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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 here 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.

Julie Ann Figlesthaler-Courville December 29, 2013 at 03:17 PM
There is no such thing as a Conservative or Liberal Catholic. A true Catholic is a follower and Lover of Christ Jesus. Through this true love he/she will love his/her Neighbor as himself. The only way to do this is through loving God with one's whole heart, soul, mind and strength. Wisdom and Divine protection comes from following the Ten Commandments given to Moses from God as well as living the Beatitudes. Further more, all of us fall short in different areas. This is where Jesus became the Holy Sacrifice in reparation for our iniquities and sins. We can only walk the holy road through making true heartfelt prayer and nurturing our relationship with God on a daily basis. All of us are sinners and we all need the mercy of God. Yet, we all must humbly seek Him and open the doors of our hearts to receive this grace. God bless Our Holy Mother Church, the USA,and the whole world. JMJ/SAG
James Moran December 30, 2013 at 08:16 AM
The pope is a radical. When the liberal media names him Man of the Year and fawn all over him take that as a sign. Briefly explained the pope comes from old Latin America and is of the mindset of old Catholic South American liberation theology, a form of communism/Marxism. He came out to try to quell the uproar over having a Marxist label. That didn't work. It looked too much as a desperate, lying statement.
Bill December 31, 2013 at 06:55 AM
Pope Francis, regardless of what one may think of the institution he represents, is trying to highlight the continuing abuse of the have-nots by the wealthy, smug, self-satisfied haves, including the situation rampant in this country. And for this you call him a Marxist? You've been worshipping at the shrine of Limbaugh for too long.

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