Is Pope Francis a liberal?

The question gets some answers – and even more questions.

“Best. Pope. Ever.” raved MSNBC last week. “World’s Greatest Father,” echoed Jon Stewart. It’s almost as if liberal talk-show hosts knew that the world’s major Jesuit publications, led by America magazine and Italy’s La Civilt Cattolica, were about to stun the world.

Ever since the election of Pope Francis, Catholics had been wondering whether his dramatic changes in style—from turning down the papal apartment to phoning unsuspecting Italians—augured any changes in substance. Would this reform-minded pontiff fulfill liberal Catholic dreams for the church?

With the wide-ranging interview published on Thursday, we have outlines of an answer. While Pope Francis does not share all the convictions of liberal Catholics, he is temperamentally as liberal as any pope could reasonably be.

From the beginning, the dichotomy of style vs. substance was ill-founded. We often associate style with superficiality, as in electoral politics or consumer marketing. But in personal encounters, we instinctively know that style is the heart of leadership. A great teacher cannot be reduced to the substance of a textbook, nor a coach to the charts in a playbook.

In spiritual leadership, changes in style, tone, and emphasis are real changes. Recently Pope Francis phoned a 35-year-old Italian woman, who had written to him because the man who had gotten her pregnant was advising her to get an abortion. She didn’t want to, but she was frightened and alone. The pope encouraged her not let anyone rob her of her hope and assured her that, if necessary, he would perform the child’s baptism himself.

No doctrine was discussed, much less changed. But the encounter’s style was the substance. First, compassion. First, mercy. First, hope. “Heal the wounds, heal the wounds,” he says, like a mantra, when answering an interview question about his dreams for the church.

Francis claims in the interview to prefer such one-on-one encounters, but his style has been no less compelling on the global stage. During his intense and publicly ritualized denunciations of the proposed American-led attack on Syria, for example, he blurred the traditional lines between priestly rhetoric and prophetic rhetoric. Though inhabiting the Chair of Peter, he sounded more like the leader of an anti-war sit-in. In the interview he further defends the role of prophets to make “noise, uproar, some say ‘a mess.’”

With respect to doctrine, Francis’s vivid disdain for formulas is as striking as it is refreshing. He speaks rarely of truth or error, but repeatedly of “discernment,” something which only occurs in “narrative” and “not in a philosophical or theological explanation.” God is “in history, in the processes,” and a Jesuit must be “a person whose thought is incomplete, in the sense of open-ended thinking.” He is a lover of traditional prayers and books, to be sure, but the old Q-and-A Baltimore Catechism is not among them. “If one has the answers to all the questions,” he quips, “that is the proof that God is not with him.”

Some of Francis’s strongest antipathy is reserved for timid, doctrinaire attitudes. Those who “want everything clear and safe,” who “always look for disciplinarian solutions,” who “stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists” will “find nothing.” He prefers the kind of catholicity encapsulated by James Joyce as “Here comes everybody!” and denounces the notion of a smaller, purer church, which would be only “a nest protecting our mediocrity.”

Francis does have one “dogmatic certainty,” though. “God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life.” This was the witness of the ministry of Jesus as well, deemphasizing rules but intensifying holiness through personal encounter. And bringing that message to the dinner table with whoever lacked hope.

This pope also resembles Jesus in that every theological expression comes wrapped in metaphor. Francis’s church is on a pilgrimage to “find new roads” at the “frontiers, margins, and horizons.” Leaders must meet the poor there, and not try to “tame” the problems of the world, as if in a “laboratory.” Francis’s cardinal virtues of dialogue and encounter only happen in the wild.

Not all American Catholics are pleased with this pope. Some have wanted him to be more of a culture warrior, fighting the battles that right-wing Americans have chosen. This interview will further disappoint. Francis does deploy the metaphor of a battle, but he’s not fighting. “I see the church,” he says, “as a field hospital.” What the church needs most is “to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity.”

One of the most famous Buddhist teachings mocks someone who, though shot with a poisoned arrow, demands to find out everything about the assailant and the weapon before dealing with the arrow—the direct cause of his suffering. Pope Francis applies the same logic to his parable and cries out, “It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.”

After over a decade of scandal and trauma in the Catholic Church, Francis offers triage and sanctuary for those suffering on its margins, those still afraid even to walk in its doors. Then, and only then, will anyone be able to discuss “everything else.” First, heal the wounds.

 

Michael Peppard is assistant professor of theology at Fordham University in New York.

