The narrative going into Pope Francis’ historic speech to Congress was that it wouldn’t be political, focusing instead on the “pastoral,” or “partisan” because Catholic social teaching cuts across issues identified with the left and the right. Writing in the Atlantic, Emma Green typified this take:
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…. 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 [way] to reach the faithful.
But it turns out that Francis was both political, wading in to the hot-buttonest of our hot-button political issues, and, whether he likes it or not, partisan. Francis’ speech to Congress, especially when coupled with his remarks at the White House Tuesday, leaned heavily progressive in at least two ways.
One was the explicit message. Both days Francis chose to lead with immigration, an issue that has consumed much of the Republican Party (and not in a good way). Francis reminded those who seem to have forgotten that the United States is a nation of immigrants, and that most of its inhabitants come from immigrant families. “We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants,” he said.
He also talked extensively and explicitly (though not as extensively or explicitly as some hoped) about the need for immediate action on climate change, encouraging the country to see climate change as a problem that can be addressed through human action and technological innovation, but also couching the issue in moral terms, saying at the White House yesterday that it is “a problem which can no longer be left to future generations.”
He spoke about the need to help those “trapped in a cycle of poverty,” and lauded Catholic Worker Movement founder Dorothy Day for her “social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed.” He also gave shout-outs to Abraham Lincoln, for his commitment to liberty; to Martin Luther King for his commitment to nonviolence and diversity; and to Thomas Merton as “a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between people and religions.” Nary a conservative icon among them—and both Day and Merton are beloved by progressive Catholics.
Even when conservatives thought they had finally gotten to their part of the program, jumping to their feet when Francis spoke of “our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development”—which has long been Vatican code for abortion—Francis doubled back to a progressive agenda, coupling it with a call to end the death penalty: “This conviction had led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty,” he said, causing progressives to jump to their feet as conservative attendees looked confused at the switcheroo that Francis had just pulled on their most beloved of issues.
The only conservative message that wasn’t packaged with a liberal chaser was on the family, with Francis saying he couldn’t “hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without.” In an explicit reference to same-sex marriage and the Catholic Church’s belief that gender complementarianism is essential to marriage, he said, “Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.”
But even if Francis’ speech hadn’t leaned progressive, it would still be partisan by the very act of returning issues like abortion and same-sex marriage to the same plane of concern as the environment, poverty and immigration. Francis has removed the anti-abortion trump card that allowed conservative Catholics and their allies to ignore most of the church’s social justice teaching on issues like immigration and poverty and still be assured they were “good Catholics.” He explicitly challenged the long-standing contention of the US Catholic bishops that abortion was the issue that “really” mattered, threatening to rupture the alliance between the Catholic hierachy and the political right.
What was most striking about Francis’ addresses both Wednesday and Thursday was how issues that were once front and center when any member of the Catholic hierarchy spoke, are now talked about in coded language. For the average American, Catholic or not, listening to him speak at the White House on Wednesday morning, the take away would have been that the pope was very concerned about immigrants and the environment. While he did talk about the U.S. bishops’ pet issue of protecting “religious liberty,” for those not keyed into the ongoing culture war battles over access to contraception and discrimination against LGBT individuals, it just sounded like Francis was speaking of the traditional, all-American meaning in terms of the right to worship freely.
In fact, Francis’ unannounced visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor at their home across the street from Catholic University, which wasn’t reported until after the fact, could be seen as an effort to rebalance the ledger for conservatives who are closely following the issue but didn’t get a shout-out during the address, with the Vatican confirming that the visit was “a sign of support for them in their legal battle.”
Francis of course denies that he has either a liberal or a conservative agenda. During his in-flight presser on Tuesday afternoon, he said it was a mistake to interpret him as “left-ish”:
It is I who follows the church … my doctrine on all this … on economic imperialism, is that of the social doctrine of the church.
While that may be true, the reality is that the social doctrine of the Catholic Church is a left-leaning doctrine that emphasizes communitarianism, disdain for material goods, and creation care. What’s new isn’t the doctrine, just the fact that so many in Congress and the country have been sold a bill of goods about its true (and somewhat radical) nature.