The Pope’s New Posture: At Odds With American Conservatives

His approach to social issues (“Who am I to judge?”) could rend the alliance between conservative Catholics and evangelicals.

ASSISI, ITALY - OCTOBER 04: Pope Francis leaves the meeting with the youth at Santa Maria Degli Angeli Basilica during his visit to Assisi on October 4, 2013 in Assisi, Italy. During the Mass Pope Francis called for an end to armed conflict and clarified the notion of Franciscan peace during the Mass he presided for the feast of St. Francis on Friday in Assisi. 
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Matthew Cooper
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Matthew Cooper
Oct. 10, 2013, 5 p.m.

If Wal­lace Stevens, the famed poet, were de­scrib­ing the re­cent buzz about the Ro­man Cath­ol­ic Church, he might call it “Thir­teen Ways of Look­ing at a Pope.” Ever since Car­din­al Jorge Mario Ber­goglio be­came Pope Fran­cis in March, his every ut­ter­ance and ges­ture has been scru­tin­ized for clues about where he wants to lead the church and its more than 1 bil­lion fol­low­ers. Amer­ic­an con­ser­vat­ives have watched him with par­tic­u­lar in­terest — and, at times, pro­found con­cern. This sum­mer, when dis­cuss­ing ho­mo­sexu­al­ity in the church, the pontiff fam­ously said, “Who am I to judge?” And he has also chided the church’s “ob­ses­sion” with so­cial is­sues such as con­tra­cep­tion and abor­tion.

No one knows pre­cisely what’s on Fran­cis’s mind. But even if he does not try to change church doc­trine on is­sues such as the cel­ib­acy of priests or birth con­trol, his new tone has caused un­ease among some con­ser­vat­ives, while oth­ers have ad­op­ted a noth­ing-to-see-here-folks-now-move-along stance. The im­plic­a­tion for Amer­ic­an polit­ics is also pro­found. The sig­nal 1980 elec­tion, with its con­flu­ence of Cath­ol­ic Demo­crats and Prot­est­ant evan­gel­ic­als sup­port­ing Ron­ald Re­agan and Re­pub­lic­an con­gres­sion­al can­did­ates, demon­strated the two groups’ shared polit­ic­al in­terests. In re­cent years, evan­gel­ic­al Prot­est­ant and Cath­ol­ic lead­ers forged an al­li­ance that over­came old en­mit­ies and doc­trin­al dif­fer­ences. Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005, and Pope Be­ne­dict XVI, who re­tired earli­er this year, en­cour­aged the grow­ing bond. This is a tableau that has fueled con­ser­vat­ive polit­ic­al vic­tor­ies in the U.S.

For the most part, con­ser­vat­ives have in­sisted they’re un­flustered by Fran­cis. Rick San­tor­um, a tra­di­tion­al Cath­ol­ic, said the pope’s com­ments don’t worry him. In Time magazine, Mary Eber­stadt de­clared that Fran­cis is no rad­ic­al and is not throw­ing “Cath­ol­ic tra­di­tion­al­ists un­der the Pope­mo­bile.” George Wei­gel, her col­league at the con­ser­vat­ive Eth­ics and Pub­lic Policy Cen­ter, has echoed the sen­ti­ment. Their ar­gu­ment is that the pontiff has made no doc­trin­al shifts; he has just re­newed pros­elyt­iz­ing: “The 21st cen­tury will be more likely to pay at­ten­tion to evan­gel­ists than to scolds,” Wei­gel writes. Da­mon Linker, au­thor of The Theo­cons: Sec­u­lar Amer­ica Un­der Siege, doesn’t be­lieve church doc­trine “will change sub­stant­ively.”

But for oth­er con­ser­vat­ives, Fran­cis’s com­ments are alarm­ing. Steve Sko­jec, a Cath­ol­ic writer, was blis­ter­ing about abor­tion-rights groups prais­ing him and scath­ingly crit­ic­al to­ward the pontiff: “He’s the one who said we talk too much about abor­tion.” Mark Movsesian, dir­ect­or of the Cen­ter for Law and Re­li­gion at St. John’s Uni­versity, is un­settled by Fran­cis’s com­ment that “every­one has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to fol­low the good and fight evil as he con­ceives them.” Movsesian wrote acidly in the con­ser­vat­ive re­li­gious journ­al First Things: “With re­spect, ‘Do what you think is right’ is not the Chris­ti­an view of con­science. That sounds more like An­thony Kennedy than St. Paul.”

Arch­bish­op Thomas To­bin of Provid­ence, R.I., has said, “I’m a little bit dis­ap­poin­ted in Pope Fran­cis that he hasn’t, at least that I’m aware of, said much about un­born chil­dren, about abor­tion.” Rod Dre­her, a prom­in­ent con­ser­vat­ive Amer­ic­an journ­al­ist, la­ments a “Hall­mark card piety” that en­cour­ages self-es­teem even dur­ing the self-deni­al sea­son of Lent that helped con­trib­ute to his leav­ing the church. He fears a fur­ther wa­ter­ing down of doc­trine. “You can change doc­trine by chan­ging the way you preach,” Dre­her says.

The pope’s at­ten­tion-grabbing words have im­plic­a­tions for evan­gel­ic­als, too. Back in 1994, a lengthy state­ment, “Cath­ol­ics and Evan­gel­ic­als To­geth­er,” helped ce­ment the bonds between the two groups. Writ­ten by schol­ars in both camps, it dealt with any num­ber of bib­lic­al is­sues and church prac­tices but also pro­fessed a shared com­mit­ment to fight “the abor­tion in­dustry and to en­act the most pro­tect­ive laws and pub­lic policies that are polit­ic­ally pos­sible, and to re­duce dra­mat­ic­ally the in­cid­ence of abor­tion.”

Now some evan­gel­ic­als are nervous. Rus­sell Moore, who heads the Eth­ics and Re­li­gious Liberty Com­mis­sion in Nashville, Tenn., has writ­ten that Fran­cis’s re­marks are “a theo­lo­gic­al train wreck.” Moore asked, “If the church is right about the per­son­hood of un­born chil­dren (and I think it is), then why would we not be ‘ob­sessed’ about speak­ing for them, and for the wo­men and men whose con­sciences are tyr­an­nized by their past sins?” Any fis­sures in the al­li­ance are bound to be watched care­fully. San­tor­um, for in­stance, dom­in­ated some Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial primar­ies last year in the over­whelm­ingly Prot­est­ant Deep South, something that would have been in­con­ceiv­able in an earli­er time for a can­did­ate who so proudly wore his Cath­oli­cism on his sleeve.

The con­ser­vat­ive anxi­ety about the new pope may abate in com­ing months if Fran­cis ad­opts more mes­sage dis­cip­line. One thing that seems less likely to change is the Holy See’s re­newed em­phas­is on ser­vice to the poor. His wash­ing the feet of a Muslim wo­man at a de­ten­tion cen­ter in Rome didn’t go un­noticed by pap­al ob­serv­ers, any more than his de­cision to aban­don the or­nate vest­ments of his pre­de­cessors.

Helen Al­varé, a law pro­fess­or at George Ma­son Uni­versity, has been deeply in­volved in the church, hav­ing worked with the U.S. Con­fer­ence of Cath­ol­ic Bish­ops and the Vat­ic­an Mis­sion to the U.N. She urged earli­er popes to be “a fear­less friend of the poor” and be­lieves that Fran­cis is that pope. Driv­ing home to pack this week for a trip to Rome, where Fran­cis will hold a meet­ing with wo­men in the church, she de­clared, “I’m really psyched.” Con­ser­vat­ives may get there, but not yet.

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