  • Liam-still

    Since this new Pope recently stated that the Catholic Church is in danger of “collapsing like a house of cards”, he has inadvertently admitted that it is just a man made organization, and not a religion that is cherished and protected by their “God”.

    They moved out the stern old guy who was not doing a good selling job, and brought in a replacement to be the face of the new sales pitch. We have been told over and over about how humble this new guy is, and of course the only reason we keep hearing about how humble he is, is because his PR machine keeps pushing out all those stories about it. A truly humble person prefers to not brag about being humble.

    “The most important thing to have is sincerity. If you can fake that you have got it made.” George Burns

  • tas20036

    Sorry Peppard, but most liberals don’t run an organization that codifies pedophiles and refuses to pay restitution to those pedophiles’ victims.

    Just saying

  • Diamondback88

    This Pope is excellent, especially for having correctly pointed out that abortion is “to be condemned” and is the “product of a throwaway culture” and that gay marriage is “an attack on the human family.” He is right that there is no need to “obsess” about these issues, because the position of the Church is clear, and the focus should be instead on treating the individuals who have engaged in these acts with compassion, dignity, and respect, so that they will reject these things and instead realize God’s love for them through mercy and forgiveness.

  • Jade2016

    This was his exact quote: “We must find a new balance, otherwise the Church’s whole moral edifice risks collapsing like a house of cards.”

    Try reading with comprehension instead of straining to validate your own personal bigotry against the Church.

  • Diamondback88

    Are you talking about the public schools? The public schools are an institution dominated by liberals that has had all kinds of child molestation cases – many of them swept under the rug.

  • Liam-still

    What the hell do you think “whole moral edifice risks collapsing like a house of cards” meant, you religious nut job, other than an admission that the fairy tales they have been peddling have been losing market share.

  • Diamondback88

    Science is completely on the side of the pro-life argument. Ultrasounds and new technology have completely affirmed without a doubt that the unborn child is indeed a human life. Abortion is typically advocated by science-deniers who wish to pretend that the unborn child is not a human life and is some kind of inanimate material to be discarded when it is inconvenient for the lifestyle of the parent.

  • Liam-still

    But they have not been running around claiming that they are speaking for God!

  • SongOfSappho

    A “moral edifice” is a rather small part of the Church. I think Jade has correctly exposed your bigotry. You are just twisting words around to suit your zeal and hatred.

  • SongOfSappho

    The run around claiming that they are speaking for the omnipotent and omniscient state. What’s your point?

    I think what Diamondback88 is correctly identifying is (a) your bigotry against the Church and (b) your hypocrisy by supporting child molesting in public schools (a problem which is much, much greater than any similar problem in the Church).

  • Liam-still

    Well it is a good thing then that The Pro-Life Republican Party have voted to slash food stamps for poor babies. It is alright to be pro-life while they are in the womb, but from the moment they draw their first breath, then they better not expect the Pro-Life Republicans to help them stay alive!!!

  • pjs-1965

    Liam, even I am not that cynical. I am willing to give this pope the benefit of the doubt.

  • Liam-still

    People get to elect their Government Reps. Not so with organized religions, who end up being run by cabals of old men,, for the most part, who usually treat women like they lesser than men.

    Of course they all tend to suffer from Selective Amnesia, and overlook the fact that with women, they would never have been born in the first place.

  • nardialop

    Not all pro-life is Republican, no all pro-life is Catholic, not all pro-life belives in God. So what is your point?

  • Liam-still

    That is what he is counting on. Look up his history when he was the head of the Church in Argentina, and he did not speak out against the Military Regime that was making Men, Women and Children disappear by the thousands.

  • nardialop

    It is interesting that you mention that, since you are overlooking the fact that you were once a fetus.

  • oldcove

    The basics-love God and your neighbor. Who is our neighbor? All people according to Christ.
    Pope Francis is going back to basics-as we all should.

  • bucinka8

    I worry that this pope’s demonstrated appreciation for compassion, nonjudgment, and actual emulation of the teachings of the great Jew from Nazareth might get him assassinated. There are too many people in the Vatican power structure who have too much invested in furthering hate and their own power through enforcing petty rules.

  • bucinka8

    “Science is completely on the side of the pro-life argument.”
    Um, no, it’s not. Your Orwellian statement is preposterous.

  • nardialop

    You are miss informed or you are just lying, he run a network to protect those that were prosecuted by the goverment.

  • nardialop

    You know that the pro-life is supported by science but you keep denying it. What can we do if you do not recognize what is in front of your eyes?

