Top Signs Pope Francis is an Honest Conservative

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The positioning of Jorge Bergoglio, Pope Francis, as a “liberal” or “progressive” in American politics is incorrect and indeed a little bizarre. The Pope is a conservative.

In fact, he has railed against “adolescent progressivism” and against secularism, which he calls “the devil.”

Pope Francis opposes contraception, including the homely condom, as well as abortion and same-sex marriage. If he has asked who he is to judge gays, he was doing so as an individual, not as a church administrator. The stance of the church he leads is that homosexuality is a sin and gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry. Bergoglio has called adoption within gay marriage wrong and criticized the leftist Kirchner governments of Argentia as “demagoguery, totalitarianism, corruption and efforts to secure unlimited power.” [- sorry, this passage was garbled by omission of some phrases in the original publication and corrected 9/25 -ed.]

He opposes ending the practice of celibacy for priests. He is committed to patriarchy and opposes progressive nuns’ demand for recognizing them as autonomous actors in the church. To get an American politician with these views you’d have to go to Rick Santorum.

Moreover, Bergoglio’s genuine concern for the poor is a form of old-fashioned philanthropy. He does not propose much in the way of specific governmental mechanisms for alleviating poverty. In the real world, charity is not actually a big enough activity to have a significant impact on the economy or on class relations. As for progressive taxation, Dwight Eisenhower believed in that. Contrast Bergoglio’s practical suggestions with those of Bernie Sanders to see what I mean.

His critique of soulless consumerism and the throw-away culture echos many conservative jeremiads. Pope Benedict used to say these things, too, and nobody thought he was a Marxist.

That some American conservatives are upset with Pope Francis suggests rather that there are extremist narcissist and fascist strains in American conservatism than that Bergoglio is a leftist. Politics is relative. A mere conservative is too far left from the point of view of someone even further right.

As for the stances that have angered American conservatives, they aren’t progressive ones per se. They have been adopted by honest conservatives.

Thus, Francis grounded his endorsement of the reality of global climate change in an image of the believer as a steward of God-given resources. Such a stewardship is a conservative notion. Environmental progressives are usually against stewardship theology, urging that human beings be seen instead as *part* of nature.

It is a measure of how delusional the American business classes have gone that simple affirmation of global warming is contested at every turn. This is not conservatism, it is just a lack of common sense. Bergoglio has some professional training as a chemist and he understands that if you put billions of tons of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere, you will make the earth hot.

Likewise, the pope’s endorsement of the Iran deal is consistent with conservative point of view. Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly approves of the deal and says it is better than war with Iran.

Pope Francis has many virtues and strength of character, but he is not a progressive on most issues, and even where he leans progressive he is only willing to consider the individual as a charitable agent, eschewing most specific government-led reform.

Some American conservatives are angry at the Pope for not being far enough right on some issues, or for simply being humane, or for not joining in their delusions. Those aren’t conservative objections to the Pope, they are fascist ones. Italy’s Benito Mussolini, for instance, put in tax and other economic policy that gouged the poor above all. The rejection of science in favor of groupthink is also a far rightwing tradition. Mussolini denounced the barrenness of mere science and reason, and fascists rejected anthropological and biological findings about human universals. Being against the science of human-caused climate change (which is now indisputable) isn’t conservatism. It is something much darker.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

The National: ” The Pope’s encyclical on climate change”

27 Responses

  1. Thanks for this.
    Point of clarification:
    Do you have a better source that Francis’ quote regarding ‘demagoguery, totalitarianism, corruption and efforts to secure unlimited power’ is about gay marriage? It is not clear from the link to the BBC that this comment is referring to gay marriage. Some of my friends on the left (who are pro gay marriage) have made similar critiques of the Kirchners as well.

  2. It seems the most basic of common sense that those who are opposed to abortion would strongly promote contraception.

  3. Given the current political circus, especially the Republican candidate contest, an “honest conservative” like Pope Francis is not welcomed by “US conservatives”. In my view if an honest conservative is one who encourages fair and adequate solutions to the problems we face, then that person is a progressive.

    The Pope cannot walk away from church dogma, but I don’t see him pointing towards dogma as a way to solve the worlds problems.

