Follow by Email

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Is Pope Francis a Liberal?

Is Pope Francis a theological liberal? I don't think so. He may be to the left of his predecessor, but that doesn’t mean that he’s a liberal, and no amount of wishful thinking on the part of those on the left will change that. He may be a moderate, but it’s unlikely he’s a liberal.

To be sure, Francis has done some things that gives one pause, such as how he has embodied a far more simpler lifestyle than his predecessor, such as living in the Vatican guesthouse instead of the Apostolic Palace, a practice that continues what he did when he was an Archbishop in Argentina where he lived in a small apartment rather than the archbishop’s residence, and he took the bus to work. And then there were his remarks over the summer where he said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, he was no one to judge. And more recently he was critical of the church for being obsessed with abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. But I don't think he's a theological liberal. Why? Well, consider the following extended quote from a recent interview with the Pope that has garnered a lot of attention ("A Big Heart Open to God"):
We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. 
The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.  
I say this also thinking about the preaching and content of our preaching. A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing. The homily is the touchstone to measure the pastor’s proximity and ability to meet his people, because those who preach must recognize the heart of their community and must be able to see where the desire for God is lively and ardent. The message of the Gospel, therefore, is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.
At first glance Francis does sound like a liberal, and it's easy to see why some liberal Catholics (and non-Catholics) are hopeful that he is sympathetic to some of their concerns ("Liberal Catholics Urge Pope for Reforms as Consultations Start"). After all, Francis does say that it's unnecessary to talk about the “issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods” all the time. Instead, the church has to “find a new balance.” And God’s saving love must come “before moral and religious imperatives,” such that it can’t be “reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.”

But, notice what Francis doesn't say. He doesn't say that he intends to overturn the church’s teaching on abortion, gay marriage, or the use of contraceptive methods. Instead, he notes that on these issues the church’s teaching “is clear," and that he is “a son of the church” (in other words, he agrees with the church's teachings)."  Quite telling, in fact, is how in 2010 when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aries and Argentina’s President signed into law a bill legalizing same-sex marriage, he wrote, “This is not simply a political struggle, but an attempt to destroy God’s plan.” Moreover, elsewhere in the interview where Francis notes how important it is to define the role of women in the church, he also states that women have “a different make-up” than men, that Mary (i.e., the mother of Jesus) is more important than the bishops, and that “the feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions,” all of which suggests, at least to me, that although Francis sees a definite role for women in the life of the church, women priests isn't one of them.

In short, I think it’s unlikely that Francis will turn out to be the liberal that some on the theological left are hoping he will. As a recent editorial in “The New Oxford Review” noted ("Will the Real Pope Francis Please Stand Up?"), one morning they're going to wake up “to the fact that Pope Francis is Catholic and that he’s not going to jettison the Church’s doctrine” any time soon.


  1. As a teacher at a Catholic High School, I find him fascinating. I also agree with you, which I'm sure makes you feel better.

    1. I do like it when people agree with me, but I often learn something new when they don't.