Beware labeling Pope Francis a liberal

Political boxes like liberal/conservative and evolutionist/creationist miss his real significance

A non-Catholic, casual news consumer might be forgiven for thinking that Pope Francis is pro-same-sex unions, pro-evolution, and anti-capitalism. Since he became the 267th pope in March 2013, the media have frequently suggested that the head of the 1.2-billion strong Catholic Church is planted firmly on the left.

The latest example was Francis’ speech in late October paying tribute to predecessor Pope Benedict, where the sitting pontiff stated that evolution and creationism were compatible. “Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve,” the pope said.

The media quickly placed him into a political camp. The Washington Post wrote that the pope “put himself at odds with a significant portion of Americans by saying he believed in evolution, not creationism.” CBS reported that “Pope Francis has sided with science.” And NBC called the comments “a theological break from his predecessor Benedict XVI, a strong exponent of creationism.” Never mind that Francis was merely reiterating the church’s official stance stretching back to 1950 and repeated by two popes before him, that evolution and creationism can coexist. The usual media narrative still has him pegged as a liberal maverick, a stark departure in church coverage from years of child sex-abuse revelations and financial corruption, and a sea change from the narrative that surrounded Benedict during his eight years as pope.

“There was a certain bad news fatigue that had set in,” said John L. Allen Jr., a longtime Vatican journalist and associate editor at Crux. “Which meant all the new pope really had to do was give us something we could like, and I think we were prepared to go to town with that. And of course he did that in spades,” he said. “Under Benedict it was impossible for any positive narrative to surface. Under Francis it’s impossible for any negative narrative to surface.”

The media quickly latched on to that positive narrative, noting Francis’ past as a janitor and bouncer, his “Who am I to judge?” pronouncement on gay priests, his charming selfies with teenagers, his modest Ford Focus. Time named Pope Francis Person of the Year in 2013. And according to the Pew Research Center, only President Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad got more mentions in top media outlets during the pope’s first 10 months on the job.

But the narrative of the liberal pope is misleading, both because his positions are not notably liberal and because persisting with that narrative anyway says more about the journalists covering the pope than it does about Francis—journalists are attempting to shoehorn him into US-centric, politically charged categories of creationism versus evolution, pro versus anti-LGBT rights, liberal versus conservative.

“If both sides, liberals and conservatives, sat down and read everything the pope has said so far, both of them would probably realize that they shouldn’t be as happy or as afraid as they are,” said Inés San Martín, Vatican correspondent for Crux, The Boston Globe’s Catholic website, who comes from Pope Francis’ native Argentina.

Pope Francis has indeed done newsworthy things. He has reformed the corrupt Vatican bank in line with international standards of accounting, started a commission on sex abuse in the church, and is changing the church’s stance towards Catholics who divorce and then remarry someone outside the faith. Moreover, the pope is genuinely progressive—but in attitude, not in fundamental Catholic teachings. Washing and kissing the feet of a dozen inmates—two of them Muslim—and eschewing the Apostolic Palace for a two-room apartment are departures from his predecessor that emphasize the idea that the church’s role is to come to the people, not uphold the moral fortress of the church and wait for people to come to it.

None of those reforms are “liberal” in political terms, and deep-rooted questions like gay marriage are simply not up for debate in a church that is inherently conservative by secular standards. Francis has reaffirmed that only a man and a woman can marry, and has opposed gay couples adopting children.

Yet coverage in the language of US-style categories persists. In March, the pope’s comments in an interview with Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that some civil unions could be tolerable to the church for the purposes of gaining political rights such as healthcare led to the headline “Church could support civil unions” by CNN. At a recent meeting of bishops on family issues where Pope Francis tried to change the church’s official stance (ultimately unsuccessfully) to accept the “gifts and qualities” of gay people, the BBC’s headline read “Victory for Pope Francis on gay issues.”

“In the secular press in particular, most of us are at heart political writers. Regardless of what our particular discipline may be, politics is our mother’s milk,” said Allen. “So it’s just natural for most journalists, most commentators, to bring political categories to bear.”

The media’s tendency to make all religious statements political comes from the heart of American political culture. The US media interprets the pope according to an “American protestant narrative,” where religion is read in terms of what it means for politics, said Justin Tse, a University of Washington scholar on religion and public life. “The question people are asking is, ‘Is the Catholic Church promoting or inhibiting democracy?’” said Tse. “It’s a good question, but when that’s the only question on the table, then you start to twist narratives to fit the agenda.”

That agenda misreads the pope’s real significance. The most radical thing Pope Francis does is show compassion towards people despite disagreeing with their principles, which is a sentiment increasingly absent from political discourse. His words are significant because he cares little for partisan posturing, not because they are evidence for his supposed liberal standpoint.  If that’s the case, every time the media pigeonholes him into a political camp, they are not just skewing his views—they are missing the point.

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Chris Ip is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisiptw.