Liberals are delighted to think they’ve found grounds for convincing themselves and others that Pope Francis is one of them. Witness their reaction to his recently published interview in the Jesuit magazine America. In that interview, the pope went out of his way to do one thing that seems to give liberals hope — and another thing that ought to give them pause.
Both of these things involve a very illiberal topic — sin.
Consider the grounds for pause first. The interview began with the pope’s response to the first question he faced: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?”
His answer? “I am a sinner.”
With that little matter of self-definition, the pope might have put himself in a perfect position to label all sorts of others as fellow sinners. He did no such thing. In fact, having gone out of his way to place himself firmly in the sinners’ camp, he proceeded to go out of his way to avoid enlisting others in its ranks. Specific sins? Yes. Specific sinners — or even categories of sinners? No.
Much later in the interview, the pope was asked to list his favorite authors. He alluded to loving a “diverse array,” but mentioned only a few. The first among the few was Fyodor Dostoevski. Not exactly a liberal icon.
It’s been mentioned that among the pope’s “diverse array” is English essayist and Catholic convert G.K. Chesterton. Among Chesterton’s many books is a collection of essays titled “What’s Wrong with the World.” Whenever that title was posed to him as a question — “What’s wrong with the world?” — Chesterton’s immediate answer was, “I am.”
The pope couldn’t have said it any better.
Neither a liberal nor a conservative, neither a socialist nor a capitalist, Chesterton called himself a “distributist.” As he liked to put it, “property is like muck; it’s only good if it is spread around.” A believer in the notion that “small is beautiful” before the catchphrase was coined, Chesterton was very much a believer in and defender of the common man. He was a populist, of sorts. So is Pope Francis.
Labels, of course, can be tricky. But this one works.
A true populist is not a modern liberal, nor an economic conservative. A thoroughgoing populist no doubt believes in justice, perhaps even in what’s called social justice, but he would not presume that a powerful central government should be the main mechanism for achieving it. Interestingly enough, nowhere in his interview does the pope employ the term “social justice” or endorse government-driven economic redistribution.
No matter. What does matter to liberals is the pope’s mention of the hot-button issues of abortion, same-sex marriage and contraception, especially his cautionary note that it is “not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” He seems to give liberals hope by stating that the “Church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.” After all, he adds, the “dogmatic and moral teachings of the Church are not all equivalent.”
Is the pope sending a signal with those carefully chosen words? Of course he is. Is that signal a hint that the church is about to change its positions on these issues? Hardly.
The context for his thoughts on these highly divisive matters is the pope’s reflections on the call of Jesuit founder St. Ignatius Loyola for the faithful to “think with the Church.” With the genuine humility of a populist, the pope added that such thinking does not mean “only thinking with the hierarchy of the Church.”
Chesterton can be helpful in explaining what that phrase “think with the Church” means. He often declared that pride was the “poison in every other vice.”
By his own testimony, Chesterton became a Catholic because it was the only religion that offered to help rid him of his sins. But even before his conversion, he could write of the “romance of orthodoxy.” To him, orthodoxy was sanity, albeit sanity of a “perilous” sort. The church, he said, was akin to a war horse that had to swerve — this way, then that way — to avoid the fads and fashions that have always been “strewn along the historic path of Christendom.”
During Chesterton’s lifetime (he died in 1936), the sexual revolution was still in its infancy, but he was aware of its potency. After his conversion in 1922, Chesterton became increasingly aware of the pressure that was building on the church to move with the world, especially in matters sexual. He let it be known that he preferred a church that “moved the world” instead and thereby saved him from the “degrading slavery of being a child of my age.”
In reminding us to “think with the Church,” Pope Francis is certainly not asking the church to march in step with the modern age. Yes, he is calling for a “new balance” as the church presents itself to the larger world. This call is not unlike Chesterton’s emphasis on “equilibrium” as the church pursued the “great adventure” that was orthodoxy. That adventure ensured that the church would never take the “tame course” or accept the “routine conventions.” For that matter, it guaranteed that the church would seldom be perceived as “respectable.”
One gets the feeling that the last thing on this populist pope’s mind is respectability, whether his own or that of his church.
Chuck Chalberg teaches American history and performs as G.K. Chesterton.