Conservative Catholics and Pope Francis

There is an interesting article in yesterday’s New York Times about the way conservative Catholics–many of whom loved John Paul II and Benedict XVI–feel “abandoned and deeply unsettled” by Francis.  Here is a taste:

In the eight months since he became pope, Francis has won affection worldwide for his humble mien and common touch. His approval numbers are skyrocketing. Even atheists are applauding.
But not everyone is so enchanted. Some Catholics in the church’s conservative wing in the United States say Francis has left them feeling abandoned and deeply unsettled. On the Internet and in conversations among themselves, they despair that after 35 years in which the previous popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, drew clear boundaries between right and wrong, Francis is muddying Catholic doctrine to appeal to the broadest possible audience.
They were particularly alarmed when he told a prominent Italian atheist in an interview published in October, and translated into English, that “everyone has his own idea of good and evil” and that everyone should “follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them” — a remark that many conservatives interpreted as appearing to condone relativism. He called proselytizing “solemn nonsense.”
They were shocked when they saw that Francis said in the interview that “the most serious of the evils” today are “youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.” It compounded the chagrin after he said in an earlier interview that he had intentionally “not spoken much” about abortion, same-sex marriage or contraception because the church could not be “obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines.” 
Steve Skojec, the vice president of a real estate firm in Virginia and a blogger who has written for several conservative Catholic websites, wrote of Francis’ statements: “Are they explicitly heretical? No. Are they dangerously close? Absolutely. What kind of a Christian tells an atheist he has no intention to convert him? That alone should disturb Catholics everywhere.”

I have been trying to make sense of this conservative backlash ever since Francis became Pope.  A few weeks ago I was at a Jesuit university for an ecumenical gathering of church-related educators.  During the conference I tried to ask as many Catholics in attendance as possible if they really thought Francis had departed from the theological teachings of the Church or his immediate predecessors.

It seems to me that Francis is different than John Paul and Benedict in his rhetoric, but is not that different in terms of doctrine.  (Although the idea that a Catholic is not called upon to convince an atheist of the truth of Christianity does seem a bit odd).  As this article points out, Francis has not budged on gay marriage, gay sex, abortion, etc…. He just does not talk about them as much as his predecessors.  Instead he talks about issues of social justice and civility.

I would love to have some of my Catholic readers chime in.  Is Francis changing Catholicism or is he merely emphasizing the dimensions of Catholic social teaching that the previous popes did not emphasize?

3 thoughts on “Conservative Catholics and Pope Francis

  1. For your consideration.

    Matthew J. Franck | @MatthewJFranck
    Intrepid New York Times reporter Laurie Goodstein has gone out and interviewed seven—count ‘em, seven!—individuals, three of them in the same room, each more or less “conservative” in his or her Catholicism, and she found some of them—not all—willing to criticize Pope Francis. This was somehow considered, by her editors, to be a “news” story worthy of the front page on a Sunday, when the paper’s readership is at its greatest.


  2. Pope Francis seems to be putting the emphasis on other issues. I think he sees issues like abortion, birth control, and homosexuality to be political issues that divide the Church needlessly. The Roman Catholic Church fits into no political ideology despite attempts by both Republicans and Democrats to make it fit.

    Conservative Catholics are just going to have to realize that they cannot use their faith as a weapon against their fellow liberal Catholics. Some talk of leaving the Church which I feel is very shallow of them since they have driven so many from the Church via their ideological actions.

    We are currently seeing what happens when a faith adopts a hardline and eliminates any voice of dissension in its ranks which should not be surprising when all we have to do is look at what has happened historically in the same context. Church attendance drops. People seek other faiths or stop attending church altogether. By the way, I'm referring to a Protestant group that has eliminated all dissension within its pastoral ranks, not the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is the poster child for why that should not be done and I think Pope Francis understands this.


  3. I do think the changes are in rhetoric and emphasis, not doctrine. But conservatives are, by nature, hesitant at least, if not downright fearful, of change. And the changes in rhetoric and emphasis have been *significant* since Pope Francis's election. – TL


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