Darn Tootin’ Pope Francis Is A Liberal

Last month, Elizabeth Scalia, my managing editor, proposed a moratorium on “liberal,” “conservative,” and suchlike labels in discussions of intra-Church divisions. I’ve been a good boy ever since, but Philadelphia’s Archbishop Chaput doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo. In an interview with National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen, Jr., he remarked that people on “the right wing of the church…generally have not been really happy” about Francis’ election.

It’s true that Francis has his critics. But there’s also been a push to stress the continuity between Francis’ pontificate and those of his two predecessors. In First Things, William Doino goes about it very soberly. Some of my friends, however, when making the same case in less formal venues, succumb to a kind of desperation. “Move along, folks! Nothing to see here! Francis and Benedict are like two papal peas in a pod! Forget what the lamestream media says — if Francis joined a spin class, you wouldn’t be able to tell him from Pius XII!”

Each side holds a share of the truth. Yes, Francis is a champion of Catholic orthodoxy. No, he’s not trying to upend any of his Benedict’s work, much less upstage the man himself. But if we’re willing to use the term “liberal” to mean something besides “in tune with the post-Woodstock West,” it applies quite well to certain qualities Francis appears to possess in special abundance, or at least certain qualities he sees fit to put forward like a best foot.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt makes the case that “liberal” and “conservative,” “left” and “right,” refer to something more profound and less changeable than party preference. They reflect divergent moral foundations, or intuitive, sub-rational assumptions on what constitutes right and wrong. By analyzing data obtained through questionnaires completed at www.YourMorals.com, Haidt, along with University of Virginia colleague Ravi Iyer, concluded that respondents who self-identified as “liberal” or “moderate” were especially likely to base their morality on a foundation of “care” and “fairness,” but less likely to value “loyalty,” “authority,” or “purity.” Self-described conservatives tended to value all of these more or less equally.

It’s pretty plain that Francis has so far given priority to an ethic of care, or “sensitivity to the suffering and needs of others,” even when other values might urge a different course of action. He likes to tell the story about an elderly woman who cornered a young priest after Mass and asked for a blessing. With the best of intentions, the priest tried to catechize the lady, explaining that he’d already blessed the congregation during the Mass. Underwhelmed by his reasoning, the woman thanked him, then asked a blessing from another priest. To Francis, this story demonstrates that the woman’s real need was not a lesson in theology, but “to be touched by the Lord,” and he sees no problem in catering to it.

As for in-group loyalty, which “rewards team players and ostracizes those who betray the group,” Francis has tended to ignore it or even dismiss it outright. On Holy Thursday, he washed the feet of a Serbian Muslim woman. More recently, he’s celebrated Mass at Lampedusa to call attention to the hardships faced by Africans — many of them Muslims — who migrate to Europe, often over the objections of native Europeans. A line from the encyclical Lumen Fidei generally attributed to Francis maintains that “Anyone who sets on the path of doing good is already drawing near to God,” and Francis has stressed that this “anyone” includes atheists.

Haidt defines “purity” as “a revulsion toward objects that make us sick.” In some contexts, he substitutes the word “sanctity,” which also involves “an appreciation for the sacred.” Where the Church is concerned, the second value would appear to be more germane; but it’s the first that Francis has soft-pedaled. Michael Sean Winters observes that he “does not focus on the sins of men” but “on the mercies of God.” All the feet Francis washed on Holy Thursday belonged to inmates in a juvenile prison. One Rorate Caeli reader posted that he could only have countenanced the participation of these hoodlums if they’d been clapped in irons at the time. By his standard of delicacy, Francis may as well have been a chronic nose-picker.

But it may be at the hurdle of “authority,” or “sensitivity to signs of rank or status, and to when someone is not behaving according to his status,” that Francis really stumbles. He’s set out to reform the Curia not in the manner of a man on horseback, but in consultation with eight cardinals. He prefers the title Bishop of Rome to Supreme Pontiff. When Chaput warned Allen, “There has to be some distance between the general crowds and the Holy Father,” he was expressing concern for Francis’ physical safety. But I wonder whether he was also making a broader point: that close encounters with the mob compromise the dignity of his office. When Katrina Fernandez complained that Francis “acts like he doesn’t want to be pope,” she accused him of committing lèse-majesté against himself.

