Carl E. Olson, in an editorial entitled “Catholicism and the Convenience of Empty Labels,” says that many who write and discuss all things Catholic get lost in “fabricated conflicts” which lack context. Pope Francis, depending on who is speaking, is a darling of the “liberals” or a stalwart “conservative.”
Suffice to say, the die has been cast for many journalists, and thus for their readers, when it comes to framing stories about the good Pope Francis and the evil “right-wingers” who oppose him. It’s not that some writers go to elaborate and sophisticated lengths to make dubious connections and render outrageous assertions; rather, they often demonstrate an intellectual laziness that is alarming and a crude simplicity that is exasperating, at best.
Olson says that these writers are allowing ideology and not logic rule. There are those who desperately want to portray Pope Francis as a liberation theologian, despite the fact that he has spoken out against this ideology time and again. What explains this? Olson turns to Acton’s Director of Research, Sam Gregg. Gregg says the politics of Central and South American over the past few decades must be seen in the context of being “chest-deep in Marxism:”
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.
Olson says he quotes Gregg at length, not only to help explain a complex situation, but also to show that this isn’t something that can be easily labeled in a word or phrase.
It’s not that the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are bad or cannot be used helpfully in certain contexts. I use the terms fairly often myself. But I’ve sought, in recent years, to use them as little as possible when speaking or writing about Catholicism—especially regarding faith, morals, and even practices—saving them instead for conversation about American politics. (But even that is fraught with dangers, since the range of “liberalisms” and “conservativisms” in this country is more broad than the casual observer knows.) To put it as simply as possible, here’s the problem: when the language of American politics is used to define and direct the reality of Catholic belief and practice, the result is confusion, discord, and obfuscation.
Olson goes on to note that putting labels on the truth often ends up in “a rigid and moralistic judgmentalism that is self-congratulatory” that helps no one, and limits truth to one’s own fallible understandings.