Remember when I said that whether you considered yourself a conservative Catholic or a liberal Catholic or a (any other adjective) Catholic, eventually the gospel would make you choose whether you were more loyal to the descriptor or the Catholic part?
Suppose you are Pope Francis, and you believe in the entirety of the Catholic faith. You know that in America, some elements of social doctrine that appeal to conservatives are being highlighted to the point that they are preventing others from seeing the Church as a messenger of Good News. Other points of doctrine are being minimized or ignored. You believe that changing doctrine is not your mandate — but you know that there is a grave need to refocus on the central message of love, grace and mercy and also cast a light on other parts of doctrine that are critical for this time and, because the American Church has shifted politically to one side, are not getting the attention they need. What do you do?
Turns out, you do what Francis did. You show with your actions and emphasize with your words the core gospel message. You use policy speeches to shine a light on immigration, inequality and climate change. And you acknowledge the other elements of doctrine that have turned into weapons without giving their wielders more oxygen.
Francis defended a pro-life position, even as he accented the anti-death penalty elements of that position.
Francis defended religious freedom in general speeches, while meeting off the public schedule with the Sisters of the Poor who are suing the Obama Administration over the ACA’s contraception mandate, and apparently meeting secretly with Kim Davis. On the plane ride back, he spoke specifically about the need to respect the right of conscience even for public officials without discussing Davis’ case specifically.
So no, it turns out that Francis is not the liberal pope a divided America thought. He’s the pope, period, and he’s threading a needle to add weight to the port side of a listing American Catholic ship without throwing overboard anything on the starboard side.
His hope, I suspect, is that enough people turned off by the Church’s overemphasis on culture war issues will see his embrace of prisoners, homeless, immigrants, children and reopen their ears to the good news. His calculation is that the loud voice on those issues the left embrace would better establish in the political mindset that these are issues of Catholic doctrine, and his all but tacit acknowledgement of issues of the right would signal that he is not changing course while also not feeding the too hot flame.
If you are a liberal first, the Davis meeting probably makes it hard for you to gloat. If you are a conservative first, the fact the meeting was held in secret (and was not immediately acknowledged by the Vatican) probably makes it hard for you to grandstand. And if you are a Catholic first, you remember that neither gloating nor grandstanding attracts people to the God of love, and that a faith that doesn’t unsettle us is probably a faith with blind spots.