  • IlikeIke

    Is Pope Francis a Liberal?

    No, stupid one, if you had any schooling and brains in you, and background on what his sectarian discipline is about, is that they pursue reason aggressively in their search for faith. They learn and teach their flock, about philosophy and the notion of the reasonable man, the ones that walks in life and as he encounters situations, deals with it as a reasonable one. Obviously, that transcends across whatever boundaries that cult and religious societies that separate us as humans, from others. This guys walks the Jeuss walk; and i dearly hope he’s going to turn the church upside down. No more princes , just priests of god

  • J. Davis

    Do you get your information about the Church from child pornography peddlers on street corners?

  • GuyThompto1

    Jesus stopped the crowd from stoning to death the adulteress. He said “he who is without sin” should caste the first stone.

    And then he said “go and sin no more”.

    It’s that little sentence at the end that the Pope conveniently forgets.

    Sure, we all fall short. We all should be forgiven. But we need to change our behavior The Pope doesn’t think that a change of behavior is ever really necessary.

    And in that, he goes well beyond not condemning to excusing. And that, my friends, is the definition of a Liberal.

  • marchoi

    No, the Pope doesn’t forget that line… It’s just that the media doesn’t report it when he says it.

  • nardialop

    jaja That was good.

  • J. Davis

    I ♥ Pope Francis.

  • commonsenseaboutbrac

    Liberals all deserve criticism for their hypocritical intolerance on religion, so personified by the hypocrit in chief. Obama has done more to damage chistianity than any president, and through such casts his lot as a failed leader of this country.

  • nkri401

    J.

    “…child pornography peddlers on street corners” -ad hominem much??

  • Liam-still

    No he did not.He cooperated with the Military Dictators, and even went to say mass for the top general.

    One does not rise to the ranks of Cardinal and then become Pope by not being one who knows how to play the game. Humble my @rse!

  • larryclyons

    no just a brain dead teahadi.

  • larryclyons

    what the gospels to report was that right after he said ‘ “he who is without sin” should caste the first stone. ‘, he spent a couple of weeks in the hospital from getting pelted by the stones.

  • larryclyons

    Liam,
    He also went there to negotiate the release of those priests. The full story came out a few years ago, according to the Amnesty Int’l reports after demanding their release apparently the Argentine junta discussed arresting Francis.

  • FelicityHangnail
  • jimwalters1

    nardialop,

    You are running into a a lot of disagreement because you are making a host of assumptions that you may not even be aware of. Not everybody shares those assumptions.

    To try and draw them out, here are some questions for you: What characteristics are necessary and sufficient for distinguishing what is or is not human? How do you know these are the correct set? Can these really be measured with an ultrasound?

  • csintala79

    Pope Francis, according to tradition, walks in Peter’s shoes. He is the primary vicar of Christ. He was chosen by the conclave made up of all the firstmost leaders of the Church, all of whom were consecrated by the laying on hands in the unbroken chain of Apostolic sucession. If one doubts that the Pope is out of line and heterodox, then they are calling into question the linch pin of the Church that it and its doctrine are divinely inspired. Doubting the legitimacy of the Pope would be to deny divine inspiration, opening up to question anything the Chruch does or stands for, i.e., the Pope is only a mere mortal with no supernatural connection and is only another head of state.

  • csintala79

    Liberal, conservative, it doesn’t matter. He is Peter. God has inspired the princes of the Church to choose him as the Pontifex Maximus. His electors in the conclave were all apostolically selected and their vote was Godly inspired. If Catholics don’t believe that then there is nothing sacred left and, essentially God is dead. Not accepting the seleciton of the Pope as divinely inspired makes him just another CEO and the whole notion of papal infalibility when he speaks ex cathedra is a joke. If any of the foregoing is valid, then whatever he is doing is God’s will as the Pope is God’s main man.

  • csintala79

    Michael in response to Kay saying, “Michael, presidents and senators don’t have men killed,”: “Oh, who is being naive, Kay?” The pope’s food taster must be very nervous about now.

  • ThomasBaum

    csintala79 Part I

    You wrote, “Pope Francis, according to tradition, walks in Peter’s shoes. He is the primary vicar of Christ.”

    vicar: c.1300, from O.Fr. vicaire, from L. vicarius “substitute, deputy,” noun use of adj. vicarius “substituting,” from vicis “change, turn, office” (see vicarious). The original notion is of “earthly representative of God or Christ;” but also used in sense of “person acting

    Aren’t we all called to to “vicars of Jesus” and isn’t this what Christianity is about and isn’t this what the Catholic Church teaches?

