The secular world's interest in Pope Francis is both fascinating and well beyond the kind of attention usually given the Bishop of Rome. It is as though they see him somehow as a kindred spirit, one who shares their values and, therefore, a person worth promoting on the global stage. They have cast him as a new kind of cleric, a priest who may eventually restore dignity and importance to the Catholic Church – in and this is the important part – their eyes.
The way Francis is talked about is a far cry from the epithets hurled at the church in recent years. The culture of sexual abuse and the ensuing cover-up that infested the church at its highest levels blackened its reputation in the United States – so much so that even revered figures like Pope John Paul the Great could not escape the criticism.
Jump forward to Francis, the first pontiff from the Americas and the first from a predominantly Spanish-speaking country. Many who do not know him presume he is an exponent of liberation theology – a mixture of traditional church teachings with a healthy dose of Marxism that is particularly prevalent in Latin American countries. Their evidence for this? That he shows concern for the poor and has written in what some claim to be a poorly translated message that so-called "trickle down" economic policies do not, on their own, address the social ills of society. Here's the news flash: No one – except that is the people who opposed "trickle down" economics when it was a pejorative term to describe Ronald Reagan's ultimately successful economic plan – ever said they would. It was a straw man they constructed so they could tear it apart.
It is likely that the Pope's visible, obvious compassion for the poor and for society's outcasts allows those on the left who hew to the Marxist view of the world to assume he is on their side. For this they honor him with worldly tribute like making him Time Magazine's Man of the Year, one of the highest honors – along with the Nobel Prize and the Academy Award – they can bestow. While no doubt amused by this, Pope Francis knows that his treasures and his real rewards await him somewhere else.
What is less than fun is watching people who clearly do not hold to the teachings of the Catholic Church – or to any religious faith – use Francis' humility and compassion as a bludgeon against the faithful. It is almost as though they are saying, "I don't believe in this God stuff but because you say you do, you need to be acting more like the Pope. If you don't you're a hypocrite."
Pope Francis might respond to such nostrums with a gentle rejoinder involving what to do when a neighbor has a cinder in their eye. Those who promote him as a moral standard without really understanding what he is saying – indeed I interpret his recent comments on economic matters as a call to service, that prosperity and the alleviation of suffering would not simply happen on their own if we wait long enough – should take a look at the other things he has said. He is unalterably opposed to gay marriage and to abortion, the support for which undergirds the modern Democratic Party and contemporary liberalism. His is, to add a touch of protestant spin, a missionary priest, reaching out to those most in need and least able to defend themselves as God commands him to do. He is not, despite what some people might want you to believe, a man who intends to make the Catholic Church conform to liberal, American standards.