From day one in the Pope Francis era, the so-called insiders who do so much to shape public opinion have said “conservatives” – inside the Vatican and outside – were grumbling about this shepherd’s unorthodox style.
That is certainly true in some corners of the church, noted Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, a prominent voice on matters of doctrine and public life.
The famous Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton once noted that “every age gets the saint it needs. Not the saint people want, but the saint they need – the saint who’s the medicine for their illness. The same may be true of popes,” said Chaput in a July 26 speech at the Napa Institute in California.
“John Paul II revived the spirit of a church that felt fractured, and even irrelevant. ... Benedict revived the mind of a church that felt, even after John Paul II’s intellectual leadership, outgunned by the world in the public square. Francis has already started to revive the witness of a church that, even after John Paul II’s and Benedict’s example, feels as if we can’t get a hearing and that we’re telling a story no one will believe.”
Speaking to the La Stampa newspaper, Pope Francis noted that merely defending the “social doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church” doesn’t make him a Marxist. “Marxist ideology is wrong,” he added, but “I have known many Marxists who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.”
Because of his pastoral experience in Argentina, this pope also “knows poverty and violence. He knows the plague of corrupt politics and oppressive governments. He’s seen the cruelty of human trafficking and other forms of exploitation. He’s seen elites who rig the political system in their favor and keep the poor in poverty,” said Chaput.
“When we Americans think about economics, we think in terms of efficiency and production. When Francis thinks about economics, he thinks in terms of human suffering. We’re blessed to live in a rich, free, stable country. We can’t always see what Francis sees.”
Also, it’s crucial for news consumers – Catholics included – to understand that it’s hard to accurately discuss centuries of doctrine and faith while using political terms like “conservative” and “liberal.” Chaput stressed that people should read the pope’s writings and sermons and hear what he is saying, unfiltered.
They will find that political language of this kind tends to “divide what shouldn’t be divided,” said the archbishop. “Service to the oppressed and service to the family; defense of the weak and defense of the unborn child; belief in the value of business and belief in restraints on predatory business practices – all these things spring from the same Catholic commitment to human dignity.
“There’s nothing ‘conservative’ about ignoring the cries of the poor.”
• Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.