Pope Francis has made powerful statements about climate change and poverty. He has discussed the coexistence of evolution and creationism. He also pushed the Vatican toward a softer stance on homosexuality and abortion. But these beliefs do not make the Pope a "liberal," and they certainly don't make him a member of the American left. Francis is not a politician, and attempting to put him in neat American political categories ignores his personal and global context. That does not mean he is not an important political or economic thinker, but in his current visit to the United States, his beliefs transcend bipartisanship.
I know that it's tempting to place international figures on spectra with which we are familiar, but it is not always useful or accurate to do so. The narrative of a liberal pope does not capture the fact that Francis is, first and foremost, a religious figure — and even then, many of the positions he has taken that have resulted in the notion that he is a "liberal" are not exclusively political or religious, but simply attempts to extend compassion.
As Chris Ip wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review last year, the Pope has indeed done noteworthy things that are worth discussing, from instituting a commission on sex abuse in the church to reforming the Vatican bank, but we should be cognizant of the language we are using to discuss these actions.
The pope is genuinely progressive — but in attitude, not in fundamental Catholic teachings. Washing and kissing the feet of a dozen inmates — two of them Muslim — and eschewing the Apostolic Palace for a two-room apartment are departures from his predecessor that emphasize the idea that the church’s role is to come to the people, not uphold the moral fortress of the church and wait for people to come to it.
Just before arriving in the United States, Francis said himself that he is not a liberal. “Some people might say some things sounded slightly more left-ish, but that would be a mistake of interpretation ... If you want me to pray the creed, I’m willing to do it," he said. "It is I who follows the church."
Tony Annett, an adviser at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, told The Atlantic that it would be useful to think of the Pope's U.S. visit as a pastoral one.
[Francis is] not going to show up as a Jeremiah, but he’s also not going to show up as a cheerleader. He’s going to come, and he’s going to preach the gospel to American Catholics.
This, it seems, is precisely what Francis aims to do. During this visit, as well as his visits to other countries, he has been vocal in his criticism of capitalism and how those in poverty are treated by global political and economic systems. It is easy to look at Francis and make the case that he is much more progressive than those who preceded him. But in reality, John Paul II was also a critic of capitalism, and Benedict XVI also advocated for the poor. As for evolution and creationism, it has been the church's official stance since the '50s that these two beliefs could coexist. The Pope is not breaking from his predecessors or completely revolutionizing Catholicism; he is simply living out his faith in his own personal context. His actions might differ from those of his predecessors, but so too have the actions of those predecessors from one another.
When Pope Francis talks about the impact of climate change on the global south, he is speaking from the perspective of someone who has lived that. He is the first Pope to come from the Southern Hemisphere, and was heavily shaped by the back-and-forth between the Church and communism in his native Argentina. Though he did not dive right into liberation theology, many of his beliefs are rooted in the understanding that the global south is frequently exploited for its resources while its people are not accorded as much importance. We see this belief reflected now in his discussions of poverty.
It is ludicrous for Democrats to treat Pope Francis as their policy champion; it also does not make sense for us to perceive Francis as some sort of liberal exception in the case of Catholicism. He has tried to make it clear on multiple occasions that his work is an extension of his predecessors', not an entirely separate entity. And while Francis has been significantly involved in international politics and provided us with important commentary on numerous political subjects, Emma Green for The Atlantic said it well: "To understand him and his agenda, it’s more helpful to look at America through his eyes than to look at him through an American’s eyes, for even the most familiar U.S. issue may seem very different to this Argentinian Jesuit."