    Jesus’s invitation was to “Come follow Me” which means we are asked to walk with Jesus.

    Jesus also said that He would “send the Holy Spirit to …”, that means to ALL, not just the “higher-ups”.

    When Jesus said to Peter, “Simon, thou art Peter and upon this rock, I will build MY CHURCH and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it”, correct?

    We are all called to be rocks (living stones) and this is what the Catholic religion teaches the CHURCH is and as I emphasized in the last sentence, Jesus very clearly said MY CHURCH, He did not say that it was going to be Peter’s or anyone else’s Church.

    The Catholic religion also teaches that the CHURCH is not bound by those that are Catholic or by those that are Christian.

    And as far as “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it”, Jesus “won” the “keys” to these “gates” and will use these “keys” in due time, God’s Time.

  • ThomasBaum

    csintala79 Part II

    You then wrote, “He was chosen by the conclave made up of all the firstmost leaders of the Church, all of whom were consecrated by the laying on hands in the unbroken chain of Apostolic sucession.”

    This is NOT the only place where there is “laying on hands”, one could say that the ONE Who said that He would build His Church is very active in this building, even if He is doing it unseen.

    God can and does build HIS CHURCH as God sees fit and God chooses whomever God chooses for whatever “role” God chooses that person for.

    You also wrote, “Doubting the legitimacy of the Pope would be to deny divine inspiration, opening up to question anything the Chruch does or stands for, i.e., the Pope is only a mere mortal with no supernatural connection and is only another head of state.”

    The Pope is a mere mortal and for anyone to say that the Pope and only the Pope has “supernatural connections” is to call Jesus a liar, seeing as Jesus said that He would “send the Holy Spirit to guide…”, this statement was NOT for one person only or for one person and his successors only.

  • ThomasBaum

    “Ex cathedra” just came about in the late 1800′s and as far as I know there have only been two things declared “ex cathedra”.

    You wrote, “then whatever he is doing is God’s will as the Pope is God’s main man.”

    I was taught in second grade that “we are all equal in God’s Eyes” and I happen to believe this whether anyone else does or not therefore God does NOT have a “main man”.

    None of us are “better” than anyone else in God’s Eyes and we all have different “jobs”, so to speak, to do.

    Jesus’s simple invitation was to “Come follow Me”, it wasn’t to follow Peter or his successors, to follow Jesus’s Church, to follow the bible, to follow one of Jesus’s followers but to simply follow Jesus.

  • DRJJJ

    Does a frog have a water tight behind?

  • narodnik1

    What Pope Francis actually said was that the Catholic church has defined itself by its attitude on abortion, birth control, gays and women and that it’s time to deal with the work of the CHURCH helping the poor and outcast. OK, as far as it goes. He is a very loving and charitable man, BUT,IT DOES NOT SIGNAL ANY RE-THINKING OF THE ATTITUDES. THERE IS NO CALL TO PRAYERFUL REFLECTION AND GUIDANCE FROM THE PARACLETE TO RETHINK DOCTRINE. GAYS WHO ENGAGE IN SAME SEX INTERCOURSE ARE STILL COMMITING MORTAL SIN, ARTIFICIAL CONTRACEPTION IS STILL GRAVELY SINFUL, WOMEN CANNOT BECOME PRIESTS OR BECOME PART OF THE HIERARCHY OF THE CHURCH. AND WE’RE NOT GOING TO TAKE ANY SERIOUS STEPS TO ROOT OUT THE PEDOPHILE CLERGY OR VOLUNTARILY AID VICTIMS OF THE ABUSE IT’S MORE LIKE THE POPE IS SAYING “WE’RE NEVER GOING TO RESOLVE THIS. LET’S JUST DROP ANY TALK ON THESE TOPICS.WE ALL KNOW WHAT WE REALLY THINK OF ALL OF YOU,BUT,HEY,EVEN THOUGH YOU’RE ALL DOOMED TO HELL, WE WANT YOU TO COME BACK TO WORSHIP WITH US. “NEWS FLASH:WOMEN MAKE UP MORE THAN HALF THE CHURCH,IT IS ESTIMATED THAT ABOUT 10% OF THE WORLD IS GAY AND THAT ABOUT 25% OF CATHOLIC PRIESTS IN THE U S ARE GAY. IF GOD’S GUIDANCE TO THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IS “WE ARE NOT GOING TO RETHINK ANYTHING”, THE CHURCH IN THE WEST IS DOOMED

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