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Pope Francis Doesn’t Need Your Applause

In the wake of Pope Francis apostolic visit to the U.S., the world is still trying to figure out just who this Holy Father is. One thing is certain: He is predictably unpredictable — he had surreptitious visits with both the county clerk from Kentucky who’s made waves with her refusal to issue same-sex marriage licenses and with a same-sex couple from Argentina. Francis defies facile classification in prefabricated political categories. Yet that doesn’t prevent the voices of various factions from calling him one of their own. Liberal Catholics like to think he’s a liberal, and secular observers, for the most part, follow suit — he passes the “eyeball test” pretty easily. Meanwhile, conservative Catholics try to convince themselves (and anybody who’ll listen) that, despite appearances, the Pope is really a conservative.

Francis’s address before the U.S. Congress (Sept. 24) offers a good example of this tug-of-war: Liberal Catholics found much to like while conservative Catholics scrambled to interpret his speech favorably.

A broad reading of the Pope’s speech gives the impression that he earned high marks on the liberal scorecard. According to The New York Times (Sept. 24), Francis “emboldened liberals with a passionate defense of immigration, an endorsement of environmental legislation, a blistering condemnation of the arms trade and a plea to abolish the death penalty.” He repeatedly bandied about liberal catch phrases, speaking up for those “trapped in a cycle of poverty,” calling for “global solidarity” and a “distribution of wealth,” and encouraging his listeners to be “at the service of dialogue and peace.” Even the names Francis dropped of the “great Americans” he wished to recognize were those of liberal icons, including liberal Catholic icons: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton.

The Pope’s appearance before Congress wasn’t, however, entirely a liberal lovefest. He did toss out a few crumbs to starving conservatives: He insisted that “the voice of faith” continue to be heard, he praised the “richness and beauty of family life,” and he called for the protection of life at “every stage of its development.”

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