By Alexandra Werner Winslow
BU News Service
A new Pew Research Center survey came out Wednesday showing that in the wake of Pope Francis’ visit to America, 28 percent of U.S. adults have a more positive view of the Catholic Church. But many of these people are misguided liberals who see his tenure as the dawn of a new, progressive church.
At first blush, the church’s fan base appears to have grown more or less equally on either side of the aisle. According to the survey, both liberals and Democrats’ positive views of the church (39 and 35 percent, respectively) grew at about the same rate as those of conservatives and Republicans (22 and 27 percent).
Yet when we look within the parties, a different picture emerges. The Pew Research Center also polled on the ratio of those whose view of the church improved to whose view worsened. While Republican and conservative popular opinion is pretty evenly split (3-1 for Republicans, 2-1 for conservatives), the data indicates that the pope’s visit swept liberals off their feet. For every liberal whose view of the church worsened, ten liberals’ views improved. For Democrats, the ratio is an even more extreme 17-1.
Clearly, the pope is having a moment when it comes to progressive Americans. For such strong results, one would expect that Francis’ visit must have been a string of liberal victories — official sanctioning of marriage equality, perhaps, or the announcement of inclusive policies regarding gay priests. Or maybe he finally opened up ordination to women?
Well, not exactly. The pope reinforced a number of traditional, conservative stances during a visit that has been inaccurately hailed as somehow a boon for the left. Pope Francis made an unscheduled stop to see the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of nuns that has filed a lawsuit against the federal government over the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. He declared in his closing mass that it is the “covenant of man and woman” that reveals God. And, of course, he met (mistakenly or not) with Kim Davis.
What happened to our Hyundai-driving, global-warming acknowledging, liberal pope?
A closer look at the pope’s record might indicate that he didn’t exist in the first place. Certainly Pope Francis’ stances on human sexuality aren’t as liberal as progressives would like to think, whether we’re talking about marriage equality, contraception, or abortion. Neither is he terribly far to the left on immigration or poverty. Pope Francis myopically refuses to acknowledge overpopulation, for example, undermining his call in July to “welcome and protect” all immigrant children, and making his support of capitalism look particularly misguided.
If we take a wide lens, the Catholic Church has one of the worst institutional human rights records in history. Converting people at the point of the sword, forcibly eradicating whole cultures, and telling a surprisingly big proportion of the world that they’re going to hell has not quite exemplified Jesus’ teachings of love and mercy.
Yet with Wednesday’s Pew survey, which shows that it was progressives, not conservatives, whose views of the church the pope’s visit most improved, you would be forgiven for thinking all that’s different now. It’s clear that progressives really want to believe that the pope — and by extension, the entire institution — is finally with them. The man celebrated his birthday by giving 400 sleeping bags to the homeless, for crying out loud.
But to read Pope Francis’ acknowledgement of global warming as the dawn of a new era in the Catholic Church is thinking just as wishful as Pope Francis’ belief that we can end poverty without sanctioning contraception. And that’s unfortunate. By creating a folk hero where one doesn’t exist, progressives are impeding their ability to call for real change in the Catholic Church. For once, maybe the liberals ought to look to the conservatives on this one.