As many have pointed out, not all of this “liberal” behavior is unique to Francis. Pope Benedict once hosted a Christmas luncheon for homeless people, an act that seemed to favor care over purity. But in Haidt’s model for moral reasoning, intuition precedes and can even dominate reason, and according to the intuitive judgment of many, Francis is consciously tweaking the tone of the papacy. On the whole, at least for the time being, the new tone is finding a wildly enthusiastic, even ecstatic response. Chaput’s disgruntled right-wingers in time may come around themselves. As the archbishop observes, “[Francis] will have to care for them, too.” Poor babies, of course Francis will care for them. That’s what liberals are for.

Note: Probably because of some glitch on my own virus-infected computer, I am finding myself unable to post links. For a detailed review of Haidt’s research, findings and conclusions, see his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. Doino’s debunking of “Five Myths About Pope Francis” is available on First Things’ website, at www.firstthings.com, as an On the Square feature. It is dated July 22. Allen’s interview with Archbishop Chaput, along with Michael Sean Winters’ commentary, appears on National Catholic Reporter’s webpage, www.ncronline.org. Both are dated July 24.

  • John

    In order to receive mercy, one must be sorry for one’s sins. To acknowledge one’s sinfulness and thus to be grateful for the Lord’s forgiveness. But many “liberals” seem to think or act as though mercy consists in telling people not that their sins are forgiven but that their sins don’t matter, that they’re not really sins at all!

    But which side is the self-righteous side? The self-referential side? I don’t think it’s the “conservative” side! The side who strives to place itself under obedience to the Lord’s commands, who frequents the sacraments precisely because they acknowledge His Lordship and love…. is not the side that easily gets in bed with the Monsters of this age for the sake of making the trains run on time.

    Please, tell me more about the Liberals’ love for the poor when it is exactly the Liberals’ politics that lead to grinding, multi-generational poverty! Tell me more about how caring the liberals are for women and children mired in sexual vice and addiction…when it was precisely the liberals’ theology and politics that led to such structures of sin being developed, expanded, and increased during the past 40 years!

    Tell us more about how Liberals despise the military-industrial complex and Wall street…but explain please how it is possible that both defense and wall street industries are actually led by active, known Liberals as CEOs, billionaries, the jet setting 1% who are not “conservative” socially or religiously. The World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam were all launched by “the Left” not the right. The police state and panopticon surveillance state is of the Left, not the right.

    Ever more grinding and desperate poverty on the swelling bottom controlled ever more minutely and ruthlessly from a growing police class serving the 1% is not a right wing or conservative recipe for “progress” but it is the Left and liberal’s same old, same old recipe for total control that leaves the vast majority in permanent dependency.

    Name the social justice cause and I’ll show you examples of prominent liberal Catholics to TALK about loving the poor…and examples of conservative Catholics who actually help the poor. The Kof C does more actual local assistance – effective assistance to the poor than all the Peace and Justice nuns combined. Look to our inner cities’ “peace and justice” ministries…. there are fewer active Catholics now than 40 years ago. The poor are not being evangelized and despite the ‘good intentions’ with federal, state, local and other charity monies…. they’re worst off now than 40 years ago. And who gets blamed for this? Not the actual people who caused it and preside over the wealth redistribution scam. No, the people blamed are the people not in charge of the tax redistribution but who give from their own pocket.

  • Joshua Danis

    It would sure be difficult to be the boxed-in conservative Haidt describes. How can you be “loyal” to an “authority” that commits lese-majeste against himself?

  • Ryan Hite

    “Conservatives” are just as guilty. The evangelicals are ruining the country and preventing anything from getting done. It’s a problem on both sides. Neither side will budge.

  • hotboogers

    I notice that Haidt says conservatives value all the concepts pretty much equally, while liberals have their favorites. Who’s for equality, fairness, evenhandedness, groundedness, centeredness, really? lol

  • OldDadJon

    Well whoever seems to control the definition of terms has an apparent advantage. Who’s holding the dictionary in this case? Viva Il Papa!

