What does it mean that the Atlantic and Matthew Yglesias’ Moneybox blog both ran appreciative posts today about Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation, or that the Daily Caller published a story about conservatives’ reactions to the exhortation? As someone who has been occasionally annoyed by the way Francis’ symbolic gestures have had such a profound effect on people—there’s something frustrating about people flocking to mass because Pope Francis doesn’t wear red shoes—I was thrilled to see Evangelii Gaudium making waves with its serious, substantive, economic thought. As Peter Maurin once put it, the social teaching of the church is like dynamite whose power and force is rarely appreciated. To see that social teaching driving discussion and setting the terms of the debate is very exciting.

But it’s important to remember that the two sides, the symbolic and the substantive, are related. Michael Sean Winters noted at the time of Benedict XVI’s abdication that Benedict wrote more often and more insightfully on economic, environmental, and social questions than he was usually given credit for. There is a lot of continuity between the Benedict’s economic thought and Francis’ economic thought, but the latter’s writings have begun to set the agenda for mainstream political and economic conversation in a way the former’s never did.

The reason for the disparity here has largely to do with the pope’s style, although calling it “style” might be giving it a more glib word than it actually deserves. People are listening to Pope Francis because they believe, consciously or otherwise, that he has moral authority. No doubt part of this comes from his interviews and off-the-cuff remarks that have made people think he takes a softer stand on sexual morality than his predecessors. But it also has to do with his much-vaunted humility, his habit of calling up critics for some casual conversation, and, of course, his photo-ops with the poor and the disfigured.

We may be annoyed that people’s faith or their willingness to listen to the Catholic social teaching hangs so much on things like this, but human beings are moralizing, affective creatures. It’s always been the case that the perceived moral purity of the clergy has driven the fortunes of the Church—think of all the Frenchmen who became Cathars not because of theological disputation per se but because they were impressed by the asceticism of the Cathar perfecti. It’s been a long time since people have been willing to credit moral authority to church figures, and much of that has to do with the lingering anger over the way sexual abuse cases were covered up. It’s Pope Francis’ accomplishment that he has restored some moral authority to the papal office, such that people are more willing to listen to what he has to say.

Still, poverty and capitalism are perhaps the areas where he has had the least resistance to overcome among the Western literati, simply because many antecedently agree with Francis on economics. The real test will be whether the moral authority he’s claimed will allow him to challenge people on issues that are less congenial to their pre-existing biases.

If Francis can manage that, he will truly have shown that there exists a religious middle that can be reclaimed for institutional Christianity, provided we have the moral integrity and public relations savvy to claim it.

Peter Blair is a staff writer at the  American Interest and the editor-in-chief of  Fare Forward .

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