Over at the National Catholic Reporter, my friend Brian Fraga chronicles the Holy Father’s various right wing enemies and the peculiar way in which he seems to play Roadrunner to their endless Wile E. Coyote:
The dubia cardinals. The “Pachamama” affair. The Viganò dossier. Regular criticisms of his pontificate on the Eternal Word Television Network.
Pope Francis’ 10 years on the chair of St. Peter have been marked in large part by persistent criticisms and tenacious resistance from the conservative wing of the Catholic Church, particularly in the Anglophone world, where formerly ardent papal defenders have lashed out against the current pontiff in ways once thought unthinkable.
“They wanted the church to be a moralizing church, a refuge from modernity, for the church to be a fortress where it issues condemnations and edicts and stands against the so-called progressive agenda,” said Christopher Lamb, the Rome correspondent for The Tablet, a British weekly Catholic newspaper.
Lamb, who documented the conservative resistance to Francis in his 2020 book, The Outsider: Pope Francis and His Battle to Reform the Church, told NCR that the pope’s critics early on presented their opposition in theological terms, often arguing that Francis’ style of pastoral accompaniment sowed “confusion” by not clearly articulating church doctrines on homosexuality, abortion and the indissolubility of marriage.
Pope Francis greets Christopher Lamb, Rome correspondent for The Tablet, during a general audience in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican Feb. 16, 2022. (CNS/Vatican Media)
But Lamb said that Francis’ vision of the global Catholic Church as a “field hospital,” where the Eucharist is understood as medicine for the sick instead of a prize for the perfect, challenged conservative political visions of the church as a combatant in the culture wars that were utilized by the Republican Party in the United States and embraced by populist-nationalist leaders in Europe and South America.
“There have been these political attacks on Francis because he is a leader on the world stage who is making a difference and having an impact, particularly through the media,” Lamb said.
Tension from the start
Other observers — including journalists, scholars, theologians and Catholic bloggers who have studied Francis’ decadelong pontificate — describe similar dynamics at work. These dynamics, they say, have fueled the conservative pushback against the pope almost since the moment he emerged on the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica on March 13, 2013, in a white cassock but without the usual gold-embroidered papal stole.
“That scene on the balcony that night immediately indicated to those with eyes to see and ears to hear that this would be a different kind of pontificate,” said Nichole Flores, a religious studies professor at the University of Virginia.
Flores told NCR that Francis, by bowing in silence and asking the crowd in St. Peter’s Square that night to pray for him, revealed that he would have different priorities as pope than his immediate predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II.
Nate Tinner-Williams, co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger (Courtesy of Nate Tinner-Williams)
“Perhaps we should have foreseen resistance because of Francis’ context coming out of Latin America, that culturally there was going to be resistance to what Francis brought to his pontificate, regardless of what he had to say about particular issues,” Flores said.
Nate Tinner-Williams, co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, told NCR that more conservative U.S. bishops whose vision of the Catholic Church they believed had been vindicated by Benedict and John Paul “were met with surprise when Pope Francis was elected and started doing his thing.”
“I think the American bishops see themselves in a position to exercise power and their voices to be influential in a way that for me doesn’t seem realistic. I don’t know if [the U.S. church is] a particularly powerful or important wing of the church,” Tinner-Williams said.
Experts such as Massimo Faggioli, a theologian and church historian at Villanova University, told NCR that Francis embodies for his critics the future of a Catholic Church that has its center of gravity in the global south rather than in its historic home in the Northern Hemisphere.
“Francis is not an extension of Catholic Europe, and this, I believe, is the root of a lot of the tension against Francis,” said Faggioli, who added that in 2013 he suspected that a Jesuit pope from Argentina would lead many to feel uncomfortable.
Massimo Faggioli, professor of historical theology at Villanova University (CNS/Chaz Muth)
“I expected a different kind of opposition, which would not be disruptive in the sense of doing everything and anything to undermine him,” Faggioli said. “What has been surprising has been how precocious his opposition was. It started almost immediately, a few weeks after he was elected.”
Within months of Francis’ election, criticisms began appearing in conservative Catholic circles after Francis washed the feet of 12 young people, including two women and two Muslims, on Holy Thursday in 2013, and when he sat down for uncensored interviews in publications like America Magazine.
In September 2013, a blogger on the EWTN-owned newspaper National Catholic Register described himself as a member of the “loyal opposition” that found much to critique in Francis’ approach. That same year, another conservative Catholic writer said Francis made him “uncomfortable,” though he also wrote that perhaps the pontiff, like Jesus, was challenging him and other Catholics to not be complacent.
Conservative hostility takes root
Cathleen Kaveny, a law and theology professor at Boston College, told NCR that Francis unsettled conservative Catholics who saw in John Paul and Benedict a unified vision of the papacy that they believed would “almost continue, ahistorically, throughout time.”