  4. To characterize Pope Francis’ concern for the poor as a form of “old-fashioned philanthropy” is to ignore the message of liberation theology that pervades Laudato Si’ and much of what the Pope has to say. Liberation theology calls for a fundamental reordering of economic priorities (the preferential option for the poor), not for rich people giving more of the money they made at the poor’s expense. Wen Stephenson’s article entitled “The Climate-Justice Pope” in the latest issue of The Nation (Sept. 28./Oct. 5) lays out this liberation theology foundation clearly and shows how it is related to Francis’ stance on climate justice. Liberation theology has been suppressed by John Paul and Benedict, but Francis takes it seriously. Both this theology and Francis himself resist being placed anywhere on the American political spectrum from conservative to liberal. He challenges us all to see the purpose and structure of the economy in a new way.

      • So are “liberal,” “climate change,” “social justice,” and a hundred other things. Do we have to re-brand all of them too?

  5. While I would agree that there are darker forces at work in much of the “conservative” climate change denial, conservatives are not wrong in thinking the Pope brings a radical– at the root– challenge. He does see humanity as a “part” of nature, not just its steward.
    Quoting from the Laudato Si: The universe is “shaped by open and intercommunicating systems”. He extols being “intimately united with all that exists”. And of the other Francis, he represents “something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into something to be used and controlled.” At times he sounds like his fellow Jesuit, Teilhard de Chardin speaking of a whole universe in evolution to the “fullness of Christ” and begins the encyclical by reminding us that “we ourselves are dust of the earth….our very bodies made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.”
    And from all this he goes on to build a vision that is deeply hostile to unfettered capitalism.

      • In the United States “stewardship” is a code word conservatives use when they are pretending to be environmentalists while in reality believing nature is a storehouse of goods to be plundered. Pope Francis is not from the United States and speaks little English, so he wouldn’t be aware of that nuance. Reading Laudato Si I did a double-take when he started using the word “stewardship,” but as I continued reading I found he was not using the word in the way American conservatives do. Francis clearly believes that a sin against nature is a sin against God. And he believes God loves the trees and the birds just like he loves us.

        Francis says all life is sacred. It is a seamless reality from the tiniest creature to unborn fetus to newborns, to children, to adults, and the elderly. Because of the dangers of overpopulation and the necessity of thinking about the needs of other family members, I differ with the pope on abortion, but I agree that all life is sacred. That’s why both of us believe in universal and affordable healthcare from conception to the grave.

      • You may be right, Juan, but “stewardship” is pretty clearly the only biblical hook on which a pope can hang an environmentalist agenda.

  6. Religions and spiritual practices that do not hold and respect women with the same abilities and spirituality as men which is easily seen in the lack of women in their practice’s hierarchy are still living in the dark ages controlled by male egomaniacs.

    Will America ever have a golden age with the male billionaires and their puppet millionaires controlling America’s religions, government, news media, banking industrial complex, military industrial complex, education, entertainment, etc?

  7. An honest conservative.

    Now, that’s an endangered species, but every once in a while alleged conservatives will tell the truth. There was Donald Trump recently while claiming to be a conservative confirmed campaign donations are bribes. Then there were most of the GOP presidential candidates who engaged in a bout of truth-telling when they were criticizing each other.

  8. Christ told an official who asked to follow him, “First go and give all your worldly goods to the poor. Only then can you truly follow me”. (Not verbatim) The Pope and his clergy fall far short of complying with Christ’s dictum. They profess to be the stewards of the Church’s enormous wealth. How can the Pope have us follow him and other church “leaders” who themselves ignore the basic requirement of being a TRUE follower of Christ?

  9. American liberals need to realize that Pope Francis is not “on their side” and be cautious.

    “if you put billions of tons of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere, you will make the earth hot.”

    It really is just that simple.

  10. Good grief. You have no idea how many times I have said, “Let’s see what Juan Cole is saying. He’s someone I trust.” But, from what I read here, it looks like Cole hasn’t even read Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si. He is just spouting off without his usual intellectual rigor. Of course the Pope calls for structural change and not just charity! His deep, abiding compassion for the poor clearly aims for changes in governmental policies. He very specifically challenges trickle-down economics. His ideas about climate change are liberal and also mean little if they aren’t taken to involve action by the government – something conservatives (even honest conservatives) are categorically opposed to.

    In Brazil, Leonardo Boff, one of the founding fathers and prime movers of Liberation Theology has heaped enormous praise on Pope Francis.

    Think about this: Pope Francis is way to the left of both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. They are the ones who are (in reality) moderate conservatives, not Francis.

    I do disagree with the Pope about population control and the role of women in the Church. But Francis has hinted he is moving towards acceptance of homosexuals, divorced people, etc. and he treats atheists with sincere respect.

    Institutions like the Catholic Church change at a glacial pace. In this context, Francis’ polices come as a bolt of lightning. And he’s just getting started.

