The Pope everyone (still) misunderstands

This September, Pope Francis made history by being the first pontiff to address a session of Congress, as well as being the fourth pope to address the United Nations.

Pope Francis’ visit to the United States included visits to D.C., New York and Philadelphia. While touring the East Coast he celebrated mass with the faithful, met with American bishops and canonized a Spanish saint who was a missionary in California.

This trip marks the fourth time a pope has visited the U.S. and only the third time a pope has been received at the White House.

While Pope Paul VI was the first pope to visit the United States in 1965, the first meeting between an incumbent U.S. president and a pope happened in 1919 between Woodrow Wilson and Benedict XV.

Following WWII, the majority of U.S. presidents have sought an audience with the pope at one time or another, usually within the walls of Vatican City. The U.S. has always had an interesting relationship with the Roman Catholic Church, ever since the founding of our nation.

John Adams, the second president, once wrote in a letter to Thomas Jefferson that the Jesuits (the order of Pope Francis) deserved damnation more than any other group.

In contrast, during his presidency Thomas Jefferson was gracious enough to send his assurance to some nuns in Louisiana that the Constitution guaranteed them the free exercise to run their institution according to their beliefs.

Anti-Catholicism in the U.S. has primarily been associated with xenophobic attitudes during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as with attacks from the Evangelical right prior to the election of John F. Kennedy. While suspicion and hostility toward the Catholic Church have not been completely eradicated, Catholic Americans no longer need to hide their faith for fear of outright persecution.

In light of this, the most recent visit by the pope was a big moment for Catholicism here in the U.S., and it seems everyone has a soft spot for the Holy Father, be it for his joyful countenance, his humility or his commitment to the environment.

That is, everyone except conservatives.

While I’ve never been a big fan of the left’s appropriation of Pope Francis, there is something particularly insidious about the right’s hostility toward him.

The pope has received a lot of bad treatment over his encyclical “Laudato si,” which discusses the issue of climate change, consumerism and humanity’s responsibility to take care of the Earth, earning him the title of “most dangerous person” from one pundit on Fox News.

Besides this, Pope Francis has come out in support of migrants, refugees and the working class, making people attach labels such as “leftist” and “Marxist” to his Pontificate, further misconstruing what the Pope stands for.

While it is true that the pope has criticized the negative effects of capitalism, calling the love of money a “subtle dictatorship” which “condemns and enslaves men and women,” merely chocking up his criticisms to some Marxist rhetoric fails to see the bigger picture.

Pope Francis, while technically a head of state, is primarily a religious figure. What he does cannot be separated from the religious context in which it’s presented.

The rationale of Pope Francis is not bound in some 19th-century manifesto about the working class but is rooted in scholastic tradition, Christian anthropology and an understanding of scripture that is vast and complicated, and cannot be surmised by a simple exhortation against greed, war, irresponsible waste and environmental issues.

The Catholic Church, along with the papacy, is as old as Christianity itself, and trying to label the pope using post-Enlightenment concepts such as socialism, Marxism or progressivism would be an anachronism. One does not need to be a socialist or a Marxist to recognize the dignity of the worker.

In 1891, Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical “Rerum novarum,” criticized both capitalism and socialism while calling for just treatment of the laborer, the right to form labor unions and the right to private property.

The teaching of the Catholic Church does not lie on a spectrum that can be aligned with for political reasons, and the American right has failed to see that more so than the left.

Contrary to what Fox News and conservative bloggers would have you believe, the pope is not trying to engross himself in politics, he’s merely preaching and being a good pastor of souls.

At the end of the day, without the eyes of faith, everything the pope says will just seem like rhetoric, but for those who are practicing their faith, his words are instruction on how to live more in line with the teachings and theological understanding of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

So please, to all you Rick Santorums and Rush Limbaughs of the world, please leave Pope Francis alone. Go back to your job spreading angry and hateful speech while the Holy Father continues his mission of love, peace and charity.

This story was updated on Oct. 12, 2015.