Can a Radical Pope Change American Culture Wars?

Pope Francis has rattled the right by shifting power and emphasizing new priorities.

An improbable revolution began two years ago this week when Pope Francis greeted shocked crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square. This pope of firsts — the first Jesuit, first South American, and only pontiff in history to take his name from St. Francis of Assisi — injected a fresh narrative that rescued a church drowning in negative headlines.

A pope who refused to move into the papal palace and warned Catholic leaders against fixating exclusively on abortion, gay marriage, and contraception signaled business as usual was over. After an extended honeymoon, Pope Francis now faces a resolute old guard digging in for a long fight.

The pope’s determined opposition is not limited to entrenched forces in Rome. When Pope Francis travels to the United States this September, religious and political conservatives here will be jittery. In Philadelphia, where the pope will attend the World Meeting of Families, Archbishop Charles Chaput has acknowledged that “the right wing of the church” has “not been real happy” with Francis.

Those who anoint themselves more Catholic than the pope fret that Francis doesn’t talk enough about abortion. Hardliners fear he will soon move to allow divorced Catholics who have remarried without an annulment to receive the sacraments. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat warns of “confusion among the church’s orthodox adherents” that could “eventually lead to real schism.”

Emphasizing new priorities and a different values debate

It’s not just hot button issues of sexuality and marriage that leave some conservatives with furrowed brows. The pope’s specific critique of “trickle down” economics — a sacred dogma to many in the GOP — provoked contempt and condemnation from Rep. Paul RyanRush Limbaugh and Fox News.

Critics are already howling over a papal encyclical on the environment expected this summer. Stephen Moore, a Catholic who is the chief economist at the Heritage Foundationblasted the pope as “a complete disaster” on public policy who “has allied himself with the far left and has embraced an ideology that would make people poorer and less free.”

Why such hyperventilating?

Pope Benedict XVI, not exactly a card-carrying liberal, also highlighted what he called “the scandal of glaring inequalities,” urging action on climate change and being dubbed the “Green Pope” for his steps to make the Vatican more eco-friendly.

The right is rattled because a popular pope is shifting the power dynamics in the church and emphasizing priorities that could lead to a different kind of values debate in American politics. In recent decades, the shotgun marriage between the Republican Party, conservative Catholics, and evangelicals paved a path to the presidency for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

A distorted view of “values voters” narrowly defined abortion and later gay marriage as the primary moral issues in politics. Traditional Catholic teaching on workers’ rights, migrants, the environment, and economic justice took a back seat as religious culture warriors who were also free-market cheerleaders redefined the public voice of Christianity.

A generation of Americans, particularly Millenials, walked away from the religion of the finger-wagging scolders who fought civil marriage for gays even as they rallied behind unfettered capitalism that increasingly felt like a system rigged for the rich. The radical Christianity of Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., and Dorothy Day rarely made an appearance in presidential debates or on cable news.

“I’m for income inequality . . . I have no problem with income inequality,” Rick Santorum, the Catholic former Pennsylvania senator said while stumping in Iowa during the 2012 presidential race. In the age of Francis, this kind of chest beating for the plutocracy sounds not only politically tone deaf, but morally bankrupt.

Taking back the Church from reckless culture warriors

The politics of the U.S. Catholic Church are changing. Last week, the pope appointed Bishop Robert McElroy to lead the diocese of San Diego. The pope’s emphasis on poverty and inequality, the Harvard-educated bishop has written, “demand a transformation of the existing Catholic political conversation in our nation.” Catholic pols that slash government funding for the poor, he insists, “clearly reject core Catholic teachings on poverty and economic justice.”

Archbishop Blase Cupich, the pope’s pick to lead the high-profile Archdiocese of Chicago, has called income inequality a “powder keg that is as dangerous as the environmental crisis the world is facing today.” These “Francis bishops” are taking back the keys from reckless culture warriors who have steered the church in the wrong direction.

To be clear, a pope who says he has never been “a right-winger” isn’t a raging lefty in robes. Pope Francis strongly opposes gay marriage and considers abortion to be part of a “throw-away culture.” Liberals, as much as conservatives, should be careful not to use the pope as a mere prop for their own pet cause.

Above all, Pope Francis is a radical. He sounds a lot like an itinerant preacher from two millennia ago who unsettled the religious and political elite of his day.

Not a bad starting point for waking up a dysfunctional and divided Washington.

The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.
Image courtesy of giulio napolitano /

John Gehring
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  • Stephen McCluskey

    You speak of “the shotgun marriage between the Republican Party, conservative Catholics, and evangelicals”. Two questions:

    Why would you call it a shotgun marriage? Who was under pressure?

    More significantly, whose agenda drove the marriage; conservative Catholics or Republican partisans?

    • thomachuck

      That’s the scary part: when you can’t tell the difference

  • Patricia Merrell

    Here’s the actual text of Mr. Santorum’s “income inequality” comment – just to be clear:

    “They talk about income inequality. I’m for income inequality. I think some people should make more than other people, because some people work harder and have better ideas and take more risk, and they should be rewarded for it. I have no problem with income inequality.
    “President Obama is for income equality. That’s socialism. It’s worse yet, it’s Marxism,” Santorum said. “I’m not for income equality. I’m
    not for equality of result — I’m for equality of opportunity.”
    Helping our fellow man is for the individual person – not the government – to do.