Why Does the Pope Need to be Liberal?

Outrage is a peculiar thing. Often when struck with outrage at anything from a political to a personal issue, one can easily find oneself consumed with a desire for retribution, sometimes even to the exclusion of their better judgment. However, like anything else in this world, outrage has a shelf-life and when it leaves you, you find yourself questioning why you got so worked up to begin with. My most recent encounter with this phenomenon was only a few days ago, when I found myself reading an article in this publication on the Pope’s liberalism and how his lack thereof indicated that he deserved to be scorned for not going further than he has already gone. While I may not be a particularly dutiful Catholic, any article as scathing as this one was inevitably going to raise my blood pressure a few points. That said, if that personal bias was the extent of my feelings on the matter, I would not be writing this article. The reason I am is because in my opinion, the piece in question was rooted in a deep-seated misconception of what it is to be a Pope and of what we can and cannot expect when dealing with what is (or at least should be) a fundamentally spiritual rather than political leader.

Image courtesy of the Catholic Church (England), © 2013, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of the Catholic Church (England), © 2013, some rights reserved.

The use of the word liberal is perhaps the most obviously troubling aspect of this piece and its prolific use throughout the article speaks volumes about this perception of the Pope as a political leader. Liberal is a political term, couched in very specific political meanings. In this article’s case, liberalism is synonymous with progress and righteousness and opposed by the stolid forces of tradition and repression as exemplified by conservatism. If this dichotomy sounds familiar, it’s because it is the same dichotomy that has played itself out in pretty much every election cycle in the West. However it is not a discourse that suits itself to the Catholic Church.

When you use that narrative, you’re essentially trying to superimpose a liberal-conservative dichotomy onto an organisation that has never had one and it works about as well as it would if you tried to do that with the Roman Empire. This is the Catholic Church, by definition, everyone in the clergy is a conservative and when everyone is a conservative, no one is. This in turn glosses over the very real and very divisive discourse within the Church itself, instead painting the entire institution as a monolithic bastion of conservatism. As a result, these terms infuse the actions of the Pope and the clergy with meaning that simply is not there.

It goes further than just confusions in terminology however. For years, the discourse about faith and belief has been a part of a continuing “culture war” that has infected much of the West. Here, we are told, the values of conservative and liberal are in fundamental conflict and we must choose sides. Here, political issues are infused with moral rhetoric, and all too often, religious leaders have made the mistake of picking sides and becoming culture warriors themselves. On its face, these choices seem to make sense; after all, religions have often seemed to prefer the conservative viewpoint while liberalism seems to have generally found more favour with the secular crowd.

What both don’t realise, however, is that they are essentially propagating the same message: you are either with us or against us. When you insist that the Pope must become more liberal, all you’re doing is trying to force the Pope into your camp by implying he is already your enemy. After all, he hasn’t clarified his position on women’s rights, hasn’t reversed many of the church’s previous stances on issues like abortion, nor has he made any doctrinal changes in his oh… eight or so months as Pope; he must be against us! Activists on both sides want to turn the Pope into another culture warrior, another box to be checked that can confirm their beliefs in the righteousness of their cause. I can understand the arguments and the passion that goes into these beliefs, but while these moves may please the activist crowd, they do not help the faith.

Catholics have paid dearly for the detritus of this generation’s culture wars. The Catholic Church’s modern obsession with controlling sex; be it in abortion or homosexuality, have alienated many people that it could have otherwise helped. The Catholic faith is now the butt of numerous jokes, be it in its doctrinal difficulties or in the terrible scandals that have afflicted it as of late. Remember, Pope Francis did not become Pope in a time of prosperity; he became Pope after the embattled Benedict the XVI became the first to resign since Celestine V in the year 1294. We do not need to embark on another culture war against a different enemy on the right; we need step back from that and put our own house in order before casting judgment on anyone else.

And that is precisely what Pope Francis represents to the Catholic Church right now. He has already stated numerous times that the Church’s past obsession with these hot-button political issues have compromised its ability to fulfil its other missions: most notably helping those in need either through charitable or spiritual help. Francis has made it clear through his actions and words that he wishes to step back from the politics and more firmly into the role of a spiritual leader. Whether or not he can succeed in that task remains unknown, but I do believe that he will try and that is magnitudes better than the leadership that we have seen in the past.

In the end, despite these differences, I cannot bring myself to fully disagree with Mr Cassella. I do appreciate the essence of what he means when he says he wants a more liberal Pope and I do think he is right to believe that the Catholic Church will have to come to terms with the changed role of women in our present age. However, I firmly take exception to the idea that, given the immense and complex problems faced by Catholics today, the solution should be to just become more “liberal.”