After an initial wave of adulation, Pope Francis is now suffering a backlash. Granted, all popes suffer their critics for various decisions about liturgy and doctrine, but Pope Francis seems to have ignited a firestorm among Catholics due to his habit of addressing political matters. Rightwing disdain for Francis is deep enough to have some conservatives strategizing on how to continue to combat his influence without delivering possible gains to Democrats or so-called liberal Catholics.
Writing at The Week, Michael Brendan Dougherty hoped for “a truly humble papacy, where politics is avoided, and where the personality of the occupant does not presage some reform”—that is, a papacy the world has scarcely known. For years, papal encyclicals have included politics, from Rerum Novarum’s 1891 treatment of capital and labor to Quadregesimo Anno’s 1931 look at socialism and capitalism. More recently, Saint Pope John Paul II was said to have had a hand in the defeat of communism, thanks to, in the words of Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, “his unusual ability—derived from charisma and celebrity as well as faith—to get people out on the streets.” It should come as no surprise that Pope John Paul II’s political legacy is heeded at conservative Catholic outfits like First Things as a positive one, and that his tendency to involve himself in political affairs via craft and charisma (such as the Bosnian War) was not regarded by the anti-Francis crowd with the same distaste.
In any analysis of a public figure, partisan interests will influence one’s opinion, and there isn’t anything particularly productive about pointing out that conservatives tend to forgive in conservative leaders what they don’t in liberals. A more helpful question is this: Why has Pope Francis addressed political issues, such as climate change, inequality, poverty, and overpopulation? Is it evidence of abject partisan interest, or a covert dedication to communism, Marxism, or some other insidious ideology?
Or is it just that we now presume that “politics” belongs outside the Church’s purview—despite the Church’s historical record of considering and intervening in political affairs? To me, this appears to be the distortion at hand.
This is partly because the notion that "politics" can be neatly separated from daily life is a new one. For earlier political theorists, like Aristotle and Augustine, politics was just a natural extension of community life. But over time, a fantasy of “politics” wholly divorced from everyday life and experience has emerged in certain corners of liberal thought, producing with it the expectation that politics is a matter for professional politicians and their colleagues, while those in religious offices should simply avoid addressing politics altogether.
Yet, even if Pope Francis attempted to avoid politics, he would still run into trouble: This is because while “politics” has been increasingly cordoned off into a hermetically sealed chamber of thought in recent centuries, its purview has also been expanding so that it has absorbed new issues over time.
Consider poverty and charity, two subjects addressed repeatedly in the pages of the New Testament, often by Christ Himself. While the “early Church as a body, and Christians individually, recognized their obligation to provide for the poor,” John Gilchrist writes in The Church and Economic Activity in the Middle Ages, changes in population needs by the twelfth and thirteenth centuries placed pressure on the medieval Church to coordinate poor relief beyond individual acts of charity. Indeed, Gilchrist writes, “nor was this type of relief regarded by the recipient as charity; instead he treated it in the way we treat state maintenance today.” Various forms of relief, from food to shelter, were thus already present in medieval thought as matters of mass coordination and, soon thereafter, state intervention. Starting in the late middle ages, “leading preachers and theologians demanded more positive intervention of the civil authorities in caring for the poor,” Robert Jütte points out. As Eliza Buhrer notes in her essay "From Caritas to Charity: How Loving God Became Giving Alms" even the term "charity" itself began to change meaning beginning in the eleventh century, shifting from referring strictly to a form of love to primarily refer to the giving of goods.
The changes that occurred in the Church during the medieval and early modern periods helped to routinely align expectations of a moral state with the relief of poverty. They also oriented "charity" itself toward a more material, less ephemeral goal. As these ways of thinking of poverty have become embedded in society—admittedly in some societies more than others—poverty has become one of the political problems a state must address to maintain its legitimacy. A stateless response to poverty has not been part of Christian tradition for some time, and to address poverty without implicating politics at this point in history would be nearly impossible.
Of course, there are those, like theologian Oliver O’Donovan, who claim that “the church never was, in its true character, merely the temple of the city; it was the promise of the city itself.” O’Donovan’s contention in The Desire of the Nations is that the Church itself is an inherently political institution, and that political orders all have their theological undertones as well. But whether or not one is willing to go that far, it is at least clear that the tradition of the Church via Augustine and others is not so amenable to a surgical separation of politics and other matters of spiritual concern, such as the stuff of daily life. Further, it is also the case that a variety of topics, poverty not least among them, have entered the political realm permanently—both in secular political discourse and in the thought of the Church—as populations and their needs have changed over time.
To expect Pope Francis to remain apolitical or to avoid politics is, therefore, to expect silence or awkward retreat on issues integral to Christian life, and to impose the modern notion of a "political sphere" upon an institution that has never really bought into such demarcations. Appreciate his conclusions or not, Pope Francis’s willingness to address politics makes his witness all the more authentic, and, yes, traditional.