The papacy has never enjoyed as glowing a reception as today, and notably among progressives. Pope Francis has been met with praise for his strong condemnations of “unbridled capitalism” and the visible inequities and environmental degradation it has produced. This focus on social justice, the pontiff’s seemingly humble, compassionate persona, has convinced many on the left that he is to be considered a “radical pope” and a force for institutional change. I think caution needs to be urged in applying this label, largely because many of the moral positions of the Catholic Church are fundamentally conservative in nature.
Now, this is not a problem arising from an impressionable left; rather, it is the message, made nearly unanimous by the media, that Pope Francis is a go-to moral authority – the voice who has authority to lend credibility to existing social movements.
When the Vatican comes to its senses on a moral issue the immediate reaction should be “about time” and not “thank you for affirming our existing views.” That being said, there is no doubt the Pope helps to serve a practical function by raising awareness, particularly on climate change where general conservative opinion is one of denial and action is woefully lacking. What needs to be rejected, however, is first the idea that those of moral conviction need the weight of the Vatican behind them and second that the Pope is a progressive radical.
Hardly a week after the Charlie Hebdo shooting, Pope Francis (though not endorsing violence) remarked that this kind of murderous response is “normal” and to be expected if one insults the faith of others. Instead of standing up for the liberal – and, I thought, progressive – value of freedom of expression, Pope Francis gave remarks that almost suggest he might be head of an institution with a history of censorship. If you thought this vulgar defense of faith was supposed to be replaced with liberty and pluralism, then you would have forgotten the traditionalist nature of the Catholic Church.
Suppose you’re not much concerned with the rights of sinners. Well, take the Pope’s view that same-sex marriage is not just a threat to the traditional family but, by extension, a “threat to society itself.” It is true that Pope Francis is generally more respectful than his predecessors on this issue, but we should expect more than just a civil tone from a man whom Jonathan Freedland called the “new hero of the left.” Or consider his view that euthanasia is a “sin against God.” Or perhaps his recent canonization of Junípero Serra, an 18th-century Spanish missionary whose subjugation of the indigenous population of California led to untold misery – an act which was nothing short of colonial in terms of ideology.
The Pope is no feminist, either. He opposes the ordination of women into the priesthood, saying “that cannot be done.” He is an enemy also of both abortion and the use of contraception. Katha Pollitt is incisive on this point, saying the Earth “will never be healed of its economic, social, and ecological ills as long as women cannot control their fertility.”
With the growing population of the planet, resources will only become increasingly inaccessible for an ever-greater number of people. Granting women the ability to determine their future can greatly reduce this level of poverty and suffering. To oppose such a simple issue as contraception, and to instead suggest that Catholics not breed “like rabbits,” is to be more than indelicate, it is to be downright reactionary.
While Pope Francis is correct about the need for action on climate change and poverty, it should be recognized that this action is not going to be achieved top-down from the fossilized traditions of the Vatican, but instead from those at the bottom who insist on thinking for themselves, who become their own moral authors, and who fight for a more just society. So when Pope Francis tells us “I’m not really a leftie,” I believe him; the phrase “radical pope” is and always will be an oxymoron.