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What can Americans learn from Pope Francis?

Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of Congress

Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, making history as the first pontiff to do so. Listening behind the pope are Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio. Credit: AP / Carolyn Kaster

Pope Francis kicked of an historic six-day U.S. tour in Washington D.C. on Tuesday, with stops at the White House and Congress, Madison Square Garden and the United Nations in New York City and the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.

In a nation of 70 million Catholics, the pontiff's visit was not without controversy. Conservatives have attacked Francis's criticism of capitalism and his support for greater government intervention on global climate change. Meantime, liberals have expressed displeasure with the church's unwavering stance on divorce, same-sex marriage and abortion.

Should Americans heed the pope's message on the environment, the economy and the family? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, weigh in.

JOEL MATHIS: Who's more Catholic than the pope? American conservatives, apparently.

The growing, naked hostility of some American conservatives - including many Catholics - toward Pope Francis has been astonishing to behold. And it suggests that for many of those conservatives, the highest powers they must serve and worship are not a deity or their own faith, but the markets and climate change denialism.

Religious faith, at least, often admits the possibility of doubt, and its priests are often patient and gentle with people struggling to believe. Market fundamentalists, though, demand far more slavish devotion: It's not enough to agree that capitalism has lifted many people out of poverty or that it has, in fact, helped create many goods. You must cast away any thoughts about its imperfections, cease to point out that the "creative destruction" of the markets can often destroy a few lives on the way to making a greater good.

To believe in climate change is one of the worst heresies of this faith: It is to admit that the markets can sometimes make mistakes, that there are values which can be distorted by the profit motive if unchecked, that sometimes maybe the restraining hand of government is needed in order to preserve the common good.

Pope Francis has proved himself a heretic on these questions. This is not a surprise: His predecessors - Benedict and John Paul - held similar views about the limits of the markets. Conservatives in those days tended to ignore the pontiffs, or to (metaphorically) pet them on the head and muse about how bishops don't really understand economics.

With Pope Francis, however, we're treated to talks of a boycott in Congress, to snarling from usually gentle pundits like George Will, and to overall shows of hostility that would've been unthinkable just a few years ago.

"I don't need to be lectured by the Pope about climate change," Rep. Paul Gosar, a Catholic Republican from Arizona, huffed recently. "When he wants to take a political position, I will tell you: He is free and clear to be criticized like the rest of us." The scriptures say you can't serve both God and mammon. Republicans, it seems, are proving it.

BEN BOYCHUK: Pope Francis isn't a politician, an economist or a climatologist. He is first and foremost a priest and a pastor of some 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. Americans, Catholic and Protestant alike, forget that too easily.

True, Pope Francis discusses politics, economics and the climate in confounding ways. He really doesn't understand the way free markets work. He's listening to some highly misguided people about global warming. And as his visit with Fidel Castro showed, Francis isn't as outspoken in the face of tyranny as was his predecessor, Saint Pope John Paul II.

But Francis is neither anti-American nor a Marxist. Some conservatives sound like fools when they accuse the pontiff of being something he's not.

I say this as a Catholic and a conservative myself. Until recently, however, I was among the 75 percent of self-identifying U.S. Catholics who don't attend mass any given Sunday. I returned to the Church not despite Francis but partly because of him.

Turns out, leftists and environmentalists aren't the only ones susceptible to making a religion of politics.

In a new book exploring the pope's views of capitalism and social justice, veteran Vatican reporters Andrea Tornielli and Giacomo Galeazzi ask Francis about his outspoken American conservative critics.

"I do not speak as an economical expert, but according to the social doctrine of the church," the pope replied. "And this does not mean I am a Marxist. Perhaps whoever has made this comment does not know the social doctrine of the church and, apparently, does not even know Marxism all that well, either." He's right. When the pope talks about the environment and the economy, he is not speaking infallibly. He's using his moral authority to advance a discussion, not to demand obedience or assent.

This is a point many mainstream American media outlets downplay or miss altogether. Fact is, only a small portion of pope's recent controversial encyclical, Laudato Si', concerned global climate change. Most of it had to do the moral and ethical climate in which we live - one that tends to devalue human life and exalts material things.

"Any technical solution which science claims to offer will be powerless to solve the serious problems of our world if humanity loses its compass," he writes. Americans would do well to ask if we've already lost ours - and what we might do to get it back.

Ben Boychuk ( is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Joel Mathis ( is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine. Visit them on Facebook: