Pope Francis the Conservative?

After some miscues and moments of confusion, the pontiff seems to be getting his label-free legs underneath him

Pope Francis embraces Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila before blessing a mosaic of St. Pedro Calungsod during a meeting with the Philippine community at St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Nov. 21. St. Pedro Calungsod was a lay catechist from the Ph ilippines who was martyred in Guam in 1672. (CNS photo/Alessandro Bianchi

Pope Francis embraces Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila before blessing a mosaic of St. Pedro Calungsod during a meeting with the Philippine community at St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Nov. 21. St. Pedro Calungsod was a lay catechist from the Ph ilippines who was martyred in Guam in 1672. (CNS photo/Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters)If your only source for news about Pope Francis is from usual mainstream news sources, well, you won’t be reading this post or this website. That said, there have been a number of stories about the Holy Father in just the past couple of weeks that likely have not or will not get much air time on CNN or square inches on the printed page of the Grey Lady or WaPo. One big reason is that many of these stories simply do not fit with the “Pope Francis the Liberal” media meme, nor the “Francis breaks radically from Benedict, John Paul II, the Catechism, and Everything Else Catholic” media mantra.

Some of the papal shifts, if that’s the correct term (or: adjustments, corrections, reassessments) were covered well by Italian journalist and Vatican veteran Sandro Magister in his November 22nd column, “Even the Pope Critiques Himself. And Corrects Three Errors”:

In the span of a few days Pope Francis has corrected or brought about the correction of a few significant features of his public image. At least three of them.

The first concerns the conversation that he had with Eugenio Scalfari, set down in writing by this champion of atheistic thought in “la Repubblica” of October 1.

In sum, that controversial and curious interview has been removed from the Vatican website:

“It was removed,” Fr. Lombardi explained, “to clarify the nature of that text. There were some misunderstandings and disagreements about its value.”

On November 21, interviewed at the Roman headquarters of the foreign press, Scalfari nonetheless revealed more details of the matter.

He said that the pope, at the end of the conversation, had consented that it should be made public. And to Scalfari’s proposal that he send him the text beforehand, he had replied: “It seems like a waste of time to me, I trust you.”

That trust, put bluntly, was misplaced. Not because the agnostic/atheist Scalfari had some sort of agenda (perhaps he did; that’s not clear), but because the whole matter was handled so unprofessionally and haphazardly. More details about that story are available in this report from National Catholic Register.

The second matter has to do with the Holy Father’s understanding and interpretation of Vatican II. In a letter sent to Abp. Agostino Marchetto in October and made public earlier this month, Francis praised Marchetto’s work as a historian and interpreter of the Council, notably in his book, The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council: A Counterpoint for the History of the Council:

“You have demonstrated this love [of the Church] in many ways, including by correcting an error or imprecision on my part – and for this I thank you from my heart – but above all it has been manifested in all its purity in your studies of Vatican Council II. I have said this to you once, dear Archbishop Marchetto, and I want to repeat it today, that I consider you the best hermeneut of Vatican Council II.”

Marchetto’s interpretation of the Council, as a description of his 2010 book indicates, is most certainly in keeping with the perspectives of John Paul II and Benedict XVI: “Archbishop Marchetto critiques the Bologna School, which, he suggests, presents the Council as a kind of ‘Copernican revolution,’ a transformation to ‘another Catholicism.’ Instead Marchetto invites readers to reconsider the Council directly, through its official documents, commentaries, and histories.” This is no small matter, as anyone who follows such debates knows well.

And now another letter has come to light, this one from Francis to Card. Walter Brandmüller on the subject of the 450th anniversary of the closing of the Council of Trent, which is December 4th. After reflecting on the great significance of Trent and its “rich doctrine,” Francis writes (this from the translation by Fr. Z):

Harking closely to the same Spirit, Holy Church in this age renews and meditates on the most abundant doctrine of the Council of Trent. In fact, the “hermeneutic of renewal” [interpretatio renovationis] which Our Predecessor Benedict XVI explained in 2005 before the Roman Curia, refers in no way less to the Council of Trent than to the Vatican Council. To be sure, this mode of interpretation places under a brighter light a beautiful characteristic of the Church which is taught by the Lord Himself: “She is a ‘subject’ which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God” (Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia offering them his Christmas greetings – 22 December 2005).

