Pope Francis has been named Time Magazine’s person of the year for 2013. Even the most diehard supporters of Edward Snowden and Miley Cyrus’ candidacies couldn’t possibly have been surprised: the stir around Francis, especially since the release of his recent and much-quoted apostolic exhortation, has been profound.
Part of what makes the buzz around Francis so interesting is that, unlike most contemporary Christian leaders, much of it has been generated by the left. Chris Hayes, for example, declared Francis the ‘best pope ever‘, and Obama praised the exhortation as ‘eloquent.’ A quick nose through the left blogosphere reveals similar praise pretty much in that same vein: the left has responded well to Francis’ humility, honesty, and forwardness on the Church’s position on poverty and inequality. And I think this is all pretty well deserved.
That the right wing has been less than pleased with Francis could go without saying. Ross Douthat critiqued his exhortation rather delicately in the NYT, while Fox News’ Adam Shaw tore more intently into him online, and Rush Limbaugh accused him of Marxism on his radio show. It makes sense that right wing commentators would oppose Francis: he’s opposed to the sort of wealth distribution scheme they favor. What’s a little more puzzling is the leftist backlash against Francis.
In many ways the leftist backlash contra Francis appears to be an outgrowth of much initial leftist praise of him, as if to remind us that though Francis may appear to be a bold, inspirational figure, he doesn’t actually support an entire itinerary of leftist goals, and we should therefore be wary (if not scornful) of praise directed toward him. This thesis has popped up all over the place, from The Guardian (“Thanks for Nothing, Pope Francis“) to the LA Times (“Pope Francis’ Woman Problem“) to the manifold hollows and warrens of the blogosphere. By and large, the complaints against Francis spinning off the left that he is too conservative on matters concerning women in the church (e.g. women’s ordination as priests) and/or on matters concerning LGBT issues.
In other words, the criticism of Francis that has developed on the left (which is not to say that everyone who identifies as a leftist has acclaimed/criticized/developed any opinion whatsoever of him) goes like this: Francis, though initially impressive, is actually inconsistently good. I’m troubled by this argument.
I don’t mean to propose that the criticisms aimed at Francis by the left are inconsequential or trivial, but I do mean to point out that their argument is not that Francis is inconsistently good by Catholic standards, but rather that he is inconsistently good by secular leftist standards. Why is this a problem?
In my view, the most meaningful impact Francis has had so far has been to successfully de-couple Christian ethics and economic conservatism somewhat in American discourse. Though the image of devout Christianity in the USA tends to come along with right wing approaches to the economy (a la Michele Bachmann, Paul Ryan, Rick Santorum, and so on) Francis offers another approach: one that is not only Christian, but thoughtfully and powerfully so. This goes a long way to severing the right wing’s total claim to a big chunk of its voting bloc. Catholics have tended toward more lefty policy for a very long time, but the fact that Francis is so incredibly inspirational to Christians across the board means that his potential for re-popularizing a kind of vigorous Christian leftism is even greater. This is possible because he demonstrates an approach to politics that includes leftist projects (such as establishing distribution schemes aimed at alleviating poverty) that is consistently and robustly Christian, grounded in Christian theology and proposed in Christian terms.
Hence I can imagine harm in the suggestion that Francis is inconsistently moral in some sense, as it’s rare that such criticisms involve a discussion of the frame by which he’s being measured, and could leave interested Christians with the sense that he’s disingenuous in some way. He isn’t: he’s just being measured by a moral framework he’s never made any claim of submitting to.
That in itself is another issue: it’s troubling that some folks on the left evidently have a hard time adopting as cooperative parties members who don’t submit to a total programmatic leftism. So what if Francis isn’t immediately attending to women’s ordination? That’s not an issue to be pressed by secular leftists, it’s an issue to be sorted out theologically by faithful Catholics, who have knowledge of and interest in the first principles at stake in the policy. But the fact that Francis could rally Catholics as allies in the push for more equitable distributions of wealth shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand just because he hasn’t been helpful as of yet in other secular leftist projects. In a pluralistic democratic society, it’ll never be possible to systematically dismantle every comprehensive doctrine that underpins participation in various political projects, and in my thinking that shouldn’t even be a goal. When a coalition in favor of something as fundamental as the alleviation of poverty is readily available, it seems bizarre to me to prod particular members of the coalition on other issues in order to produce some kind of ideological purity on the left.