Is There Such a Thing as a Progressive Pope?

Not two months into the reign of Pope Francis did the media begin its musings over the possibility that the Pontiff would revitalize a church in decline—and it’s clear now that transformation of a kind is on the agenda.

He’s been called progressive, but a step short of reformist—so far. Without budging much from Catholic doctrine, his position on abortion and LGBT rights seems to some optimistically ambiguous—enough so that speculation has prompted some observers to call him a radical. “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will,” he says, “who am I to judge?” These words—famously uttered last July in response to a question about the status of gay priests—have yet to cease reverberating.

This teensy bit of open-endedness has traditional elements within the faith slightly alarmed. Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessor John Paul II were firmly and overtly conservative, time and time again dismissing rising counter-cultural sentiment as antithetical to the Church and its teachings. Indeed Pope Benedict thought that gay persons had “a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil,” touting homosexuality as a “disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent.” It’s safe to say that progress has been made on that front, though we’re far from achieving the level of tolerance demanded by secularists, relativists and liberals.

Francis has gone as far as to euphemistically talk about the possibility of supporting civil unions or “different pacts of cohabiting…pushed by the demand to regulate economic aspects between persons, such as ensuring health care,” he said in an interview with an Italian newspaper after his one year anniversary as pope. Again, a step; and certainly an emboldening one.

But perhaps this radicalism was best on display in the 288-part apostolic exhortation called “Evangelii Gaudium” where he launched a critique of unfettered capitalism, warning that the idolatry of money, unbridled consumerism, unstable financial markets, and rising systemic inequality is helping create an “economy of exclusion.” His denunciation of so-called “trickle-down economics” and the financial apartheid it produces has provoked the usual labels—Marxist not being the least used.

Fears that the Holy See is turning liberal have consumed commentary. Many are calling attention to his roots as a Jesuit priest in Argentina in the 70s and 80s—a time when Argentina was engulfed in a bloody red scare known as the Dirty War—in which he was sympathetic towards a movement for social justice within the church known as Liberation Theology. The founder of the tradition of Liberation Theology is the famed Peruvian theologian and radical thinker Gustavo Gutierrez—whom Francis’ met with and was influenced by. Gutierrez authored a radical text that sought to interpret the Gospel through the liberatory framework of Marxism and critical theory.

The result was a principle called the “preferential option for the poor,” or how to best serve the least advantaged in society. But it held a Marxist stigma, particularly as its proponents consistently talk about class struggle being at the very foundation of understanding how we’re to help the poor. Benedict and John Paul II were virulently opposed to this strand of thought; but Francis’ sympathies are more than obvious.

Marxist or not, Pope Francis has shifted the debate. His tone serves as a constant reminder that the values and principles we hold ought to reflect a genuine and honest concern for the poor and the disenfranchised; that sometimes theory can inspire action; that material well being matters; and that life before death is just as important as life after death.

Tanner Stening hold degrees in philosophy and political science from Florida Gulf Coast University. He writes on current affairs, politics, social issues, philosophy, science, and theory. Read other articles by Tanner.