Observers are saying that the honeymoon is over for Pope Francis, and now serious questions are being raised about his papacy that may point to further divisions in the church—especially among conservative Catholics.
From the start of his papacy, conservatives have raised issues about the manner in which he has sought conciliation with Catholic liberals and non-Catholics on various issues, but they have tended to interpret these actions as more a matter of style than substance. The recent Synod on the Family held by Francis has changed that perception. This especially became apparent when the pontiff appointed a committee that appeared to open the door toward greater leniency on issues such as allowing the divorced and remarried to communion and providing greater welcome to homosexuals in the church.
The Synod officially pulled back from making any such liberalization, but the fact that the pope had drawn up the committee in the first place caused a significant wave of uncertainty among conservatives about Francis’ leadership and their own place in the church.
Ross Douthat writes in the New York Times (Oct. 26) that the pope is on the brink of sowing “confusion among the church’s orthodox adherents—encouraging doubt and defections, apocalypticism and paranoia (remember there is another pope still living!) and eventually even a real schism.” While the conservatives are a minority, “they are the people who have done the most to keep the church vital in an age of institutional decline: who have given their energy and time and money in an era when the church is stained by scandal, who have struggled to raise families and live up to demanding teachings, who have joined the priesthood and the religious life in an age when those vocations are not honored as they once were.”
An editorial in the conservative Christian magazine First Things (Nov.) states “Every time Pope Francis criticizes this or that aspect of the Church’s witness on controversial issues, the media interprets his remarks as a sign of imminent surrender.” This silence or appearance of compromise on the part of Francis does not make the situation easy for conservative Catholics. “In America, Catholics (and others allied with us) are being hammered. Our children are bombarded with the message of ‘inclusion.’ We’re silenced in our workplace, silenced in all but a few educational institutions, silenced in courtrooms where some judges deem a sane view of marriage to be ‘religiously motivated,’ and therefore inadmissible, while others go so far as to denounce it as an irrational animus.”
The traditionalist newspaper The Remnant (September 30) goes much further in its criticisms on the deleterious effects of Francis’ papacy on conservatives and traditionalists and the church in general. The committee that Francis composed to make recommendations to the Synod are said to represent a whole new “Rhine Group of German bishops” who are aiming for similar liberal impact on the church as a group of liberal bishops had during Vatican II. Francis’ demotion of Cardinal Raymond Burke from the Vatican’s highest court has served as a rallying point for conservatives and traditionalists, often at odds over such issues as the importance of the Latin Mass, who feel disenfranchised in the church. The pope’s action against Burke may have created a “sympathetic martyr,” writes Megaera Erinyes. Now that he has nothing to lose after being demoted to a largely ceremonial position with the Order of Malta, Burke is speaking to the press. He is also making regular appearances on the conservative Catholic TV network EWTN, and openly criticizing the opening to liberalization during the synod and Francis’ leadership style, and is now more or less the “defacto leader of the traditionalist movement of orthodoxy in the Latin Church,” Erinyes concludes.
(First Things, 35 E. 21st St., Sixth Fl, New York, NY 10010; The Remnant, P.O. Box 1117 Forest Lake, MN 55025)