Understanding Francis: Why It's Insufficient to Label the Pope as 'Liberal' or 'Conservative'

When Pope Francis comes to the United States next month, he will visit the White House, speak to Congress and address the United Nations. The nature of his audiences -- U.S. and global leadership as well as the American people -- will ask many to cast his visit in political terms.
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When Pope Francis comes to the United States next month, he will visit the White House, speak to Congress and address the United Nations. The nature of his audiences -- U.S. and global leadership as well as the American people -- will ask many to cast his visit in political terms. This happened to his predecessors. John Paul II's teachings were framed in the context of the Cold War, while Benedict XVI's tenure was juxtaposed with a newly unified Europe struggling with its place in the world. But for the first pope from Latin America, labels such as "liberal" or "conservative" may not be sufficient to describe or understand the messages he will deliver during his U.S. visit.

We can start to understand Pope Francis by looking at his life as Jorge Bergoglio, a native of Buenos Aires who came of age just as nine years of rule by Gen. Juan Peron were coming to an end. The Weber and Rice musical Evita offered a glitzy introduction to Peronism. Unfortunately, the focus on the fascism and demagogy of the general and his actress wife missed a side of Peronism that Argentines witnessed between 1946 and 1955. There was a component of social justice that went beyond the popular appeal of the welfare state. During the Peronist years, the lower and working class of Argentina discovered they mattered to their country and were protagonists in their own history. The Peronist political regime tied the idea of citizenship to the pride of being a worker. Through labor organizations, Peronism incorporated workers and lower classes into political life, invading the private territory the Argentinean elites considered their "right." What a young Francis would have seen was that Peronism asserted that the main political tension was between the people and the elites, not between people of progressive and conservative ideologies. When we saw a newly chosen Francis bending in front of the people and asking for their blessing, he was acknowledging the people's power in the church.

This class tension has had a lasting influence and provides a framework to understand a variety of Argentine political actors -- even during the darkest hours of the Dirty War that raged from the 1970s to the mid-1980s. The left-wing guerrilla organization Montoneros waged a fight to restore Peronism and return Peron from exile in Spain. Other revolutionaries sought a socialist regime. Like the Montoneros, they professed a concern for the poor but would not trust democracy to the masses. The left wing guerillas weren't the only one that distrusted the people. Argentina's conservative elites shared the suspicion on people's ability to take decisions. Democracy was of little concern to the military juntas. They feared the people and tried to extinguish any type of popular organization, regardless of its participants. Revolutionaries, nuns, professors, laborers and thousands of others were labeled enemies and subject to a campaign of political violence that pushed every citizen to the margins of political life.

In those years, Francis went from being ordained as a Jesuit priest to be came superior of Argentine's Jesuits. As some of his biographers note, Bergoglio asked his colleagues to help people as they could, but to avoid unnecessary risks. His message told the Jesuits to be close to the people's daily struggle, not leading or schooling them, but walking with them.

Argentina's contemporary democracy, ushered by the 1983 election of Raul Alfonsín, re-opened the door to political participation. However, political engagement has been threaten by factors including poverty, corruption, cynicism and a growing gap between rich and poor. As bishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio emphasized -- through initiatives such as Caritas -- serving the poor and encouraging their civic engagement. An interesting alliance between the Argentine Bishops' Conference and the United Nations Programs for Development helped the country to find a solution for the economic and political crisis. More than the technicalities of the initiative, it was the first time that Argentine church leaders shared with another organization the role of mediator in a national crisis. The needs of the people were stronger than the desire of the elites to keep theirs space of influence. Many religious leaders in the country started to share spaces with other religious and secular leaders, spaces that were monopolized by the Catholic Church, as the 'Te Deum' celebrations for the independence of the country. The needs of the people helped the elites to overcome the suspicions among them.

Despite the obstacles assembled by the elites, rank and file Argentines found ways to have their voices heard throughout Bergoglio's life. That happened in 1945 when the workers supported Peronism in spite of its own shortcomings. In the 1970s, the Mothers of the Plaza asked the military for their "disappeared" children and grandchildren. In 2001, people took the streets with pots and pans to protest economic reforms that left nearly 40 percent of the population mired in poverty. It may be this kind of resolve that encourages this Pope's mission to change both the Church and the world.

Engagement with the people seems to be central to Francis' tenure. He talks to the people instead of the political, ecclesiastical or economic elites. His encyclical on the environment framed climate change as a threat to the poor. He has urged the clergy to eschew the trappings of power and care for all of God's people. He reaches out to regular folks wherever they are and engages with them, supporting them to be the builders of their future. Perhaps populism is an overlooked political concept in the U.S., but the tension between the people and the elites may be more helpful than political labels as we try to understand Pope Francis and his mission.

A version of this article originally appeared on MariaShriver.com.

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