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Whats so special about Pope Francis?
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Many Catholic commentators have chimed in over the years since Francis took the reins. Hes been labeled a radical more than once, and with varying degrees of intent. Hes a pope of surprises, according to German Cardinal Walter Kasper. - photo by JJ Feinauer
Elizabeth Stoker Bruening, a Christian ethicist and self-described Christian socialist, has tackled the controversy of Pope Francis first two years in a lengthy and unapologetically personal essay for The New Republic.

Bruening provides an interesting analysis of the pontiffs theological thinking, but the core of her essay is her analysis of the public's political reactions to Francis.

Many Catholic commentators have chimed in over the years since Francis took the reins. Hes been labeled a radical more than once, and with varying degrees of intent. Hes a pope of surprises, according to German Cardinal Walter Kasper.

But Bruening seems particularly interested in the fear such surprises seem to instill, particularly among conservative-leaning American Catholics.

He has made no substantial changes to Catholic doctrine, and yet has nonetheless earned opprobrium worthy of extreme tampering, Bruening wrote.

Indeed, many prominent conservative media voices have expressed their discomfort with Francis public statements (which, as Bruening notes, are quite different from actual theological ideas found in ecumenical statements).

The Pope is too liberal for me, conservative pundit Sean Hannity said in January in response to Francis comments on the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

Hannity, who says he was raised Catholic but has been rather vocal in his criticism of Francis views on poverty and the environment, isnt the only conservative Catholic to say such things.

But as Bruening and many other Catholic commentators have noted, Francis orthodoxy doesnt really seem to be the question.

The first thing to remember is that he is the pope, Fr. Dwight Longnecker wrote in a blog post for Patheos. He is not going to change Catholic doctrine or moral teaching. He cant and he knows that. He may be a reformer, but theres only so much he can do.

Longnecker points to Francis view on female ordination (not going to happen) and same-sex marriage (pretty orthodox) as proof that though he might be working to reshape how people view the Vatican, Catholicism remains fundamentally unchanged.

In fact, in a poll released last November, the Pew Research Center found that former Catholics dont actually see Francis as a transformative figure for the church, dispelling the theory that Francis is ruffling feathers by appealing primarily to the non-religious.

Furthermore, as of December the Pope enjoys an approval rating of 88 percent among American Catholics who are trending more and more conservative according to a poll by Saint Leo University Polling Institute. Thats a far cry from perceptions of Pope John Paul II, who struggled with the perception that he was out of step with the times and who, incidentally, was also viewed as a more conservative figure.

So, despite the vocal fears of some, Catholics seem to see Francis as more of a stabilizing figure.

For these reasons, the current pope is somewhat of a mystery. Breunings essay is, in a way, an exploration of the complicated relationship between the strict borders of American political ideology, which are getting even stricter, and the mystical elements of religious belief. Elements that often rely on descriptions of the intangible dont always fit neatly into a box of any single political ideology.
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