Liberals should beware of Pope Francis

While more progressive than his predecessors, the pope isn’t a pioneer of social justice.

by Jasper Johnson

Pope Francis made headlines last week, first when he criticized Donald Trump and then when he decided to express his belief that it’s acceptable to use birth control to prevent transmission of the Zika virus. 
Stories like this have many young people singing praise for Pope Francis. Unlike a lot of other liberals, however, I’m not so sure that progressives should consider the pope an ally.
To begin, Francis has by no means explicitly approved the use of contraceptives. Recently, he suggested that condom use may be a lesser “evil” than abortions, speaking in reference to the Zika outbreak. But he has also deflected attempts to clarify his views, such as when he called condoms a “Band-Aid” solution to Africa’s problems. In so doing, Francis essentially said that until we address other, more pressing issues in Africa — including water and food insecurity — the church’s stance on condoms isn’t relevant. 
This is shameful logic. The Catholic Church has a legacy of inflicting suffering on many groups, and discouraging condom use is a key problem it needs to reform. It bothers me that Francis would prefer to childishly ruminate on vague economic solutions to poverty than take a stance on something the church could concretely improve. 
Yet it was his Donald Trump remark which helped galvanize my suspicions that Francis is after the hearts of progressives. Basically, Francis said Trump isn’t a Christian because of his anti-immigration policies. 
Throwing himself into pop politics by taking jabs at Trump hints at the superficiality of the pope’s progressive leanings. That’s why liberals need to view Francis through a more critical lens. He is, after all, the representative of a socially conservative institution. 
Nevertheless, a lot of media coverage of Francis baselessly dramatizes him as being an optimistic reformist — if he decides not to brashly advocate for policies that harm people or chooses not to reject 19th- and early 20th-century scientific discoveries, we laud him.
I concede that Francis’s economic stances are very progressive, albeit misguidedly so, considering his partiality for poorly constructed, anti-capitalist rants. But some of his social stances are markedly conservative. Francis is still anti-gay, anti-contraceptive and anti-abortion. He also blamed the victims of the Charlie Hebdo shooting for provoking the attack. 
In fact, I often wonder whether the world would have been better off if the cardinals had elected an extremely conservative and regressive pope. Would it have driven liberal people away from the church entirely and allowed a more wholehearted embrace of progressivism? Or is it better to have a lukewarm pope like Francis, who still manages to appeal to people?
If refusing to overtly advocate for hateful attitudes, accepting basic scientific facts and occasionally going on an idealist economic diatribe deserves applause, then I think we need to reevaluate our standards for religious institutions in society. 
Jasper Johnson welcomes comments at [email protected].