Pope Francis’ Hungary Visit Demonstrated His Social Vision — and the False Media Narratives That Attempt to Define Him

COMMENTARY: On the choice between Brussels and Budapest, Pope Francis picked Rome — exposing reductive media accounts in the process.

Pope Francis receives a present from a child as he arrives to a meeting with young people at Papp Laszlo Sportarena during his visit in Budapest, Hungary, April 29.
Pope Francis receives a present from a child as he arrives to a meeting with young people at Papp Laszlo Sportarena during his visit in Budapest, Hungary, April 29. (photo: ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP via Getty Images)

Pope Francis’ recent visit to Hungary included times of prayer and pastoral visits with the Catholic flock, but it also undoubtedly carried significant sociopolitical weight. And for good reason.

First of all, the Gospel of Jesus Christ has undoubted implications for the way we live together in society, making demands on us on everything from economics to immigration, geopolitical conflict to family policy. 

Furthermore, under the leadership of Viktor Orbán, Hungary has emerged as the champion of a distinctive “illiberal democracy” with explicitly Christian underpinnings, offering a symbolic alternative to the secular progressivism of the European Union administration in Brussels and even garnering significant interest in U.S. politics.

With the stakes of Hungary’s geopolitical significance so high, it was certainly understandable that the Pope’s visit would be interpreted through a sociopolitical lens, as pundits attempted to read his remarks as either repudiations or affirmations of Orbán and his country’s policies.

What is less excusable, however, are media accounts that framed the Pope’s visit according to their own ideological agendas, distorting his engagement with Hungary’s political project and, therefore, Catholic social teaching in the process.

This was evident, unsurprisingly, in mainstream media accounts that reduced both Pope Francis and Orbán to caricatures on a simplistic left-right political spectrum. With this lens in place, the Holy Father’s disagreements with Orbán’s restrictive immigration policies and his critique of “self-referential populism,” important and significant as they are, become almost the sole criteria for evaluating the entire visit. 

Meanwhile, the Pope’s praise for Hungary’s pro-natalist policies, his encouragement of Hungarian youth to be open to having big families, his condemnation of abortion, and other affirmations of what the mainstream interprets as “conservative” priorities were conveniently ignored. Even the evident role that the Holy Father sees Hungary playing in bringing about peace between Russia and Ukraine and unity among Europeans was glossed over, as it runs afoul of the typical portrayal of Orbán as a Russia apologist — a portrayal ironically made by those whose openness to escalation in the conflict runs afoul of the Pope’s prioritization of peace.

But this reductionist tendency was also observable in the Catholic media sphere, as well. For instance, the National Catholic Reporter’s story on the Pope’s speech to members of the Hungarian government left out any mention of Francis’ striking comments regarding gender theory as a form of ideological colonization. The Pope’s words were especially significant, in light of measures Hungary has taken to limit the portrayal of transgender ideology in schools, which has received significant backlash from Western European powers. But given the Reporter’s apparent editorial line on the topic, which recently included running a critique of the USCCB’s pastoral letter on gender dysphoria that attempted to use Pope Francis as a cudgel against the Church’s teaching that male-female sexual differentiation is part of the created order, this omission is unsurprising.

Other, more mild-mannered outlets framed the visit as primarily an instance of “contrasting versions of Christianity” (although a “sort of odd-couple synergy” between Francis and Orbán on the Ukraine conflict was also noted). According to this rigid binary, Orbán’s Christianity focused on identity, tradition and family values,” Pope Francis’ on “welcome, dialogue and the social gospel.” 

While there are certainly significant points of divergence between Pope Francis’ emphases and Orbán’s approach, such binary framing eliminates any space for overlap and gives the impression that tradition is opposed to welcome, family values run contrary to the social gospel, and so on. But, in fact, as one observer noted, the Pope actually leaned upon Hungary’s tradition and heritage in his appeal for a more open policy to migrants, citing the words of St. Stephen, Hungary’s 11th-century king who urged his people “to show favor not only to relation and kin, or to the powerful and wealthy, or to your neighbors and fellow countrymen, but also to foreigners and all who come to you.”

The truth of Pope Francis and the sociopolitical implications of his visit to Hungary, of course, is something both more complex and more simple than the false binaries within which members of the media all too often attempt to force him. Complex — complex because the Pope’s visit included a myriad of agreements, disagreements, and partial overlaps with Hungary’s approach. But simple, because it can be captured in a single phrase: On the choice between Brussels and Budapest, Pope Francis picked Rome.

The Holy Father is not a secular politician, but the chief shepherd and teacher of the Catholic faith. His visit to Hungary was not a campaign stop, but a pastoral visit. According to the Church’s teaching and his own particular emphases, Pope Francis celebrated the good he saw and also challenged what he sees as inconsistencies with the Gospel. One should expect nothing less from the Pope.

Of course, Pope Francis has been simplistically appropriated as a champion of Western progressive causes from Day One of his pontificate, artificially ripping him from the Latin American context and instead portraying him as a white-clad American liberal with an Argentinian accent. His major social encyclicals — Laudato Si and Fratelli Tutti — have largely been interpreted from this perspective. Instances in which Francis’ priorities align with the agenda of progressive politics are amplified, and everything else is ignored, distorting the Holy Father’s much more nuanced social vision that doesn’t fit neatly anywhere on the secular political spectrum. The same thing, from an opposite direction, happened to Pope Benedict XVI, who was often castigated as an archconservative by American media, despite the fact that he was nicknamed the “green pope” for his commitment to stewardship of creation and had his own sharp critiques of unfettered capitalism.

As the Italian journalist Agostino Giovagnoli noted, Pope Francis’ visit to Hungary can be interpreted “as a departure from the image of ‘progressive’ that … was sewn on him from the first day of his pontificate.” Unfortunately, many in the mainstream and even Catholic media failed to take this opportunity and instead fell back on tired clichés and simplistic reductions. 

So long as this happens, there will always be a need for Catholics to correct the record, pointing out the complexities, but also the simple, underlying truth, present in the Holy Father’s sociopolitical engagement.

This column was updated after posting.