First, it’s important to concede a few things up front. It’s true that many of Pope Francis’s progressive cheerleaders have expressed disappointment and even betrayal at the fact that the document did not open the priesthood to married men, or the diaconate to women. And I appreciate Leary’s clear-eyed and generous assessment that Francis sometimes suffers unjustly by comparison to his immediate predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II, who had, respectively, a brilliance and a charisma that are unusual in popes.
But I suspect that in the filial desire to cover a father’s nakedness, some conservatives are just squinting so hard they end up distorting their own perception. Like the vast majority of Churchmen in the West, Francis would be anxious to reject a label placing him on the political right, and not merely because of the American right’s devotion to liberal (in the European sense) economics.
Leary compares Francis’ socioeconomic views to those of Richard Weaver and the Southern Agrarians. It’s hard to know what unites these figures, save for thunderous rhetoric and an aesthetic revulsion at consumerism that never quite develops into economic thinking. But my other objection is that Leary doesn’t stop to ask whether Francis’s view of Amazon deforestation is accurate. Francis blames extractive industries such as mining or oil — bugbears of the left. But in fact, the greatest part of deforestation is being done by a kind of laborer and enterprise many of the Agrarians would have admired, and that has its own traditions and relationship to nature: cattle ranchers.
It’s true that some of Francis’s rhetoric can be made to match certain schools of conservative thought — the ones of two-or-fewer cheers for capitalism. But he refuses to use them, instead asserting that indigenous communities of the Amazon inhabit “their surroundings in a non-deterministic symbiosis which is hard to conceive using mental categories imported from without.”
This romanticization takes the form of projecting onto indigenous communities longstanding Western critiques of Western culture. “The ethnic groups that, in interaction with nature, developed a cultural treasure marked by a strong sense of community, readily notice our darker aspects, which we do not recognize in the midst of our alleged progress.” If you think discrimination and inequality are defects in modern society, just wait until you encounter them in a non-modern one.
Leary is correct that Francis may technically be less “liberal” than his predecessors. But I think we also get glimpses of the man when he humiliates Cardinal Burke, or strikes back at Cardinal Sarah’s attempt to rescue the Church’s liturgy from modern banality. We get a glimpse of his instinct when he empowers men like Cardinal Cupich and passes over men like Archbishops Gomez and Chaput. Or when he indulges the dangerously modernist theology of Cardinal Kasper. Or when his Vatican destroys congregations of religious nuns for living a charism deemed too traditional or contemplative. These are not the actions of a “man of the Right,” nor were they right at all.