  • Joe

    I think its a little ridiculous to call Pope Francis a liberal. I think he is extremely charitable, kind and out going. I think people are worried about his doctrinal orthodoxy. I sympothize with these people because the Holy Father was formed by Jesuits in a third world country. Contemporary Jesuits are not known for their doctrinal formation, many of them are confused about some of the most basic points of Catholic doctrine. Some even think Liberation Theology is intelligent and worthwhile!!! Also having lived in a third world country he probably hasn’t had as much access to the internet, cutting himself off from sound apologetics and Church Documents. That being said I believe Pope Francis has a powerful and holy character what he does know he lives!!. He has Pope Benedict to help him better understand things like doctrine and theology. Have Confidence!!! God is with him!!

  • Don Schenk

    Wait until Pope Francis speaks about the Faith or morals; then the liberals will be all over him.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Well, if those are the kind of things that characterize Papa as a Liberal, then I wish all Liberals were limited to that. It would be a better country. :-P I have always said that my Conservatism is innate, possibly genetic, and I don’t mean Conservative politically. From wherever deep it comes it shapes my outlook, my values, the way I present myself, the way I look at people, the way i make decisions. I suspect to some level it may be intrinsically within a person, to more or less a degree. Though I’m not sure we know enough about Francis yet, my intuition tells me you are probably right, he’s more on the Liberal side of the spectrum.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    My one question that bothers me in the back of my mind, and I wish it didn’t:
    Can you describe a pro-choice individual as being on the path of Good? Or, just to treat both sides of the post-woodstock messed up west equally, can you describe a pro-usury individual as being on the path of Good?

    Because I am to a point in my philosophy where I can’t. I can’t claim my fellow countrymen who subscribe to one form of libertinism or another are on the path of good.

  • Nancy

    I know what you mean becaue I am the same way but probably have what you would call a liberal viewpoint. I see Pope Francis as a conservative really, especially fiscally and very honest. That is my impression. He is a fiscal conservative, but doesn’t like corruption or arrogance. Socially he is very conservative too, I see him as trying to leave the door open to as many people as possible. I think it is a very realistic approach for saving souls.

  • Nancy

    I kind of think that there are hypocrites on both sides, but also both types of people and moderates too in the trenches helping out. You might be surprised for example at how many public school teachers in poor areas are Catholics, some “liberals” others “conservatives”. Also, lots of parent volunteers in public, private and parochial schools are Catholics.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Interesting. Still I don’t know what it means for a Pope to be fiscally conservative. The only fiscal conservative of the apostles was Judas Iscariot, and I don’t mean with the 30 pieces of silver. I mean John12:4-8. (I have to say i’ve got a big grin while coming up with that, one of those little bursts creativity by combining two things one has never really put together….lol) Actually on economic issues I think Francis is a Liberal. He seems to fall into that line of argument where if the rich are making money, the poor must be losing.

  • Nancy

    I see him as fiscally conservative because he doesn’t waste anything (returned the rubber band to the newsboy, very frugal with other people’s money, one assumes, uses a small car, that kind of thing). I have only heard him say that he doesn’t like a system that puts money before people and that money can be an idol. He did something to clean up the Argentine diocese holdings or debt, so I got the idea he wasn’t running about spending money he didn’t have. Pope Benedict also said something about obscene wealth being a sin. They mean really obscene wealth, I think, not just somebody making money.

    As for the Judas/perfume/poor verses,yes, very creative. I wouldn’t have thought of that in this context either until you brought that up. I never noticed this part before either, and it is funny to me that I never noticed before the corruption aspect here: “He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.” Verse 6.

  • Sir Mark

    My acquaintances are often surprised to find out that I am a conservative. Why? Because, they say, I care for people, I’m tolerant, and I’m not a bigot. I guess I should be flattered by how they see me, but it is annoying that, according to them, these virtues lie only on one side of the right-left divide.

    As you can see, their view of why I seem like a liberal arises more out of prejudice towards conservatives than it does a true understanding of conservatism. Your article does little to alleviate this prejudice.

    Aren’t you supposed to be tolerant?

  • Mark

    After years of angst and arguing with my friends across aisle, I have come o the conclusion that we have all fallen victim to a very narrow definition of the two terms, conservative and liberal. At some point someone figured out that there was money to be made by dividing and defining people into very simplistic categories. And we all went willingly. I believe the evils in the world were caused by greed and the thirst for power, by individuals across the spectrum. If we all would live according to our faith, I think we would see the lines blur, and a lot of “higher ups” be diminished in power. We are all much easier control by having a simple definition placed upon us.

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