During Pope Francis’ visit to the United States next month, he will insist that the Church transcends partisan politics, and I’m sure he means this sincerely. But that won’t prevent his visit from having political ramifications. For several decades the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States has been drawing closer and closer to the Republican Party, mostly because of their shared opposition to abortion. Catholics have always bristled at the charge that their religion was subsumed by this one issue, and Pope Francis is committed to reminding the world that the Church cares about more than just sex and reproduction. He isn’t about to revise the Church’s basic teachings on these matters, but he fervently wants to change the topic of conversation. This presents a major problem for the GOP, because on nearly every other public issue they are starkly at odds with Catholic teachings.
The American press often characterizes Pope Francis as more “liberal” than his predecessors. This is a serious misunderstanding: of all the possible adjectives we might use to describe the Pontiff, “liberal” is definitely not one of them. We Americans tend to forget that the liberal tradition is based on a two-fold commitment to both individual liberty (for example, on questions of personal lifestyle) and free-market capitalism. After all, the Democrats want to soften the edges of capitalism with regulation, but they don’t want to overthrow capitalism altogether. The leadership of the Catholic Church, in contrast, has never reconciled itself with liberalism. As far back as 1864 Pope Pius IX denounced anyone who would even suggest that “the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” Since then the Church has in fact softened its stance on “progress” and “modern civilization,” but liberalism remains a problem. As Popes John Paul II and Benedict XIV made clear, this rejection of liberalism entails constraints on individual liberty in the areas of sexuality, reproduction, and marriage. Now Pope Francis is reminding us of the other side of this anti-liberalism: a rejection of capitalism. Just as people are not free to conduct their sexual lives as they see fit, neither are they free to do whatever they want in the economic sphere.
In this sense Francis is a true conservative—even more conservative than the Republicans who are nervous about his upcoming visit. Catholic conservatives like Francis want to conserve harmonious social relations and a Christian understanding of economic justice, in the same way they want to conserve what the Church takes to be traditional family values. Free market capitalism, on the other hand, is all about change: the change that comes when Walmart undermines family shops, when agribusinesses destroy small farms, when financial consultants “downsize” a corporation and wipe out a community’s economic foundation. This type of conservatism will oppose financiers who place the pursuit of profit over the needs of maintaining a peaceful, stable community. And above all, this type of conservatism will condemn anyone whose private greed harms the public good. This isn’t socialism, because Catholic teaching can be easily reconciled with hierarchies and inequality—as long as justice is served and social harmony is maintained.
Catholicism is a problem for American politicians (Democrats and Republicans alike) but not because the Church offers some sort of mixture of left and right, liberalism and conservatism. The Church is consistently conservative, and this upsets Democrats (who promote individualism, innovation, and disruption in the cultural realm) and Republicans (who favor individualism, innovation, and disruption in the economic realm). During the Pope’s visit, therefore, he is likely to make every American politician squirm. The Democrats have grown accustomed to this over recent decades; now it’s the Republicans turn.