Americans too easily forget Pope Francis is a priest, not a politician

Pope Francis isn’t a politician, an economist or a climatologist. He is first and foremost a priest and a pastor of 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. Americans, Catholic and Protestant alike, forget that too easily.

True, Pope Francis discusses politics, economics and the climate in confounding ways. He really doesn’t understand the way free markets work. He’s listening to some highly misguided people about global warming. And as his visit with Fidel Castro showed, Francis isn’t as outspoken in the face of tyranny as was his predecessor, Saint Pope John Paul II.

But Francis is neither anti-American nor a Marxist. Some conservatives sound like fools when they accuse the pontiff of being something he’s not.

I say this as a Catholic and a conservative myself. Until recently, however, I was among the 75 percent of self-identifying U.S. Catholics who don’t attend Mass any given Sunday. I returned to the Church not despite Francis, but partly because of him.

Turns out, leftists and environmentalists aren’t the only ones susceptible to making a religion of politics.

In a new book exploring the pope’s views of capitalism and social justice, veteran Vatican reporters Andrea Tornielli and Giacomo Galeazzi ask Francis about his outspoken American conservative critics.

“I do not speak as an economical expert, but according to the social doctrine of the church,” the pope replied. “And this does not mean I am a Marxist. Perhaps whoever has made this comment does not know the social doctrine of the church and, apparently, does not even know Marxism all that well, either.”

He’s right. When the pope talks about the environment and the economy, he is not speaking infallibly. He’s using his moral authority to advance a discussion, not to demand obedience or assent.

Fact is, only a small portion of pope’s recent controversial encyclical, Laudato Si, concerned global climate change. Most of it had to do the moral and ethical climate in which we live - one that tends to devalue human life and exalts material things.

“Any technical solution which science claims to offer will be powerless to solve the serious problems of our world if humanity loses its compass,” he writes. Americans would do well to ask if we’ve already lost ours - and what we might do to get it back.

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Ben Boychuk (bboychuk@city-journal.org) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.