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Is Pope Francis Too Radical for American Politics?

As Pope Francis gains admirers, he simultaneously alienates some American Catholics and Catholic allies.

Photo Courtesy: KPBS
Photo Courtesy: KPBS

By Catherine Crawford

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Pope Francis was named Time magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’ and, according to The Washington Post, he is as popular, if not more, than John Paul II.

As James Carroll writes in a long profile in the New Yorker, “It is clear that Pope Francis is not a liberal. But if he initiates a true shift in the way that power is exercised in the Church he may turn out to be a radical.” After being elected pope in March of this year, he has shaken up the now-ascendant "Catholic = Conservative" mindset in American politics by doing three things:

De-emphasizing traditional culture war touchstones.
 In a September interview in the Catholic magazine America, Francis said, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods.”

That’s a stark contrast to the guidance from conservative Catholic leaders like Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who in 2004 said that voting for John Kerry would be a sin requiring confession.

His flair for symbolism:
 Shortly after his election, Francis made headlines when he washed the feet of a dozen inmates — including the feet of Muslim and women prisoners. As then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he reportedly washed and kissed the feet of AIDS patients and drug addicts.

In December, The Huffington Post cited “a knowledgeable source” confirming rumors that Francis heads out at night beyond Vatican walls to give alms to the poor. These acts have stayed on cable news headlines for days.

His focus on the poor and criticism of liberal capitalism.
 In November, Francis denounced “the idolatry of money.” In a 50,000-word written statement, he described trickle-down economics as “a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh described Francis’ writings as “just pure Marxism.”

Take these three together — an aversion to culture war fights, adoration by the mainstream media, and skepticism of concentrated wealth — and you have a recipe for increasing friction between Francis and parts of the American conservative movement.

That would be contrary to the general trend: Since Nixon, the GOP has made steady gains among Catholics, to the point where Catholics are now prominent across the leadership of the party. 

As for the rest of us? I grew up in a devout Catholic household where statements made by any reigning pope were regarded as coming straight from God. So I understand why many American Catholics, especially conservative ones, feel the shift in Francis’ focus like a shock to the system. Bridget Kurt, an ardent Catholic in Georgia, feels like Francis is letting her down. “Even when it was discouraging working in pro-life, you always felt like Mother Teresa was on your side and the popes were encouraging you," Kurt told The New York Times. "Now I feel kind of thrown under the bus.”

For others like me, however, it reignites a pride in my Catholic roots.

Do you think Pope Francis will make substantive changes to the Catholic church? Tell us in the comments or in a blog post.

Patchogue Snoop January 02, 2014 at 10:45 AM
Not my guy or many Priests, Cardinals and Bishops either. Mr Liberal Pope, you have the CATHOLIC religion and it's values to uphold....remember that???
John Bogack January 03, 2014 at 07:44 AM
Pope Francis just might make me a Catholic as he keeps reminding us all that Jesus was not a Republican or a Democrat, a Liberal or a Conservative. He had other more important truths to speak. One of those truths I think Pope Francis reminded us all about was this when he recently said: "While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few." I think that Jesus would have put that in more simple words but the point is there for any to hear who want to...or need to. And a Pope who does remember what Jesus did say about wealth and power...you can have much of both and still be poor of spirit ...well to me that kind of Pope, seems to me, is doing his job.
Patchogue Snoop January 09, 2014 at 10:31 AM
Uhh, the Catholic religion is a conservative lot. Is protected by the constitution and is readily evident that the LIB radical left seeks to destroy as it serves up responsibility for yourself and actions, morals and the family unit. All threats to their attempted take over of out society. Ya know, like serving up sickos like we see in Hollywood and on TV/Movies. Twerking is aok for these Libs. Whatever marriage is ok, just like Sodom and Gomorrah. Sign of the times. Class warfare....so worn out, please comment on the saying....."The Lord Helps those who helps themselves".....conservative..you bet. He didn't believe in handouts either. If you don't like my religion or what it stands for, butt out. No one is twisting your arm. This is my right as an American citizen....period. If you don't see Jesus as conservative I really can't explain it to you....you are so typically lost to the left.

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