    • People who see Francis as a liberation theologian don’t know liberation theology. As for practical steps to reduce income inequality, aside from maybe taxes he hasn’t given any specifics. Evangelicals have long preached love the sinner but condemn the sin. Francis is much nicer than that but his policies come to the same thing. It is nice that you know the future but my post was not about the future.

      • On the matter of creating a just society that cares about the needs of the poor it is difficult to think of more than a handful of Democrats in Congress that are as liberal as the pope.

        By the way, I must confess that I am not very good at predicting the future. I thought Obama was going to be a good president rather than a warmonger and a shill for Wall Street.

  11. Canonizing Father Serra is not exactly liberation theology. Serra and the other missionaries were a key part in the violent conquest of California by the Spanish Empire. The mission system enslaved and led to the deaths of most of the Calfornia Indians.

  12. I always respected your insights on Iran, Iraq and Turkey, but now I am wonder if you can be objective about non-Islamic leaders.

    I really don’t mean any disrespect, but how do you connect “Last year, the cardinal said Argentina was being harmed by demagoguery, totalitarianism, corruption and efforts to secure unlimited power, the Associated Press reports.” to gay marriage when the context clearly refers to criticism of the Nestor and Chrisitina Fernandez governments?

    You can make a cogent argument that Pope Francis is a conservative. You can be unhappy with his pace of reform. But unless you have a better citation to support your claims of homophobia, you are guilty of the same calumnies of the Islamophobes.

    All in all an angry and disappointing post

    • The post isn’t angry, it is analytical. There is no accusation of homophobia, simply the assertion that homosexuality remains forbidden and seen as a sin and gay marriage is opposed. I will look into the context of the quote more- – but it isn’t anyway key to my point.

      I admire a lot about Pope Francis. He isn’t a liberal.

    • Jammer, the linked-to article says “…Cardinal Bergollio argued that gay adoptions discriminated against children…”. How can that indicate anything other than homophobia?

  13. Most Americans have never seen an honest conservative; it’s some sort of black swan.
    But an honest conservative can be a reliable, constructive ally on a range of important issues.
    If your interpretation is accurate, a lot of good can come of it.

  14. Pope Francis is an anti-authoritarian conservative.

    There was a detailed article by an Argentinian journalist on how he came by his anti-authoritarian, anti-clericalism (Clericalism == priests ordering laymen around) attitudes during the Dirty War in Argentina, but I have lost it. Basically he was humbled by realising that many laymen were much better people than he was during the Dirty War.

    He’s been deliberately dismantling the authority of the bishops and priests to order parishoners around. This doesn’t change his personal views on any issue… but it is important.

  15. This isn’t the article I was referring to, but it covers much the same ground: link to

    Basically, Bergolio was a craven collaborator during the Dirty War — not really an active supporter of the fascists, but a collaborator anyway. Afterwards, he felt guilty (as he should). And he stopped believing that priests and bishops had the right to order laymen around — because parish priests and laymen had proven themselves to be far more moral than he was.

    That’s the background of Pope Francis. He’s personally very right-wing, but he doesn’t believe that the Catholic Church has the right to order other people to be right-wing, because he knows from experience *he might be completely and utterly wrong*. That’s what he means by “Who am I to judge” — he actually believes that the Catholic Church should abandon its presumptuous attempts at overriding the morals of clear-thinking laymen.

  16. The extreme right-wing in the U.S. has lurched so far to the reactionary right even Pope Francis appears liberal to their counter-productive EXTREMISM.

    When the very Conservative Speaker of the House of Representative resigns due to these disruptive extremists infesting our Congress, all good citizens of any stripe should take notice and reconsider voting for or re-electing such anti-American candidates.

    Hopefully, this period of media-borne mass insanity in our country will soon subside. If not, even those who have willfully pushed our country into this politically extreme untenable situation will lose what they hoped to achieve.

    Limbaugh/FAUXNews devotees should be careful what they wish for.

  17. Comment on American conservatism and fascism is worth more attention. In fact it warrants an essay in itself. In 1908 Jack London published THE IRON HEEL, the first anti-fascist novel years before Mussoline initiated the movement. A few years ago progressives were discussing the possibility of fascism appearing in the US. What needed to be said was that at least the elements have always been here. Hitler admired the US for the fascist
    models he found here. The nazis even drew directly upon
    the propaganda techniques pioneered in the Wilson administration, going so far as to use , with appropriate changes actual prowar posters.
    We need to put American fascism into our analytic discourse. Fascism is as American as apple pie.

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