What’s a Pope Francis Catholic?

In a Washington Post profile of Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton's vice presidential nominee, CUA sociologist William D’Antonio was quoted as calling the Virginia Senator and former governor a "Pope Francis Catholic." As evidence, Prof. D'Antonio pointed toward Sen. Kaine's lifelong commitment to serving the poor, which has manifested itself both his personal life and his policy advocacy, and added, “At some point, if you ask: Who reflects more the way Francis looks at the world? To the degree that’s important, it’s certainly not Donald Trump.”

Is Tim Kaine a Pope Francis Catholic?

But if your standard for a "Pope Francis Catholic" is "more like Francis than Donald Trump is," you could count the number of "Pope Francis Catholics" in the billions. Although Kaine may align himself with the Church on many issues, especially those that Francis has expressed particular concern about, his views do not seem to have been substantially influenced by our current Pope.

As Governor of Virginia, Kaine made clear his opposition to the death penalty, but did not attempt to enact it politically against the wishes of the people in his state. The same is true of his position on abortion: he agrees with the Church's teaching, and supported pro-life measures as a governor, but according to NARAL, his votes in the Senate have aligned with pro-choice policy goals without a single exception.

This extreme reluctance to push one's personal and moral beliefs through policy follows the example set by former New York governor Mario Cuomo, whom many other American Catholic Democrats have since emulated. Kaine may be a particularly praiseworthy specimen of that species and even an exemplary product of Jesuit education, but unless we can point toward ways in which Kaine has been substantially influenced by Pope Francis, it makes little sense to call him a "Pope Francis Catholic." Although the views, emphases, and sympathies of these Cuomo Catholics may frequently coincide with Francis' own, this group would not look any different if they had never heard of Jorge Bergoglio.

In other words, if a "Pope Francis Catholic" is not someone whose life as a Catholic has been substantially informed by Pope Francis' words or example, but a typical Catholic Democrat from any of the last several decades, the term is hardly more useful than if it just meant "more like Pope Francis than Donald Trump is." We are not giving Pope Francis the opportunity to define his own pontificate or indeed bring anything new to the table: we are simply taking our "Cuomo Catholic Democrat" box and re-labeling it "Pope Francis Catholic." Clearly, anyone who persists in trying to apply that label to Kaine on such a thin pretense is only trying to play up the contrast between Trump and the Pope for purely political reasons.

New Wine, New Wineskins

To allow Pope Francis to be reduced to a pawn of the American Left or even just its Cuomo/Kennedy Catholic contingent is to miss one of the most obvious lessons of Francis’ pontificate: that the Church is far more than the post-industrial West. Pope Francis has selected Cardinals from dioceses that have never before had Cardinals, and cities like Chicago that have had Cardinals for a century or more have not had the red hat bestowed on their most recent archbishops. During the Synod on the Family, the principal opponents of the proposals put forward by German bishops came not from within the Western Church, but from Africa. America and Europe can no longer dominate our understanding of the Church or its role in world politics.

Moreover, our old ways of looking at the Church's role in politics are inadequate. The narrative I grew up with about John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan teaming up to defeat Communism does not seem to have much relevance to a Pope who had to struggle more against Argentinian fascism than international Communism and who went out of his way to try to open up relations between the USA and Cuba. This is a Pope who comes from outside of the modern West and who does not fit into our settled ideological camps.

In the West, meanwhile, even these ideological camps have been thrown into disarray. In America and in Britain, party politics have failed to anticipate or react to the frustrations of the non-immigrant working classes: the rallying of these groups behind Trump and the Brexit campaign initially blindsided the complacent political establishment, and it is not clear what the political landscape of either country will look like when their respective political realignments are complete.

The inadequacies of our existing categories, narratives, and agendas are increasingly evident. To force Francis into those familiar but obsolete categories is to deny him the opportunity to shape our responses to the problems currently facing us.

What is a Pope Francis Catholic?

But even in the (unfortunately unlikely) event that Pope Francis' words and example contribute substantially to the politics of the West, participants in resultant political parties or movements would not thereby be Pope Francis Catholics. This is partly because Western politics must always have certain provincial components that are not of much concern in the context of Francis' more global perspective (to have solidarity with those in the West who have been left behind by cosmopolitan capitalism is praiseworthy, but the people in developing countries who have been subjected to the West's economic and environmental exploitation ought to be-- and for this Pope, consistently have been-- a higher priority), but more importantly, political ideology is the wrong way to think about Papal ministry.

It is not the Pope's job to foment political movements. Rather, his job is to foster spiritual ones. Many aspects of Francis' pontificate -- his exemplification of a culture of encounter, his willingness to be spontaneous even at the risk of being misunderstood, his eschewing of an overly bureaucratic or legalistic mindset, to name a few-- could help define how generations of Catholics both living and yet to be born perceive and live out their faith.