Pope Francis’ visit to the United States was met with fanfare, an emotional John Boehner, and thousands trying to see his motorcade in the streets of New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. He is praised by a number of liberals and shunned by some conservatives for being a progressive, even socialist, figure. His speech before the United States Congress provides a glimpse at his thoughts on several leftist causes. Many of his positions took an arguably progressive stance: for instance, he decried the irresponsibility of income inequality, armed conflict, and climate change, while arguing for a more loving, inclusive treatment of the LGBTQ+ community. His passion made it clear that he is willing to take a strong position on these global issues. Pope Francis recognizes the challenges these matters present to diversity and inclusion within the Church. As such he can address these issues, however, we must still remember that His Holiness still represents an institution that is inherently conservative in its action.
Many of the ideas and principles that Pope Francis discussed are at odds with the hardline elements of the church. His rather narrow embrace of same-sex couples and measures to prevent the automatic excommunication of women who have had abortions have been met with harsh criticism. Some have gone so far as to accuse the pope of fundamentally changing the teachings of the Church. Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former prefect of the church’s highest ecclesiastical court, told media that he would resist the liberal changes of Pope Francis. He remarked, according to the Washington Post, that papal power “is not absolute” and “The pope does not have the power to change teaching [or] doctrine,” calling into question Pope Francis’ power in “loosing” religious practices and his wider role as a de facto defining force of the Church’s upheld beliefs. Though the Church and any of its leaders cannot change doctrine, there is no denying that the Catholic Church of today is quite different from its earlier days. And yet Cardinal Burke seems to deny Pope Francis’ role and do so in a public and antagonistic manner. So much for turn the other cheek. The reality of Pope Francis’ position is that he leads an institution fiercely devoted to tradition and the authority of scripture. This inflexibility is not contrary to religion’s purpose: indeed, religious doctrine must have some element of conservatism. Adherence to tradition and practice is the defining aspect of religion, and such a system is not always the most adaptable to social change. Nevertheless, it is clear that there is a continuing culture war between the papacy and the institution of power that governs the Church. It has gotten to the point that inflexible hierarchy has translated into a distance from the actual, everyday challenges that millions of people face each day. Pope Francis — the Argentinian chemical technician and nightclub bouncer turned religious leader — is not here to destroy religion, shred holy scripture, or uproot the meaning of faith. It seems his purpose is to bring the religious institution he represents back to being cognizant of its followers and being a responsible, morally justified, leading force in the world that promotes the true message of its practice. I believe Pope Francis wants to see peace, not poverty, and compassion rather than bigotry. Being responsible for the Catholic Church’s ministration to Catholic souls around the world is obviously no small feat as one of the largest religious institutions. Pope Francis is not a liberal, or a socialist, or a heretic to the traditional practices of the Church. He is a leader with a respect towards his religion’s principles of empathy and respect.
Perhaps the greater question has not been broached. Does the pope transcend political discourse? Is it fair for him to be labeled liberal or conservative? It seems that we as individuals and the media often interpret religion in terms of politics. This blindness in our interpretation, however, misses the actual significance of Francis’ discussion. It seems that the most radical thing he does is show compassion regardless of whether he disagrees with principles or actions, which is a sentiment that continues to grow apolitical. His intention seems to be less about partisan posturing and more about augmenting this narrative of inclusion. Simply interpreting this as a liberal or leftist narrative fundamentally dismisses his purpose. Every time Pope Francis is placed into a political camp, it skews the world’s understandings of his true views and shuns his position as a religious leader.
Image: The White House