23 Aug 2014
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Is Pope Francis Too Radical for American Politics?

As Pope Francis gains admirers, he simultaneously alienates some American Catholics and Catholic allies.

Is Pope Francis Too Radical for American Politics?

By Catherine Crawford

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Pope Francis was named  Time magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’ and,  according to The Washington Post, he is as popular, if not more, than John Paul II.

As James Carroll writes in a long profile in the New Yorker, “ It is clear that Pope Francis is not a liberal. But if he initiates a true shift in the way that power is exercised in the Church he may turn out to be a radical.” After being elected pope in March of this year, he has shaken up the now-ascendant "Catholic = Conservative" mindset in American politics by doing three things:

De-emphasizing traditional culture war touchstones.
 In a September interview in the Catholic magazine America, Francis said,  “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods.”

That’s a stark contrast to the guidance from conservative Catholic leaders like Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who in 2004 said that  voting for John Kerry would be a sin requiring confession.

His flair for symbolism:
 Shortly after his election, Francis made headlines when  he washed the feet of a dozen inmates — including the feet of Muslim and women prisoners. As then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he reportedly  washed and kissed the feet of AIDS patients and drug addicts.

In December,  The Huffington Post cited “a knowledgeable source” confirming rumors that Francis heads out at night beyond Vatican walls to give alms to the poor. These acts have stayed on cable news headlines for days.

His focus on the poor and criticism of liberal capitalism.
 In November, Francis denounced “the idolatry of money.” In a 50,000-word written statement, he described trickle-down economics as “a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh described Francis’ writings as “just pure Marxism.”

Take these three together — an aversion to culture war fights, adoration by the mainstream media, and skepticism of concentrated wealth — and you have a recipe for increasing friction between Francis and parts of the American conservative movement.

That would be contrary to the general trend: Since Nixon, the GOP has made steady gains among Catholics, to the point where  Catholics are now prominent across the leadership of the party. 

As for the rest of us? I grew up in a devout Catholic household where statements made by any reigning pope were regarded as coming straight from God. So I understand why many American Catholics, especially conservative ones, feel the shift in Francis’ focus like a shock to the system.  Bridget Kurt, an ardent Catholic in Georgia, feels like Francis is letting here down. “Even when it was discouraging working in pro-life, you always felt like Mother Teresa was on your side and the popes were encouraging you," Kurt told The New York Times. "Now I feel kind of thrown under the bus.”

For others like me, however, it reignites a pride in my Catholic roots.

Do you think Pope Francis will make substantive changes to the Catholic church? Tell us in the comments or in a blog post.

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