WASHINGTON — On Thursday morning, Pope Francis will become the first pope to deliver an address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress. With all eyes upon him, the Holy Father’s remarks are sure to transcend the political binary that defines life inside the Washington beltway.
But you probably won’t get that perspective if you’re getting your reporting from mainstream media accounts of the address. Since his surprise election to the Barque of Peter in 2013, American pundits and journalists have been attempting to pigeonhole Pope Francis somewhere along the two-dimensional, left-right spectrum of American politics, often characterizing him as a “liberal” for emphasizing Church teachings that happen to line up with policies typically championed by Democrats.
Expect that trend to continue on Thursday.
The problem, of course, is that Pope Francis is not a political liberal. He’s not a conservative either, for that matter. He’s a pro-marriage critic of capitalism, a pro-life proponent of caring for creation, an ally of the unborn and the immigrant alike. In other words, he defies the typical categories of American politics.
“Pope Francis is the ultimate Washington outsider,” said John Carr, who heads the Initiative for Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. Carr says Francis’ approach to social and moral issues differs dramatically from the typical American calculus, because he takes as a starting point the moral framework of the Gospel, “not a political platform.”
It’s a lens for considering policy and public life that came into clearer focus earlier this week when, during his papal visit to Cuba, Pope Francis urged those gathered to prioritize the well-being of the human person over ideology. America certainly doesn’t have the specter of Communism hanging over it, but the critique of ideologically driven politics strikes home in a country where people refer to “the free market” and “a woman’s choice” with the type of reverence normally reserved for deities.
Chad Pecknold, a theologian at The Catholic University of America, says the tendency to treat Pope Francis like a presidential candidate seriously distorts what he — and, by extension, Catholic social teaching — is all about. After all, Pecknold says, the Pope isn’t elected to enforce a social contract, but is, instead, “divinely instituted to guard and pass on the Church’s teaching” and “speaks to truths that are prior to politics.”
Pecknold also says it isn’t the case that Francis is some sort of “magenta pope,” merely a combination of conservative and liberal outlooks. Instead, he has a mission that transcends every political order.
Misunderstanding More Than Malice
But the media will continue to frame Pope Francis as something like a religious version of Bernie Sanders. Why? Both Pecknold and Carr say a lack of understanding plays as much a role as malicious intent.
“There are many who simply do not have the resources to understand Pope Francis [and the nature of the Petrine office], and they naturally reach for the only [models] they know for leaders,” explained Pecknold. For most, the most visible and well-known model for leadership is the politician.
Carr, who helped organize an educational briefing for members of the press covering the Pope’s visit, says there’s also an effort by some to politicize the Pope’s visit, speaking about it in the language of partisan politics in order to lessen the actual impact it has.
These types of distortions — accidental or intentional — aren’t new to Pope Francis. They rear their heads whenever there’s an attempt to translate Catholic teaching into action in the public square.
Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, also wasn’t immune to being characterized primarily as a political figure whenever he spoke on social and moral issues. Benedict was typically castigated by the media as a curmudgeonly conservative, this despite the fact that, like Francis, he spoke on everything from ecological stewardship to pastoral care for those with same-sex attraction.
But Pope Francis doesn’t seem overly concerned with how his message is framed by the media. Pecknold suspects it’s because the Holy Father believes the truth of his message can make it through ideological filters.
“He has a kind of holy confidence that people know he transcends these constructed categories.”
A Telling Indicator
The reception of Pope Francis’ address to Congress will be a telling indicator if this theory holds much water. Because if trends to this point in his papacy have been any indication, most Americans, Catholics included, have taken on this distorted understanding of the Pope’s relationship to politics.
Carr says it’s an indication of just how deeply entrenched ideological worldviews are in America — and how challenging it will be for Pope Francis’ message to sink in.
“If he can get people to step back from their ideologies, it will be his first miracle.”
Jonathan Liedl filed this report from Washington.