoken on those things.”

When Francis released an apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, just a few months into his papacy, it got enormous attention—perhaps in part because it’s so prickly. “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,” Francis wrote. “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.”

But though Evangelii Gaudium was eminently quotable, “I don’t think there’s really any way in which [Francis] diverges from John Paul II and Benedict on social teaching,” Miller said. “The Church for the past 10 popes, since Leo XIII, has consistently criticized socialism and capitalist ideology.”

For example: In his 1991 letter Centesimus Annus, John Paul II openly questioned whether former communist countries should embrace free-market capitalism. “The human inadequacies of capitalism and the resulting domination of things over people are far from disappearing,” he wrote. “In fact, for the poor, to the lack of material goods has been added a lack of knowledge and training which prevents them from escaping their state of humiliating subjection.” Similarly, in 2013, Benedict XVI called out “the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which … finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism.”

But despite Rush Limbaugh’s speculations, the pope and his predecessors are no Marxists—Francis is just as anti-Marx as he is anti-Wall Street, partly because of his Latin American background. “The Church has always been wary of two extremes: One is collectivization, or what has historically been known as socialism,” said Tony Annett, an adviser at the Earth Institute at Columbia University. “But the Church has been equally opposed to the other extreme, which is individualism. Catholic social teaching is fundamentally based on a very communal approach—going all the way back through Genesis, that we are our brothers’ keepers.”

“Living the Christian faith always has profound political consequences, but it can’t be reduced to a political stand.”

Trying to understand Francis as a political figure is also tricky. It’s essentially meaningless to try and place him on the spectrum from “left” to “right” in the United States, contorting the poor pope to fit the mishmash of statism and individualism that plagues U.S. politics. But even more than that, America is not his primary audience. “Two-thirds of the Catholic Church is now in the developing world,” said Maryann Cusimano Love, a politics professor at the Catholic University of America. “That’s totally flip-flopped from two centuries ago, when two-thirds of the Catholic Church was in the global north.”

On recent visits to other countries, Francis has been outspoken about the flaws in the global economic and political systems, making it almost impossible to deny the political overtones of his rallying cries. In Bolivia this summer, for example, he addressed the poor of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, calling on governments to protect the “sacred rights” of labor, lodging, and land. On the general question of whether the pope is political, Miller hedged a little: “Living the Christian faith always has profound political consequences, but it can’t be reduced to a political stand,” as he put it.

Ultimately, said Annett, this is a pastoral visit, meant to offer spiritual guidance. Francis is “not going to show up as a Jeremiah, but he’s also not going to show up as a cheerleader. He’s going to come, and he’s going to preach the gospel to American Catholics.”

The Pope’s Focus on Family

In his visits to the three America cities—D.C., New York, and Philadelphia—the pope is expected to speak on a range of topics, including poverty and the environment. But the main reason why he’s coming to the United States is to talk about families. Before he left the papacy, Benedict XVI designated Philadelphia as the host city for this year’s World Meeting of Families, and he pledged to attend; Francis is making good on that promise. This issue is also close to Francis’s heart: Throughout his papacy, he has consistently nudged the Church to reconsider the ways in which it treats families.

In an American context, Francis is actually something of a traditionalist in his approach to family. Although he just about broke the Internet in 2013 when he said, “Who am I to judge?” in response to a pool reporter’s question about a gay priest, he has not shifted Church doctrine on traditional marriage at all. In fact, at times, he has emphasized the male/female nature of marriage; at a Vatican summit in November, for example, he affirmed that marriages between husband and wife are “an anthropological fact, and consequently a social, cultural fact, etc.” He has consistently written that “marriage and the family are in crisis,” and that “the indispensible contribution of marriage to society transcends the feelings and momentary needs of the couple.”

Yet within the Church, he has pushed his bishops to rethink some of the most entrenched doctrinal questions on family. This month, the Vatican issued a series of changes to canon law on annulments, making it easier for husbands and wives to end their marriages within the Church. Last fall, Francis performed a marriage ceremony for 20 couples in Rome, some of whom had previously lived together or been married. And next month, Francis will gather with bishops from around the world in Rome for the second of two synods on the topic of family; the group is expected to address the question of whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics can take communion and participate in other sacraments.

It’s useful to think of “family life” as a suite of issues, including gender roles in the Church, abortion, and sexuality; in the way Francis writes on these subjects, they’re all interconnected. In his encyclical on the environment, for example, he writes that the same “throwaway culture” which leads to the destruction of the environment “justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted.” Francis has been just as steadfastly traditional on these issues as his predecessors, although it can be tempting to speculate otherwise. For example, “there’s been no indication that he’s rethinking women’s ordination,” said Love. “For those who think, because he’s representing change and raising up issues of people who have been previously marginalized, and therefore everything is going to change, that’s not actually true.”

With all things Francis, the buzzword to remember is “pastoral.”

As with all things Francis, the buzzword to remember is pastoral—much of the change he has brought to the Church has been tonal, offering a different ways to reach the faithful. With the potential changes in the Church’s posture toward divorcées, for example, “it’s very much a pastoral instinct—it’s not an instinct that’s looking to rewrite Catholic doctrine on marriage,” Love said. Same with abortion: Earlier this month, Francis announced that priests should grant forgiveness to repentant women who have had abortions during the upcoming Year of Mercy. Many women “believe that they have no other option,” he wrote in a letter to priests. “I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal.”

In the American Catholic context, these issues are particularly thorny. According to a recent Pew survey, roughly one in four American Catholics have gone through a divorce. (Perhaps relatedly: Americans account for well more than half of all the annulments granted by the Church.) Even among Catholics who attend Mass weekly, about a third have lived with a partner they weren’t married to, which would make them ineligible to take communion. Two-thirds of this group say the Church should ease up on its contraception ban, and roughly half say the Church ought to allow priests to marry and divorcées to take communion.

But perhaps that’s why Pope Francis’s pastoral style is so fascinating to watch—on this trip, he will have to find a way to speak to American Catholics as they are, hopefully dropping a few quotables along the way. There are plenty of Catholics in the U.S. who don’t agree with Roman Catholic teachings on family, sexuality, or any number of issues. But perhaps that’s how Francis prefers it, anyways. “My hope,” he wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, “is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat.’”