How far to go with them is the question that awaits the pope in Rome this fall, and that hangs over the springtime for liberal Christianity his pontificate has nurtured. How it’s answered, and what follows, will determine whether we’re watching something genuinely new and fresh emerge — or whether, after the cheering ends, the same winter that enveloped liberal Protestantism after the 1960s will claim Franciscan Catholicism as well.
During his in-flight interview between Cuba and the United States, Pope Francis bristled a little when asked about people who claim he’s too liberal, left-wing, even Communist. In his comments on economics, immigration and the environment, he insisted, “I’m sure that I haven’t said anything more than what’s written in the social doctrine of the church.”
The pontiff has a point, but so did his questioner. Yes, Catholic social teaching does not fit the normal categories of American politics, and popes always come to our shores bearing critiques of right and left alike. But every pope has different interests, a different set of points to stress — and Pope Francis’ message, whether on-script or off-the-cuff, is particularly distinctive.
He is certainly not a Marxist, and he’s not a “liberal” as American politics understands the terms. But he has been a gift to liberals who are also Christians, to religious believers whose politics lean left.
It’s a gift the religious left sorely needed, because the last few decades have made a marriage of Christian faith and liberal politics seem doomed to eventual divorce. Since the 1970s, the mainline Protestant denominations associated with progressive politics have experienced a steep decline in membership and influence, while American liberalism has become more secular and anti-clerical, culminating in the Obama White House’s battles with Francis’ own church. In the intellectual arena, religiously-inclined liberals have pined for a Reinhold Niebuhr without producing one, and the conservative fear that liberal theology inevitably empties religion of real power has found all-too-frequent vindication.
Pope Francis has not solved any of these problems. But his pontificate has nonetheless given the religious left a new lease on life. He has offered encouragement to Catholic progressives by modestly soft-pedaling the issues dividing his church from today’s liberalism — abortion and same-sex marriage — while elevating other causes and concerns. His personnel decisions have confirmed that encouragement; his rhetoric has reinvigorated left-leaning Catholic punditry and thought. And his media stardom has offered provisional evidence for a proposition dear to liberal-Christian hearts — namely, that a public Christianity free from entanglements with right-wing politics could tug the disaffected back toward faith.