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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.

Photo Courtesy: KPBS
Photo Courtesy: KPBS

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.

klaatu...barada...nikto December 29, 2013 at 01:39 PM
Richest business in the WORLD? THE VATICAN!
seer December 29, 2013 at 03:16 PM
the only people that admire this guy are the atheist libs and media- which are one and the same. Benedict was a smart, conservative Pope but there are powerful forces behind the scene in the Vatican that wanted him out.
Herc December 29, 2013 at 04:47 PM
He was raised in a socialist country, why would the world think any different, he loves socialism?
seer December 29, 2013 at 05:32 PM
Herc-that is also the problem with the immigants that flood this country- they come from corrupt socialist police states and that is what they expect here.
Herc December 29, 2013 at 08:35 PM
Totally agree. Here's the other problem with some immigrants, they want to change our religion, our values to their way of thinking. Don't come here and expect us to change for you!
Army vet December 29, 2013 at 09:18 PM
Obama is too radical for American politics.

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