Pope Francis, Like Popes In General, Cannot Be Liberal

The Pope Francis Honeymoon is over. The Pontiff who could make a hardened Republican, the third most powerful man in American government, cry like a particularly lachrymose baby, who has been saying all the right things for a very long time, who has been playing music for progressive ears, has gone ahead jumped the shark by meeting with Kim Davis–she of “I shall not marry the gays” and “‘Eye of the Tiger’ is so my song” fame. Reports have it that the Pope urged her to “stay strong” and described her as a “conscientious objector.” Much to progressives’ dismay, besides showing his poor understanding of the secular notion of the separation of church and state, Pope Francis also threw his considerable papal weight behind a bigot. I will admit that little is known about the meeting’s particulars but the reaction to it suggests there are considerable hopes invested in this Pope becoming an ally of progressive political forces.

I must confess, I was always a tad surprised by these hopes. Vague, anodyne ramblings about social justice and taking care of the sick and the poor have always been on Popes’ lips. They are part and parcel of the rhetorical package that goes with being called ‘Papa’ by crowds of adoring millions. Talk of Christian charity is cheap when it is clear that that charity is not really universal, that it is only selectively extended–to those with the right beliefs. Talk of the co-existence and compatibility of creationism and evolutionary theory is cheap too, when this is merely official Church doctrine, pragmatically adopted as long back as 1950. The Church, better than many adherents, understands the need to stay ‘relevant.’ To be sure this Pope has gone further, and to more places where previous Popes simply did not. But affixing political labels on him will not work; and neither will counting on him as a progressive ally.

A liberal Pope would not be a Pope; he would disdain the office, its titles, its pretensions. he would not wave to admiring crowds, pretending to be the arbiter of human fates, an infallible head of state, a ‘spiritual’ leader of millions, a hobnobber with heads of states. A liberal pope would not take on, and exercise the power of forgiving those who sin. A liberal pope would have to be a secular pope, and that he cannot be; you cannot be a liberal if you think the world can be divided into sinners and do-gooders with a special place reserved for those who sin and for those who don’t. The notion of damnation, of sin, is an illiberal, reactionary one. Forgiveness of those who have abortions sounds wunderful till you realize it is no human’s business to hand out forgiveness in the first place. A liberal Pope makes no sense; we can at best proclaim a particular pontiff is ‘liberal for a Pope.’

Popes, the heads of large, hierarchical organizations which claim a monopoly on the truth, which aim to provide moral and ethical instruction, and a guidebook for deliverance in this world and the next, cannot be liberal.

4 comments on “Pope Francis, Like Popes In General, Cannot Be Liberal

  1. Ole Koksvik says:

    Samir, the philosopher voice in me just wouldn’t shut up after reading this. For one, I found it a little unfortunate to say that he’s been saying all the right things. He’s been openly against marriage equality for a long time, but he’s also publically condoned, or perhaps even celebrated, family violence. But I get that you say this sort of sarcastically, so ok.

    But regarding you main point of the possibility or otherwise of a liberal pope. Couldn’t a person (in theory) see the negative influence of this power structure for what it is, realise the infeasibility of dismantling it by any actions of his or in his lifetime, see, also, that he had a shot at the top job, and see that he’d be better than any feasible alternative for that job? Couldn’t he then shoot for the job with the aim of reducing its negative influence, and turning it, slwoly, carefully, in a less destructive direction?

    I think some people think this is what he’s doing. I think they’re ignoring the evidence. But I also don’t think it’s in principle impossible that such a situation occurs.

    I guess the question is then what counts as being liberal. But one shouldn’t fight over labels.

    • Samir Chopra says:

      Ole, thanks for your comment. I think there is too much institutional inertia in the Church. It can’t be reformed from within–even by the Pope. The only ‘hope’ is mass desertion into a new Church, leaving behind a hollowed out hulk. The new Church can find its own new beginnings. Pope Francis, on the other hand, is making it harder for people to leave the Church with his confused messages.

  2. Paul says:

    This makes me think of the time that Francis, when asked about something to do with homosexuality, said, “who am I to judge?” as if he didn’t occupy the office that is perhaps identified more than any other in the world with a claim to be the moral judge of all humanity and human behavior. The pope is at the head of a group of people who claim for themselves the special privilege of acting as intermediary between God and human beings. You can’t get much less liberal than that.

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