Why We Should Stop Trying to Pigeonhole This Pope

Throughout Pope Francis’ historic U.S. visit, people talked about him in terms of a sharply polarized American politics. It does make sense to see Francis in these terms, given his willingness (as RD’s Patti Miller puts it) to wade into “the hot-buttonest of our hot-button political issues,” including immigration, climate change, the death penalty, and the evils of unbridled capitalism.

Yet by no means does Francis always lean left.  Although he has shown compassion toward gay and lesbian persons, for example, he has not backed off Catholic teaching about the sinfulness of homosexual behavior.

I have to agree with Emma Green, who insists that “it’s essentially meaningless to try and place him on the spectrum from ‘left’ to ‘right’ in the United States.”

In fact, Francis’ approach strikes me, a Protestant, as less political than profoundly biblical.

Specifically, I hear in Francis’ discourse a deep continuity with the Bible’s way of handling the individuality-relationality question: Are humans primarily separate and independent, or are we primarily relational and interconnected?

Or to put it most plainly: which comes first, the individual person, or the community?

The Bible, read as a whole, will not offer an easy answer.  Jesus, for instance, proclaims the infinite worth of each person (Mt 10:29-31), and speaks favorably of a shepherd who leaves behind ninety-nine sheep to find the one who is lost (Mt 18:12; Lk 15:4, 7). Other biblical passages, however, depict persons as bound up with the lives of others.  For example, Jesus teaches that personal salvation depends on how we treats others, particularly the marginalized (e.g. Mt 25:31-46).

Is this just another example of the Bible’s internal textual contradictions?

Perhaps there’s another way to look at it.  What if the Bible’s unresolved tension between the individual and the collective is a creative tension? The text, read in this way, challenges us to respect and to foster both the dignity of the individual and the good of the community.

I have called this creative tension prophetic relationality. Prophets such as Amos or Jesus are unmistakably individuals, often standing alone against a hostile community. Yet they stand within the community and work for its good—indeed, cannot exist as prophets without the people they live among.

Indeed, in Pope Francis’ address to Congress, his focus shifts skillfully from individual responsibility to communal care.

No doubt aware of the fractious nature of contemporary American politics, he uses the occasion to remind the assembled lawmakers of their true and proper responsibilities. He describes their vocation as one of unifying the people—the collective—“by means of just legislation.”  But they can do so only by attending to “the transcendent dignity of the human being” and protecting “the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”

“All political activity,” he declares, “must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity.”  Yet it only does so by expressing “our compelling need to live as one, in order to build…the greatest common good.”  Significantly, for Francis that common good is not simply the sum of individual interests—as some contemporary libertarians would have it.  Instead, it is “community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share…its goods, its interests, its social life.”

The creative tension lies in “sacrificing particular interests” while still respecting the dignity of each person.

Francis carries this creative tension into his remarks on specific political issues.  Social conservatives were no doubt pleased by Francis’ call “to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development”—a clear reference to Catholic teaching against abortion.  But they were surely disappointed by his plea that the death penalty be abolished. He justifies this by appealing both to the individual—“every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity”—and the common good, since society benefits, not from killing criminals, but from rehabilitating them.

At times this creative tension crosses issue boundaries. On the question of immigration, Francis stresses the individual. Perhaps mindful of anti-immigrant sentiment on the American Right, he calls upon Americans not to “be taken aback” by the sheer number of immigrants, “but rather [to] view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories.”  On the other hand, Francis’ critique of capitalism emphasizes the collective over against individualism.

Quoting from the encyclical Laudato si, Francis calls business “a noble vocation,” but stresses that it should regard “the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.”  In the encyclical itself, Francis is more forthright in his criticism of capitalism, castigating “a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals.”

All this is political, certainly, or at least has political implications. But Francis’ approach doesn’t fit our political maps. Rather, it appears to constitute one Christian’s attempt to honor the biblical tradition and the creative tension it maintains between individual and community.

By no means is it the only way to do so: I would question, for instance, whether Francis’ continuing opposition to same-sex marriage and to abortion rights conforms to biblical teaching.  (I don’t think it does.)  But I suggest that a look at the biblical character of Francis’ teaching may be a more fruitful way of thinking about his “politics” than attempting to plug him into readymade categories.

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