Five years ago this week the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church selected the first Latin American pope—and the first from a Jesuit religious order known for its fierce commitment to social justice. Pope Francis immediately began changing the public face of Catholicism. He warned that the church can’t only be “obsessed” with opposing abortion, struck a more welcoming tone toward LGBT people, and chose to live in a Vatican guesthouse instead of the more regal Apostolic Palace.
Along with disrupting business as usual in Rome, the pope has empowered a new generation of “Francis bishops” in the United States to speak out with renewed vigor on issues beyond abortion and birth control, insisting that being prolife also means addressing income inequality, climate change, and treatment of immigrants. One of the most visible of them, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, has argued that the pope’s emphasis on economic justice and poverty demand a “transformation of the existing Catholic political conversation.” Another, Newark’s Joe Tobin, appointed a cardinal by Francis in 2016, took to Twitter a few days after President Trump touted a nativist, “America First” ideology at his inauguration with a warning that only “a fearful nation talks about building walls and is vulnerable to con men.” While a majority of white Catholics voted for Trump, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has consistently denounced his administration’s efforts to limit refugees from entering the country and blasted the president’s decision to rescind protections for young undocumented immigrants—a move the bishops called “reprehensible.”
The Catholic hierarchy has challenged Republican presidents before, especially during the Reagan era, but the shift that Pope Francis is provoking reflects a subtle but increasingly substantial realignment that goes beyond challenging any single political leader. During Pope Benedict XVI’s eight-year papacy, bishops put most of their institutional weight behind lobbying against abortion and denouncing the contraception-coverage requirements in the Affordable Care Act in the name of religious liberty. Traditional Catholic social teachings on economic justice, workers’ rights, and health care were often downplayed, if not entirely ignored. When more than eighty bishops publicly rebuked the University of Notre Dame for inviting President Obama to give the commencement address on campus, the late San Francisco Archbishop John Quinn worried in an influential Jesuit magazine that the bishops were being perceived as the Republican party at prayer. It was a legitimate concern.
Pope Francis has provided bishops a way out of the corner they boxed themselves into over the last decade.
He is the first pope to issue an encyclical on environmental issues and ecology, elevating climate change as a top-tier issue for a church that has a global footprint. A pope who saw firsthand the failure of globalization to address inequality in Argentina has unique credibility when he denounces what he calls an “economy of exclusion” that “kills.” When he visited the United States in 2015, he was the first pontiff to address Congress, using his speech to lament the “shameful and culpable silence” in confronting the epidemic of deaths from guns. Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, one of the most influential U.S. advisors to the pope, now describes gun violence as a “prolife issue.” He joined a chorus of other bishops urging Congress to take action on sensible gun reform after seventeen people were killed during a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida last month. And at a time when the labor movement is struggling for survival and under constant attack from the right, Pope Francis praises unions as “prophetic institutions” that “unmask the powerful.” While the Catholic Church has affirmed a living wage for workers and the right to organize for more than a century, AFL-CIO officials have welcomed a pope who has helped inspire a rapprochement between labor and the U.S. Catholic hierarchy after years of tepid relations. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops weighed in with an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in a high-profile case (Janus v. AFSME) that will have profound implications for the future of organized labor. The bishops argued that so-called “right-to-work” laws undermine workers’ rights and that the dues employees pay to the union are essential to collective bargaining. The brief put the bishops on the opposing side of their usual conservative allies, including the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
Even with signs of a shifting Catholic narrative, a small but vocal anti-Francis movement is hunkering down.
Self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy, often fringe groups that still command outsized influence, are determined to squash anything that signals a resurgence of progressive Catholicism. The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and prominent author who wrote a book that urges the church to build bridges with LGBT people, had several of his talks canceled, including at Catholic University’s seminary in Washington, D.C. after nasty campaigns from far-right Catholic groups. They did this despite the fact that Martin’s book has been endorsed by several cardinals, and the author never argues for changes to church teaching. Wealthy conservative Catholics have also tried to co-opt the pope’s teachings on economic justice that challenge free-market fundamentalism. For example, in a 2014 Washington Post op-ed, John and Carol Saeman, Catholic philanthropists and financial contributors to the Koch-backed Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, wrote: “For us promoting limited government alongside the Kochs is an important part of heeding Pope Francis's call to love and serve the poor.” The column goes on to lament “insatiable growth” of government and touts charitable efforts from rich people like themselves as the solution to fighting poverty. The pope's challenge to what he calls “the absolute autonomy of markets” and his affirmation that government has a vital role in serving the common good doesn't sound anything like this. And while charity is important, Francis wants to attack structures that perpetuate inequality. As St. Augustine put it, charity is no substitute for justice withheld.
The top donor to Catholic University, Tim Busch, who runs a Napa-based winery and luxury hotels, also departs from traditional Catholic teaching and calls the minimum wage an “anti-market regulation.” He credits the billionaire Koch brothers with helping to shape his business approach. The university’s business school, named after Busch, has received tens of millions of dollars from the Charles Koch Foundation in recent years. Last year, he hosted a $1,250 a person meeting at the Trump International Hotel in Washington that brought together a network of conservative Catholics who touted President Trump’s “pro-life” administration. The cigar-bar receptions at the meeting didn’t exactly have the “smell of the sheep” Pope Francis says he wants from church leaders who are close to the people, especially the poor.
While more than 80 percent of American Catholics hold favorable views of Francis, the share of Catholic Republicans who say Francis represents a “major, positive change” for the church declined from 60 percent to 37 percent since 2014, according to a new Pew Research Center study. Their growing disapproval doesn’t make the pope a Democrat or cheerleader for liberal causes. He staunchly opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. But it does reflect the way Francis has challenged members of his flock (and some church leaders) who have defined Catholic engagement in the public square in ways that narrowly align with conservative political goals. In the Francis era, the plight of migrants, climate change, and income inequality can no longer be regarded as peripheral, but as central to church teachings and Catholic identity.
But for all that Pope Francis has accomplished in chipping away at culture-war Catholicism and prioritizing social justice, his woefully insufficient response to clergy abuse is conspicuous.
When the pope visited Chile in January, he lashed out at victims of sexual abuse, and accused them of “calumny” against a Chilean bishop suspected of covering up sexual abuse by a priest. Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, a close advisor to the pope, made a rare public critique of Francis, acknowledging the remarks caused “great pain.” A Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors created by the pope in 2014, led by Cardinal O’Malley, has floundered. The two survivors of clerical abuse on the commission resigned in frustration. A proposal from the commission to create a separate department to handle cases of bishops who failed to protect children from predatory priests and hold them accountable has so far gone nowhere.
Until Pope Francis can prove that he is up to the task of ensuring a zero-tolerance policy toward abusive priests—and creating real accountability for bishops—the promise of his remarkable papacy will be lost.