That alone should give pause to all those progressives who have been claiming that Francis is a torch bearer for the “spirit of Vatican II”. In fact, the two letters are something of a “one-two” combo to the jaw of that less-than-sacred “spirit”.

Third, there is the recent homily, given on November 18th, that contained some rather startling language–even for a pontiff who has often been startling in his language. As reported by www.news.va:

And referring again to the passage in the Book of Maccabees, in which all nations conformed to the king’s decree and adopted customs foreign to their culture, the Pope pointed out that this “is not the beautiful globalization, unity of all nations, each with their own customs but united, but the uniformity of hegemonic globalization, it is – he said – the single thought: the result of secular worldliness”

And Pope Francis warned that this happens today. Moved by the spirit of worldliness, people negotiate their fidelity to the Lord, they negotiate their identity, and they negotiate their belonging to a people that God loves.

And with a reference to the 20th century novel “Lord of the World” that focuses on the spirit of worldliness that leads to apostasy, Pope Francis warned against the desire to “be like everyone else” and what he called an “adolescent progressivism”. “What do you think?” – he said bitterly – “that today human sacrifices are not made? Many, many people make human sacrifices and there are laws that protect them”.

It’s nigh impossible to say (at least with any sense of integrity or seriousness) that such language comes from “Francis the Liberal.” As I noted in my most recent CWR editorial, the rhetoric of “right” and “left”, “conservative” and “liberal” is loaded with serious problems; it most certainly causes plenty of confusion here in the U.S.:

Suffice to say, the die has been cast for many journalists, and thus for their readers, when it comes to framing stories about the good Pope Francis and the evil “right-wingers” who oppose him. It’s not that some writers go to elaborate and sophisticated lengths to make dubious connections and render outrageous assertions; rather, they often demonstrate an intellectual laziness that is alarming and a crude simplicity that is exasperating, at best.

One example (out of countless possibilities) was a recent New York Times’ piece, “Conservative U.S. Catholics Feel Left Out of the Pope’s Embrace” (Nov. 10th) by Laurie Goodstein, a reporter who consistently and constantly pits “liberals” (the caring, loving good guys) against “conservatives” (the dogmatic, heartless jerks). The piece is par for the course. Of more interest to me was the Timesposting of seven letters to editor a few days later—six of them prime examples of the mindless, rote “left-right/liberal-conservative” blathering that is like a suffocating fog obscuring the actual religious, cultural, and social landscape. A couple of snippets will suffice:

The Catholic bishops of the United States, one hopes without guile, in their exaggerated emphasis on abortion and same-sex issues over the last 20 years, created among conservative Catholics a ready electorate for Republican politicians whose real agenda was not social issues. Pope Francis only proves that point.

His own emphasis on the poor, the disenfranchised (documented or otherwise), and the ill and disabled flies in the face of the political agenda of Catholic Republican stalwarts like Paul Ryan, Rick Santorum and others who vote consistently to cut the social safety net in the United States by describing such programs as economic leeches on American society. …

But Pope Francis, whose liberal views appeal to the younger generation, is keeping Catholicism from becoming a thing of the past.

Heh. Adolescent progressivism, anyone? (The last letter, by Fr. Michael Orsi, is the lone exception to this nonsense. Another, later letter, given the caption, “Conservative View of Pope”, does not use the words “conservative” or “liberal”. Again, it’s all about framing the discussion so that no discussion actually takes place.)

It’s not that labels are bad, of course, but that when labels become lazy, self-assuring, tribal code words, they undermine any meaningful discussion or healthy argument. They also distract from the real issues at hand: the nature of truth, the actual teachings of the Church, the basic principles of Church social teaching, and so forth. Francis, for his part, is going to continue to confound the label makers. He may also have some more missteps. But he seems to be settling in and better hitting his stride of late, and his soon-to-be release Apostolic Exhortation will be another major indication of how he wishes his pontificate to proceed.

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.