He is certainly not a Marxist, and he’s not a “liberal” as American politics understands the terms. But he has been a gift to liberals who are also Christians, to religious believers whose politics lean left.
It’s a gift the religious left sorely needed, because the last few decades have made a marriage of Christian faith and liberal politics seem doomed to eventual divorce. Since the 1970s, the mainline Protestant denominations associated with progressive politics have experienced a steep decline in membership and influence, while American liberalism has become more secular and anti-clerical, culminating in the Obama White House’s battles with Francis’ own church. In the intellectual arena, religiously-inclined liberals have pined for a Reinhold Niebuhr without producing one, and the conservative fear that liberal theology inevitably empties religion of real power has found all-too-frequent vindication.
Pope Francis has not solved any of these problems. But his pontificate has nonetheless given the religious left a new lease on life. He has offered encouragement to Catholic progressives by modestly soft-pedaling the issues dividing his church from today’s liberalism ”” abortion and same-sex marriage ”” while elevating other causes and concerns.