The triumphal American visit of Pope Francis was covered widely as a boost to the Catholic Left, and a challenge to the Catholic Right. Yet the Pope, who is a “little bit more leftist”, poses a challenge for the Catholic Left, too.
On public policy matters, the Holy Father ticked all the boxes of the progressive agenda and then some – easier immigration, binding economic regulation to fight climate change, denunciation of the arms trade and international financial agencies, abolition of the death penalty. There were mentions, too, of the life questions and marriage, but they were muted in comparison to the lengthy treatment of ecology, in which regard the Holy Father taught that the environment had rights in itself.
In matters of Church life, he went out of his way to praise extravagantly the same American religious Sisters who were subject to an apostolic visitation under Benedict XVI, for, inter alia, putting leftist politics ahead of Catholic doctrine. Before Congress he elevated not John Carroll or Fulton Sheen, but Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, liberal Catholic heroes, to the American pantheon alongside Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King.
For good reason, commentators on the Catholic Left could hardly contain their excitement. Francis is the Pope, not a partisan, but there was no doubt which party thought the Pope was on their side.
The Holy Father’s language marked an emphatic return to the “consistent ethic of life” of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, who argued in the 1980s that the Church’s public witness should put economic justice concerns alongside pro-life issues. Critics then and now faulted Cardinal Bernardin’s approach for blunting Catholic pro-life witness and giving political cover to Catholic politicians who advance the abortion licence but are with the Church on immigration or climate change. Pro-abortion Catholics in the United States have invoked – contrary to Cardinal Bernardin’s intent – the “consistent ethic of life” in their defence for years, and now have an apparent ally in Pope Francis.
Before his arrival in Washington, on the plane from Cuba, Pope Francis acknowledged that “there’s an impression that I’m a little bit more leftist,” while insisting that he remains within the social doctrine of the Church. Such denials – “I am not a leftist” – are only required when the claim is generally thought to be true.
While he does not consider himself a leftist, Pope Francis certainly gave the Catholic Left plenty of encouragement. That is not only a challenge for conservative-minded Catholics, but also for the Catholic Left itself. With the Holy Father so much on their side, will they also follow his teachings as “a loyal son of the Church” when it comes to those matters which conflict with the lifestyle libertine agenda of the political Left? Will they use their new confidence of full citizenship in the Church in a constructive way to advance the mission of the Gospel and conversion of souls, or will they remain a largely critical body focused inward?
In 1998, Cardinal Bernardin’s successor in Chicago, the late Francis George, delivered a stark evaluation in an address to various intellectual leaders of the Catholic Left.
The necessary priorities of the Catholic Left, regnant in the decades after Vatican II, had become parasitical and sterile according to Cardinal George, the intellectual leader of the American episcopate for nearly 20 years.
“We are at a turning point in the life of the Church in this country,” Cardinal George said. “Liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project. Essentially a critique, even a necessary critique at one point in our history, it is now parasitical on a substance that no longer exists. It has shown itself unable to pass on the faith in its integrity and is inadequate, therefore, in fostering the joyful self-surrender called for in Christian marriage, in consecrated life, in ordained priesthood. It no longer gives life.
The answer, however, is not to be found in a type of conservative Catholicism obsessed with particular practices and so sectarian in its outlook that it cannot serve as a sign of unity of all peoples in Christ. The answer is simply Catholicism, in all its fullness and depth, a faith able to distinguish itself from any culture and yet able to engage and transform them all, a faith joyful in all the gifts Christ wants to give us and open to the whole world he died to save.”
Pope Francis is even more popular with the secular Left than he is with the Catholic Left, because they think his Catholicism takes its lead from the ambient secular culture rather than challenges it. They are surely wrong about that, but the challenge for the Catholic Left, flying high on the breeze of the Holy Father, is to demonstrate their missionary zeal against the worldly priorities of a culture that Francis is not shy to call demonic. The bureaucratic Church that Francis excoriates is largely the creation of the Catholic Left. Will they be eager to leave their government-lobbying to preach the Gospel in the streets? If not under Francis, then when? And if not at all, are they then just a “little bit” Catholic and mostly just leftist?
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (2/10/15)
Take up our special subscription offer – 12 issues currently available for just £12!