Cathleen Kaveny, law and theology professor at Boston College (Courtesy of Boston College)
“They saw and still see what they perceive as John Paul II’s and Benedict’s main message as the message that we still need to preach now: the move against the dictatorship of relativism. That’s their main concern, holding down the position, defending the rules and seeing the church as a clear community that’s different from the broader culture.
“For them, that’s the main impetus,” Kaveny said, “but that’s not the main impetus for Francis.”
From 2014 to 2016, experts said, conservative Catholic resistance to Francis began to crystallize, especially in 2015 when the pontiff wrote “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” his encyclical on environmental issues that acknowledged that fossil fuel emissions are primarily responsible for climate change.
“Laudato Si’ spurred objections because the critics saw Francis taking part in globalism and a population control agenda,” said Mike Lewis, a former communications official for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Lewis founded the Where Peter Is blog in February 2018 to defend Francis from what he saw as a growing chorus of unfair attacks on the pope and his teachings.
Lewis told NCR that conservative-minded Catholics also disliked Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Francis’ 2013 apostolic exhortation, in which he outlined his vision for pastoral accompaniment and emphasized social justice issues, such as economic inequality, that he attributed to unfettered capitalism.
“Rush Limbaugh accused [Francis] of Marxism,” Lewis said. “A lot of people and Catholics who were dedicated to capitalism began seeing [Francis] in a negative light.”
In 2014 and 2015, Lewis and other observers said, conservative hostility toward Francis took root when the pope convened the Synod of Bishops on the family. The synod featured frank discussions of thorny issues, such as how to minister to families with LGBTQ children and to Catholics who had been divorced and had gotten remarried without first obtaining annulments.
Lamb recalled interviewing U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke and the late Australian Cardinal George Pell at that synod, and how both of those conservative churchmen were uncomfortable with the discussions and sought to defend the church’s discipline of not allowing the divorced and remarried to receive Communion.
Australian Cardinal George Pell and U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke leave a meeting of Pope Francis and cardinals in the synod hall at the Vatican in this Feb. 21, 2014. (CNS/Paul Haring)
“Both were clearly resistant to the whole synod process, and they were doing it in a quite public way,” Lamb said. “That was the difference from other pontificates where if you were publicly opposing something the pope was trying to do, that would lead to your dismissal.”
Cardinals leading the opposition
In 2016, when Francis wrote his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), in which the pope slightly opened the door for the divorced and remarried to receive Communion in some cases, a wide swath of the conservative English-speaking Catholic universe permanently soured on Francis, observers said.
Shortly after Amoris Laetitia, four conservative cardinals, including Burke, published a list of five questions, the so-called dubia, asking Francis to clarify what they described as ambiguities in the exhortation. Conservative Catholic websites published the dubia, which Francis never responded to.
“The dubia was not a dialogue. The cardinals wanted yes-or-no answers,” Lamb said. “It was an attack on the synod process and Francis.”
Pope Francis meets with author Austen Ivereigh in November 2019. (CNS/Vatican Media)
The dubia highlighted how Amoris Laetitia became a “point of no return” for many of Francis’ conservative critics, said Austen Ivereigh, a British journalist and papal biographer who wrote about conservative resistance to Francis in his 2019 book, Wounded Shepherd: Pope Francis and His Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church.
“Amoris Laetitia tried to find a way to pastorally accompany the divorced and remarried. It doesn’t undermine the doctrine of indissolubility, but even that effort raised all the conservatives’ fears of surrender to modernity,” said Ivereigh, who suggested that the pope attracted conservative anger by exposing a conservative ideology that masqueraded as authentic Catholicism.
“And that ideology has developed and hardened over time,” Ivereigh said.
In the years since Amoris Laetitia, the conservative Catholic resistance has consistently pushed back against Francis’ initiatives, criticizing everything from the Vatican’s diplomacy with China to the pope’s overtures to the Muslim world.
Francis’ cardinal-critics — such as Burke; Pell; Gerhard Müller, the prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; and, Robert Sarah, the former prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship — became something like opposition leaders for like-minded conservative Catholics.
Much more here, including discussion of the whole stupid, racist “Pachamama” Panic du Jour launched by the MAGA Catholic Right Wing Lie Machine, which I discussed in full starting here (read the whole series).
Also, please check out Dr. Pedro Gabriel’s fine little book on THE ORTHODOXY OF AMORIS LAETITIA for more much-needed Stupid Reduction Therapy and sanity in an American Church afflicted by a large and well-funded conservative subculture that takes its cues from FOX News and not the Tradition. There remain, as ever, 7000 in Israel that have not bent the knee to Baal (actually far more, since the majority of Catholics are Normals, but they don’t control the $$$ or the MAGA Freak Show media with all the micorphones and cameras, so they feel like a minority).
Me, I’m sticking with the Holy Father and the Magisterium. May God grant these people the grace of repentance and the love of neighbor through Christ our Lord.