Carl E Olson, editor of The Catholic World Report, recently wrote an article addressing the perception of Pope Francis by media members outside the Catholic Church. He says:
Many in the American media, however, have already made up their minds: yes, the new pope is “liberal”, and that supposed fact is a big problem for those “conservative” bishops who keep harping about fringe issues such as the killing of the unborn, sexual immorality, the familial foundations of society, and the need to evangelize.
Many have labeled the Pope a “liberal” because of a statement he made that was published in America. He said: “I have never been like Blessed Imelda [a goody-goody], but I have never been a right-winger.” Olson asked Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute, what an “ultraconservative” or “right-winger” might mean to Pope Francis. Gregg, who has spent considerable time in Latin America, points out that these terms have different meanings in Latin America than they do in the U.S.
It is, Gregg told me, “crucial to understand just how extreme politics became in Latin America in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s.” During those decades, the “left” in Latin America “ was chest-deep in Marxism” as evidenced by “dictators like Fidel Castro and murderers like Che Guevara.” Gregg said:
“But it was also true of figures such as Salvador Allende who, to be frank, was well on the way to ushering in a Marxist regime in Chile before his overthrow and suicide in 1973. Many on the left were also more-than-ready to resort to armed insurgencies to try and get their way. On the other side, some people on the right had highly-authoritarian instincts, were often inclined to defend highly-unjust social and economic status quos, and were fond of invoking national security to justify “extra- legal” actions, such as military coup d’états and the use of death-squads against anyone they regarded as a threat, on a domestic level.
“In this light, it’s hardly surprising that you ended up with situations like the Montoneros (left-wing Peronists) guerrillas and other even more leftist groups such as the Marxist People’s Revolutionary Army trying to destabilize the fragile Argentine democracy of the early 1970s through bombing campaigns and assassinations of government officials and conservative politicians. They killed and maimed a great many people. The response of the right was to unleash the military and the police who, as we now know, committed all sorts of atrocities against thousands of real and imagined opponents of the regime, and then went on to maintain a highly repressive regime.
“In this light, I think it’s clear that when Pope Francis said he was “never a right-winger,” he may at least partly have in mind some very specific circumstances at a particular time that aren’t at all applicable to, for instance, domestic politics in the United States and Europe today. ”
I quote Gregg at length because this isn’t something easily handled in a single sentence or a simple soundbite. Also, it shows how certain terms, especially in the political realm, can have so many meanings, depending on various contexts (country, era, issue, etc.), that they are essentially empty until filled up like recycling bins with whatever this or that person deems necessary for the job at hand.