Pope Francis: possibly liberal, maybe a conservative, but definitely radical

Opinion: The evidence suggests a pontiff who wants a more collegial and decentralised church

Who speaks for the Church? Pope Francis in Rome last week with a green parrot given to him by a pilgrim. Photograph:  EPA/Osservatore Romano

Who speaks for the Church? Pope Francis in Rome last week with a green parrot given to him by a pilgrim. Photograph: EPA/Osservatore Romano


Is Pope Francis a liberal or a conservative? Traditionalists in the church, temporarily silenced by the whirlwind that is the new pontiff, are now rallying to suggest that Jorge Mario Bergoglio, for all his dramatic new style, is in fact thoroughly traditional in his mainstream views. But are they right?

In the UK, the editor of the Catholic Herald, Luke Coppen, suggests that the media has constructed a Fantasy Francis figure on to whom they project a secular leftist agenda. In the US, the conservative George Weigel claims Francis is making no break with the pontificates of his two predecessors.

Pope Francis has abetted this confusion with mixed signals on appointments. He has confirmed the conservative Archbishop Gerhard Müller as Vatican doctrinal enforcer as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But he purged the cappa magna traditionalist Cardinal Raymond Burke from the committee that oversees the appointment of bishops.

The root of the misunderstanding comes from the assumption that there is only one axis of divergence with the Catholic Church when there are in fact three.

The first is political. A century of Catholic social teaching has ensured most popes have been critical of unregulated capitalism as a vehicle for delivering the common good. Francis is even further to the left with his criticisms of “trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice”. On the environment, he looks set to move the church on to a more radical political agenda too.

Gay marriage
The second axis stretches from reactionary to progressive on mainstream doctrine. Francis has repeatedly referred to the need to value human life from conception until natural death. But there are subtle shifts. He has condemned gay marriage is an “anthropological regression” but is in favour of same-sex civil unions. He is opposed to gay adoption, but frames it in terms of human rights: a child having the right to a mother and a father. He is not opposed to the Latin Mass per se, but feels traditional styles of worship do not connect with ordinary people in the wider non-European world.

But on the third axis he is undoubtedly a change-maker. On the spectrum of whether the church should be centralised or local he is firmly at one end of the spectrum. So are all eight of the cardinals – liberals and conservatives in other ways – whom he has chosen to serve as his Committee of Eight cardinal advisers.

In his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was disdainful of the advice of what a former aide called “Italians with emptying churches telling bishops in countries with growing congregations what they should and should not be doing”.

All this instilled in him the importance of the church being run more collegially. So much so that as president of the Argentinean bishops conference, he went along with a decision by his fellow bishops to oppose civil unions for same-sex couples even though he approved of the government proposal.

Philosophical rigidity
This explains why he is content to allow Cardinal Müller to speak so vehemently against admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to communion while Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga, to whom he is far closer, says the opposite. All the signs are Francis wants pastoral care to take priority over philosophical rigidity on the issue.

But more important to him is that the decision should be taken – after questionnaires to the laity and a discussion by the bishops in synod – in a fully collegial manner.

Whether or not Francis is a liberal he is certainly a radical. Hold tight for an exciting ride.

Paul Vallely will be speaking about his book Pope Francis - Untying the Knots, at 8pm on Thursday at St Mary’s, Haddington Road, Dublin

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