Born Jorge Bergolgio, he took the papal name of Francis, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, shown behind him in this image from Brazil.Luca Zennaro / European Pressphoto Agency
Americans love labels. And we love them best when there are only two of them. You are either “pro-life or pro-choice”; you are either “pro-science or pro-religion”; and, naturally, you are either “liberal or conservative.” It makes things neat, clean, and simple.
For the last several decades, Americans have largely thought of the pope as “conservative.” But we have a new pope who is doing things differently—and so, according to our binary labels, he must be “liberal.” It’s either one or the other, right? But such “either/or” labels utterly fail to engage the complexity of real people and real issues. Indeed, the term “liberal” means one thing in a secular American political context, it means something very different in a Catholic ecclesial context, and it means something else when used to describe a general temperament or attitude. Anyone who wants to (accurately) label someone “liberal” must first define the term and the context in which he is using it.
Prof. Mark Silk recently defended his labeling of Francis as “liberal” by saying he’s “reasonably sure” what the term means. Oddly, however, he never gives a definition. Instead, Silk notes Pope Francis’ critiques of capitalism, rejection of war, and desire that we refuse to obsess about abortion. While these may be “liberal” ideas in a secular American political context, they are anything but liberal in a Catholic context. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI penned detailed documents which put issues like abortion and sex in the context of other issues like poverty and ecology. Pope Paul VI was not only an outspoken critic of capitalism, but was the very person Pope Francis quoted when he exclaimed, “Never again war!” Yes, this is the same Paul VI who defined the church’s teaching against artificial contraception. No one could label any of these popes “liberal” simply because of their positions on these issues.
At other times, Silk uses “liberal” in an ecclesial context. Francis is liberal because he may open door of the church to the divorced, change the rules on priestly celibacy, avoid an exclusive focus on the hierarchy, and call off the Roman orthodoxy police. But it is not clear, for instance, that this last move is “liberal”—especially given that less orthodoxy police means more boundary-pushing on both the left and the right. With regard to his views on divorce and a married priesthood, perhaps Francis was influenced by Pope Benedict’s insistence that “divorced Catholics be welcomed in parishes” and his creation of a new ordinate which allows for married priests. Both Benedict and John Paul II also gave special attention to lay ministry, making formal space in the church for several lay groups: Focolare, Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation, and more. Focolare’s first bylaw, in fact, is that they must always be led by a lay woman.
Silk also sometimes uses “liberal” to describe an attitude or way of being. He notes that Francis declines to pass judgment on gays and lesbians, and washed the feet of prisoners. My colleague Michael Peppard makes a similar point, discussing the pope’s liberalism in terms of his compassionate temperament. And while it is undeniable (and most welcome) that Francis has already shown far more compassion for gays and lesbians than did his predecessors, we should remember that, time and time again, Francis’ predecessors displayed a compassionate temperament in other contexts. John Paul II, for instance, also led off his papacy by washing the feet the homeless. Non-liberals are often very compassionate, as the countless people who have our lives touched by them can attest. It is a mistake to think of a compassionate temperament as “liberal.”
The use of “liberal” and “conservative” labels in our public discourse is so imprecise (and open to misinterpretation) that we ought to resist using such terms as often as we can–especially in a religious context. Rather than a good-faith attempt to name something that is true, use of these labels is often designed to marginalize and “other” a person or group. Labeling Francis a liberal is less about authentically naming something true about Francis, and more about pushing non-liberals to the margins of the Church by making them “other.”
Ironically, this is totally at odds with the opportunity Francis brings to the church and world. He embodies a new chance to reject our imprecise, lazy, and “othering” labels—and, instead, do the hard work of engaging real people, real lives and real positions. He gives us a new opportunity to live in a vulnerable and uncomfortable—but authentic—gray area. Rather than reducing them to the neat and clean caricatures conjured by our labels, Pope Francis offers us a new chance to love our neighbors as the complex, diverse, and label-free individuals they actually are.
Charles C. Camosy is Ast. Prof. of Christian Ethics at Fordham University. His new book For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action will be released on the Feast of St. Francis, October 4th.