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December 31, 2013 11:58 AM Pope Francis in Context

By Ed Kilgore

Since he’s TIME’s 2013 “Person of the Year” and all, Pope Francis is a worthy topic for year-end ruminations, and I’ve long figured it was a matter of time before someone penned the kind of backlash piece written by James Bloodworth for the New Statesman (and reprinted by TNR) this week.

Bloodworth goes further than simply noting the areas (mostly having to do with sexual and gender issues) where Francis has reinforced reactionary precedents in Church teachings: he suggests those “fawning” over the Pope’s recalibration of Vatican rhetoric on economic issues are implicitly sharing traditional Catholic contempt for LGBT folk and women:

We should…reject the notion that someone who can rescind the Church’s stance on gay sex, and chooses not to do so, is a figure worthy of admiration. Nor, if he won’t countenance women priests, is there a reason to suppose the Pope has anything of note to say about poverty. Why waste precious time worrying about anything such a person thinks?

Um, perhaps because what “such a person” thinks influences to a greater or lesser extent what more than a billion people think? Would that maybe be a reason for worrying about them?

I understand Bloodworth’s underlying concern that some secular observers who don’t know Aquinas from Aqualung have uncritically embraced Francis as a historic reformer, implicitly embracing his unreformed views on sex and gender. And there’s not much doubt liberal Catholics have exaggerated the change represented by Francis, for the obvious and understandable reason that they’ve felt isolated for so long and have the largest stake in the future direction of Catholic teaching.

But still: Francis’s new approach matters, potentially a great deal, if only because he is interfering with what was becoming a comprehensive alliance between the Catholic hierarchy and conservative political forces, certainly in this country. Vatican anti-capitalist rhetoric may have been dusted off from the days of Leo XIII and may obscure a deeper commitment to cultural reaction (indeed, some “progressive” Catholic teachings on economics are more rightly understood as pre-capitalist or feudal). But it’s got to sound like nails on a chalkboard to U.S. Republicans and their counterparts elsewhere. And it will almost certainly have a restraining effect on lower elements in the hierarchy—e.g., the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops—who seemed to be entering into a reflexive partnership with conservative evangelical Protestants and secular right-wing pols under the rubric of “religious liberty.”

So while it’s important that progressives writing and talking about Francis keep the change he represents in the proper context, that context also means welcoming this change without being accused of devaluing the interests of LGBT folk or women, who have the most to gain from any dimunition of the power of the consolidated and comprehensive Right.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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