Last week marked Pope Francis’ first visit to the United States, and people just can’t seem to figure out what to make of him. Some claim he’s an orthodox Roman Catholic, while others claim that he’s about as far left as one can get. In Time Magazine, Ryan Beckwith constructed a list of political controversies that complicate his visit to the nation’s capitol, including a visit to Cuba and who he’ll be visiting at the White House.
So, one does have to ask: why are we here in America, land of supposed “separation of church and state,” trying so hard to figure out what to do with Pope Francis? Why are we so fascinated with him?
Pope Francis in particular means different things to both sides of the political aisle. For conservatives, including many Roman Catholics, he represents a proponent of strong family values and religious freedom. For liberals, who are also comprised of many Roman Catholics, he is openly anti-capitalist and frequently speaks on the importance of climate change. It seems we just can’t win with this guy.
Despite his politics, Pope Francis seems to do well playing the political game, so to speak. Daniel Henninger at the Wall Street Journal correctly highlights that the pope is “becoming an aggressive public player in secular politics, from the environment to economic policy.” In his speech before a joint session of Congress, he called for specific policy changes. It is the content of these appeals that ought to have conservatives worried.
Molly Ball, writing for The Atlantic, offered an insightful interpretation of the Pope’s message. She’s right to point out that there have been a barrage of articles complaining or praising (depending on the source) the pope for being quite liberal in comparison to his predecessors. Yet, her explanation for this trend is that “what makes Francis different is really a matter of which Catholic beliefs he has elevated to the level of communal concerns—public policy—and which he has framed as individual choices.” Peter Baker and Jim Yardley at the New York Times came to a similar conclusion, claiming that his liberal values were “explicit and extended,” while the more conservative points were “veiled and concise.”
For American Catholics, issues like poverty, the environment and immigration are not platform issues. Issues like same-sex marriage, abortion, and religious freedom are their real concerns. More significantly, most American Catholics and Catholics in general love Jesus Christ, as that is who they claim to worship, but the pope did not feel that it was necessary to mention Jesus in his address before Congress. Odd for a priest, wouldn’t you say?
After his speech before Congress, Pope Francis continued his political activities by giving an address at the United Nations headquarters in New York before leading a mass at Madison Square Garden. (The rest of his time here consisted of leading masses and visiting various religious groups before heading back to Rome on Saturday evening.) However, while the pope might deny his involvement in politics, it is clear from his visit that he would be telling a bold-faced lie if he did. It will be interesting to see how (and why) the Pope decides to make his next political moves.