Cary McMullen: Pope Francis doesn’t belong to the left or the right


You may remember the novelty song from the 70s, “The Cover of the Rolling Stone,” in which the band complains that although they’ve hit it big, they still haven’t gotten their picture on the cover of the rock music and culture magazine.

So guess who graces the cover of the Feb. 15 issue of the hippest, coolest magazine there is? None other than His Holiness, Pope Francis.

Titled “Pope Francis: The Times They are A-Changin’,” Mark Binelli’s lengthy profile presents a view of Francis that can safely be said to represent the hopes of the left. That would be the Francis who will perform gay weddings in St. Peter’s, ordain women as priests and personally drive all the retrograde old bishops and cardinals out of the Vatican the way Jesus drove the money changers out of the Temple.

Just kidding. As I say, the hopeful view.

Even for a pope as refreshingly humble and open-minded as Francis, it’s too much to expect that he will remake the worldwide Catholic Church into one big hippie commune. Binelli himself admits at one point that conservative Catholics are professing not to be alarmed by Francis’ rather lenient approach to doctrinal issues. (About gays, he told the press in an impromptu news conference not long after his election, “Who am I to judge?”)

But Binelli’s profile does yield some interesting insights about how Francis’ style and convictions differ from his immediate predecessors. For example, John Paul II and to a greater degree Benedict XVI were sympathetic to the old Latin mass, something that was banished under the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Francis has let it be known that he’s not interested in making peace with the archconservatives who want to bring it back.

Perhaps the most significant difference is Francis’ emphasis on the plight of the poor. This is what has raised the hopes of the left and caused unease, if not indignation, on the right, because Francis is talking about the fundamental question of the distribution of wealth.

Another article, by Damon Linker on, quotes an analysis by Patrick Deneen of the University of Notre Dame on how there are two groups of conservative Catholics who have very different reactions to Francis. The first group, termed “Catholic neocons,” are intellectuals and prelates, including Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, who “tend to emphasize continuity between the Catholic Church and both American democracy and the Republican Party,” Linker writes.

This group is likely to be unhappy with Francis’ papacy. After his first public document was published in November, there was a lot of huffing and puffing from the political right in this country — Rush Limbaugh griped that it was “Marxist” — because Francis criticized the way the “tyranny” of capitalism so often keeps the poor in a state of permanent poverty.

The second group, Linker writes (again citing Deneen), is in a way more radical but not in a political sense. They’re mostly theologians who see a disconnect between America as a political and economic system and the moral principles of the Church.

The radicals see America as “a commercial republic devoted to protecting the freedom of the acquisitive individual to pursue happiness without regard for religious, moral, or communal restraints. American history, in this light, is a story of the individual’s ever-increasing liberation from any and all limits — be they economic, social, or sexual. And that flies in the face of what the Catholic Church teaches about how to live.”

This group is more likely to be happy with Francis’ call to the simplicity — and the discipline — of the way of Jesus, which is not interested in any political party. And I would add that in this respect, those on the political left may eventually be just as disappointed in him as those on the political right. A man who refuses to let his moral principles be co-opted is eventually ignored by those who are only interested in power.

You get the feeling that Rolling Stone’s infatuation with Francis may be fleeting, like the fame of the celebrities that regularly show up on the cover.

Cary McMullen is writer and editor who lives in Lakeland, Fla.

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