His Holiness Pope Francis, formerly Cardinal Jorge Bergolio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, was elected to the papacy just over two months ago. The secular media, as they had before the election of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, spent much of the interregnum clamoring for a hard-left, liberal ‘reformer’ who would rewrite the basic tenets of our faith so that it might fit in better with the ‘modern’ world. Meanwhile, some particularly conservative forces within the Church clamored for somebody off to the right of Benedict XVI, somebody who might restrict the Mass in the vernacular and restore the pre-Vatican II ‘Tridentine’ liturgy (the ‘extraordinary form’) as the normative Roman Catholic Mass. Neither side got their way. As I told one left-wing friend of mine just after Bergolio became Francis, ‘Breaking news: Catholic cardinals choose a faithful Catholic to lead the Catholic Church.’
The Church is not liberal, but the Church isn’t conservative either. She is neither. She is both. She is Catholic.
The Catholic Church is an institution that is concerned with discerning and communicating the truth. Some of this truth has been communicated to us through Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition. Some comes to us through natural law and reason. Some, well, we just haven’t gotten around to discerning it yet. But if you study our Catholic dogmas and doctrines with an honest and open mind, they are consistent, clearly defined, and logical . . . at least if you accept our predicate assumptions, not least of which being the assumption that we live in a created universe. When the men who lead our Church craft religious declarations—through councils, papal encyclicals, and so-on—they are generally unconcerned with whether they are perceived to be right- or left-wingers. They are concerned with speaking the truth. Sometimes the truth seems to be ‘conservative,’ and sometimes it seems to be ‘liberal.’
Consider, for example, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. If we listen to the secular media—always a poor source for accurate information about the Catholic Church—we might think that Benedict XVI’s pontificate was a hard-right traditionalist orgy. He was retrograde and backwards, say the critics. He spent his time kowtowing to the lunatic fringe of old-fashioned Catholics who still write their Facebook posts longhand . . . in Latin . . . with chisels. How dare he claim, in this modern, enlightened world, that marriage, sex, and babies are—and ought to be—intrinsically linked with one another? How dare he say that all human beings with human DNA have some basic human rights from the moment they come into existence? What a loon!
But during his eight-year papacy, Benedict XVI wrote only three encyclicals—the key, theological documents addressing major issues of the day. The first, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), reflects on love as the driving force of the Christian faith. The second, Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope), is focused on hope, redemption, and forgiveness. The third, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), condemns the excesses of globalism and the free market, and calls for economic systems that value charity at least as much as profit. Of course you can point to Benedict XVI’s upholding of Catholic teaching on marriage and the sanctity of life as ‘conservative,’ at least by our modern definition of the word . . . but he chose to write three encyclicals that were more ‘liberal’ than ‘conservative’ if you judged them by modern American political terms.
Benedict XVI isn’t a conservative or a liberal, nor is Francis. They are both Catholics; full stop. They uphold, in their own unique ways, the broad, universal teachings of the Church. If you could get either of them talking about American politics, you would find them condemning the Republicans’ opposition to universal health care and the Democrats’ opposition to recognizing the human rights of the unborn. You would find them applauding the Republicans’ [relative] adherence to natural law and reason on marriage, and the Democrats’ desire to ensure that everybody in America has enough to eat.
Now it must be said that good, faithful Catholics can disagree about the best ways to actually accomplish objective moral goods. For example, I believe that state welfare programs tend to prolong poverty more than they alleviate it, and thus I oppose many of those programs. Many other Catholics strongly support them. But all faithful Catholics must agree that it is objectively good to alleviate and ultimately eliminate poverty, even when our prudential judgement leads us to disagreements about the best way to actually make it happen. Likewise, all Catholics must recognize abortions as intrinsically violent, immoral, criminal acts of murder. But we can disagree, at least to a point, on what the best public policy mechanisms are to limit and eventually eliminate abortions in America.
In these cases, and countless others, the fundamental truth is immutable and non-negotiable for anybody with a well-formed Catholic conscience, even if there is a fair amount of room for debate about policy details. Truth isn’t some malleable thing that changes with the times. It is truth. There is an objective reality, and an objective morality, that can be discerned with faith and reason. As the old saying goes, “If you call a horse’s tail a leg, how many legs does a horse have? The answer is four, because calling a horse’s tail a leg doesn’t make it one.” We can try to move the goal-posts and change the definitions of words and obscure reality in short-sighted (though sometimes well-intentioned) efforts to get around it, but it is still reality. It isn’t going to change no matter how much we might sometimes wish it would.
Is Pope Francis going to lead a radical reform of the Catholic teachings on sexuality, marriage, and the sanctity of life? No. Is he going to throw out the Catholic teaching on the just role of government and the orientation of economic activity toward the common good? No. Objective reality is objective reality, and the Catholic Church remains its loudest and most powerful proclaimer, no matter whether the right- or left-wing politicos happen to like it at any given moment. The Church, despite her flaws, will proclaim the truth as revealed to her by God through scripture, tradition, and reason. This truth is immutable, timeless, and constant . . . and if the world is out-of-step with it, then it is the world that is wrong, not the Church.