Rattled by Pope Francis’s admonishment to Catholics not to be “obsessed” by doctrine, his stated reluctance to judge gay priests and his apparent willingness to engage just about anyone – including atheists – many conservative Catholics are doing what only recently seemed unthinkable:
They are openly questioning the pope.
Concern among traditionalists began building soon after Francis was elected this spring. Almost immediately, the new pope told non-Catholic and atheist journalists he would bless them silently out of respect. Soon after, he eschewed Vatican practice and included women in a foot-washing ceremony.
The wary traditionalists became critical when, in an interview a few weeks ago, Francis said Catholics shouldn’t be “obsessed” with imposing doctrines, including on gay marriage and abortion. Then earlier this month, Francis told an atheist journalist that people should follow good and fight evil as they “conceive” of them. These remarks followed an interview with journalists this summer aboard the papal airplane in which the pope declared that it is not his role to judge someone who is gay “if they accept the Lord and have goodwill.”
Never mind that the pope has also made clear his acceptance of church doctrine, which regards homosexuality and abortion as sins and bans women from the priesthood. Behind the growing skepticism is the fear in some quarters that Francis’s all-embracing style and spontaneous speech, so open as it is to interpretation, are undoing decades of church efforts to speak clearly on Catholic teachings. Some conservatives also feel that the pope is undermining them at a time when they are already being sidelined by an increasingly secular culture.
“When [abortion rights group] NARAL sends you a thank-you note, it’s clear something got miscommunicated,” said Robert Royal, president of the D.C. think tank Faith & Reason.
Francis is “a remarkable man, no one would deny that,” Royal said. “But I’m not sure if he cares about being accurate. He gets into an [evangelizing] dynamic with people and that seems to be the most important thing. … In some ways it makes people very anxious. If you do this, what’s the next thing?”
David O’Brien, a historian of the Catholic Church, said debate about popes isn’t entirely new. Controversy exploded when papal infallibility was enshrined in the late 1800s and then again in the 1950s when John XXIII met with a prominent Communist. Journalists speculated the pope may have even included a blessing.
In today’s complicated world, it’s not easy to speak simply about what defines a “good Catholic,” O’Brien said.
Many conservatives thought they knew. That’s because the last two popes, John Paul II and Benedict, made it clear how essential it is to follow church doctrine, in particular prioritizing the need to oppose abortion and gay equality.
“As far as the Catholic Church is concerned,” Benedict said in a 2006 address, “the principal focus of her interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person.” The top two “not negotiable” items, he said, are the protection of life upon conception and the promotion of heterosexual marriage as distinct from “radically different forms of union which in reality harm it.”
Now many of the same traditionalists are attempting to reconcile Francis’s seemingly open statements with this sense of what it means to be Catholic. The conclusions they reach vary greatly.
Some report praying deeply on the matter and finding that struggling with the dissonance has strengthened their connection to their faith. They are sharing widely online essays with names like “Pope Francis is killing me,” and “Why Pope Francis makes me uncomfortable.”
Mary Ellen Barringer, a Silver Spring, Md., resident who attends Mass daily, says she misses Benedict “desperately.” Right away, she said, Francis challenged all Catholics to do more. She felt him saying to people like her: Writing checks to pro-life causes isn’t enough, you need to get closer to the disenfranchised and the poor. She felt him telling her she was being smug about less traditional Catholics.
“He is calling every single one of us to love our neighbor as ourselves, which is a really hard thing to do,” she said. “We tend to have barriers up in society: Republican, Democrat, liberal, whatever. We don’t just sit down and say, ‘Why do you think this or that?’
“Maybe Pope Francis is calling me to love someone whose views I don’t like. And how much better would the world be if we got over all this.”