The purpose of the pope

Aside from his various theological and administrative roles, the pope serves as the public face of the Roman Catholic Church. In that connection, his job is to shore up the loyalty of his members and burnish the reputation of the Church in the broader world. After Benedict, both were in question, particularly outside conservative circles. I have no doubt that Francis’s liberal statements and gestures are sincere, but there is a reason the College of Cardinals elected a man who was sincerely inclined to do such things — they needed to get liberal Catholics back on board and forcefully reassert the Catholic Church’s relevance to the contemporary world.

In this regard, the pope’s job is political, and that means that there is going to be a certain level of apparent incoherence and opportunism. A gesture like going along with the sainthood of a brutal colonial figure is likely a sop to right-wing elements in the Church that are increasingly alienated by the Nice Pope routine. And right-wing elements need coddling because they are much more likely to turn schismatic rather than (like liberals) just tune out.

I’ve written before that the same kind of pressures produced Catholic Social Teaching. I think it’s telling that people are made uncomfortable by the fact that Francis’s views are so much more consistently left-wing than previous popes’ — that kind of coherence threatens the ability of the Church’s random grab-bag of political statements to appeal to as broad and incoherent a range of Catholics and sympathizers as possible. In no case should such statements be read as policy recommendations, because Francis is not a politician in that sense. But they are political statements in another sense, insofar as they are a bid to increase loyalty to and esteem for the Church in previously alienated populations.

Personally, if Pope Francis emboldens policy-makers to do more left-wing things, I’m all for it. No, he’s not a perfect left-wing exemplar, and yes, he has said some Bad Things from the left-wing perspective, particularly related to sexuality. But maybe the left can take a cue from the papacy and be a little more opportunistic in forging political alliances.