The victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Catholic Latina from the South Bronx, in the Democratic primary of New York’s fourteenth congressional district has added to the growing excitement about a possible resurgence of the “religious left.” Some hope a twenty-first-century version of the Social Gospel will save the United States from Trumpism and American Christianity from a thinly veiled theology of ethno-nationalism.
There are, to be sure, some striking similarities between the platform of Ocasio-Cortez and Pope Francis’s message (especially in Laudato si’ and in his official messages to the participants of the “World Meetings of the Popular Movements”) about the social and economic ills of our system. But “Pope Francis Catholics” who want to create a connection between the present pontificate and the “religious left” must deal with some serious obstacles—besides the obvious fact that this pontificate might not last long enough to help their political movement take off.
In recent years, neither the political situation nor the religious climate of the United States appears to have been much influenced by Pope Francis’s message. As Bishop McElroy said at a recent forum hosted by Commonweal, “the contrast between the beautiful vision of politics that Pope Francis presented while speaking to a joint session of Congress in 2015 and the political state of our nation today is heartbreaking.”
It is hard to know if the politics of American religious conservatism today is partly a reaction to the election of Pope Francis, or if it is just the next stage of a pre-existing political-theological trajectory very different from that of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s Latin American Catholicism. But there is no question that the perspective of Catholics in positions of power in the United States today differs more from the perspective of the Vatican than it has at any time since World War II.
It is tempting to contrast Francis’s difficulties with American Catholics with the warm reception Pope John Paul II received in this country. But even during the pontificates of John Paul II and his successor, there was a clear disconnect between the Vatican and Washington. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI cautioned American presidents against the illusion that they could reshape the Middle East by means of preemptive war. Still, on many other issues, John Paul II and Benedict XVI were part of a transatlantic geopolitical alliance with the United States that Trump has turned his back on.