Pope Francis’ Predicament with Conservative Catholics

Pope Francis meeting with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

Pope Francis is merely five months into his papacy, but he already is reversing a three decades old paradigm in the Catholic Church of conservatives being courted and progressives being silenced. Traditionalist Catholics have responded several ways to Francis’ new style of leadership with potentially wide-ranging implications for both the church and LGBT equality.

David Gibson writes in the National Catholic Reporter about the divided opinions among conservatives in the Church, largely grouped in three camps. First, there are those who openly express their disapproval of Pope Francis, ranging from bloggers to archbishops:

“[Pope Francis has alienated] many on the Catholic right by refusing to play favorites and ignoring their preferred agenda items even as he stressed the kind of social justice issues that are near and dear to progressives…

“Indeed, he barely mentioned abortion directly or even gay rights until he was asked about gay priests during an impromptu press conference on the flight back from Brazil and, in a line heard round the world, he said, ‘Who am I to judge?’

“Catholics on ‘the right wing of the church,’ Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput said on the eve of the Brazil trip, “have not been really happy about (Francis’) election.’ “

Others apologetically interpret Pope Francis to show how he is continuing the style and/or substance of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI:

“Not everyone on the right, however, is willing to concede that their influence may be on the wane or even that Francis is really any different than Benedict.

“Instead, many are advancing detailed arguments that they say show Francis doesn’t actually mean what the media and public think he means, adding that the pope’s honeymoon will get a cold shower when liberals see Francis is just as orthodox as his predecessors.”

A number of conservatives recognize change is occurring, but a change that is not necessarily destructive and might help shift a misguided emphasis on the papacy to a healthier ecclesiology.

Regardless of how conservative Catholics choose to interpret Pope Francis, how Pope Francis responds to them will be important for the Church’s future. Gibson cites Michael D’Antonio writing in Foreign Policy magazine in pointing out the pope’s challenge:

” ‘[Conservatives] have loyally supported the church with donations and activism and can be expected to oppose any change in direction of the sort Francis has signaled…

” ‘But this constituency cannot sustain the church in the long term…and the church now needs a figure able to bridge the gap between its rightward movement and the reality that Westerners are leaving the church in droves. That problem requires a wily pope with the skill and charisma to pull off the high-wire balancing act of unifying these two disparate impulses.’ “

Part of this tension is over issues of gender and sexual orientation. Those Westerners leaving Catholicism are often doing so due to harmful words of and actions by Catholic leaders against LGBT people, cheered on by a vocal anti-equality minority within the Church. Pope Francis seems to be taking a more pastoral and conversational tone around issues of sexuality and identity. This is an essential step to building up healthier Catholic communities, but one that will be controversial for conservatives complacent with the anti-gay rhetoric Francis’ two predecessors.

One first step in walking this line? Transforming how the People of God view bishops and their role in the Church. Check back tomorrow for commentary on just that — and if you’d like to receive daily posts from Bondings 2.0, you can subscribe by clicking the “Follow” button in the upper right hand corner of this page.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

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10 Responses to Pope Francis’ Predicament with Conservative Catholics

  1. Paul Halsall says:

    So far (and I am still scarred) I love this pope. I was on the point of becoming an Anglican, but I will wait a bit. I want to be part of the Church of Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Mychal Judge and St. Francis.

  2. Barbara says:

    I pray we all will keep our eyes on Jesus, and hope that is where this Pope will continue to focus us.

  3. Nancy Meyers says:

    I pray Pope Francis stands his grounds and will not let some former popes influence him. He is a breath of fresh air in the Catholic church and as he said, “Who am I to judge?” And that’s exactly what many very conservative Catholics are doing when they state their dislikes of Pope Francis. Who wants to go back to the old ways—women wearing chapel veils in church, not being allowed to participate in the Mass such as servers and Eucharistic Ministers and the priest not facing the people? NOT ME. Pope John 23 gave new life to the church and Pope Francis is extending it. He is following in St. Francis’ ways—teach by example and not just by words.

  4. From my experiences in reconciling differing points of view (I am a marriage and family therapist)–I would like to name one of the conditions which move opposing parties toward a common perspective. When common sense addresses real problems which need solution, movement toward one another among persons of good will can happen…the metaphor used at such times is “the big tent”–that place where all of us “rub elbows” with differing perspectives, cultures, etc. In these instances (the experiences I am drawing on), common sense trumped ideologies, kept the conversation going, etc. The purist in each of us gets “a little dirty”. The far right keeps inviting the left to find themselves in the Episcopal or Lutheran Church, etc. rather than engaging with common sense problem solving. Racists find it difficult to sit at the table with “them” to work out a solution. Community constantly demands compromise and solution–really hard on the idealist in my head!

  5. Joshua says:

    I do not like his low church liturgical sensibility. His liturgical humility seems to be a put on as well. From the very start he selfishly bucked tradition and did things his way. This is selfish. When you are elected pope, what “you want” fades into the background. If he doesn’t want to be pope, he should abdicate. He has willfully turned himself into a rock star by doing everything he can to increase the cult of personality around his name and office. A pope should not be like one of the Beatles. When secular culture sings his praises that’s when the FALSE PROPHET tune sounds!

    • Friends says:

      Joshua, let is not forget that Pope John Paul II — prior to the shooting attempt on his life which nearly succeeded — was also regarded as a charismatic “rock star” Pope. He hiked in the mountains, he was a skier, and young people loved him and flocked around him adoringly, as he reciprocated very much in kind. I think we’ve forgotten this aspect of his early Papacy. Before the shooting, he seemed very much like Pope Francis. God only knows — literally — where he might have led the Church, if fate and a crazed Moslem extremist had not intervened.

    • Tom says:

      He is actually doing what Jesus would want and actually DID

  6. […] school and voicing the antipathy of right-wing Catholics towards Pope Francis’ more welcoming style, even as a Villanova University study (in his own […]

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