SMYRNA, Ga. – When Pope Francis was elected in March, Bridget Kurt received a small prayer card with his picture at her church and put it up on her refrigerator at home, next to pictures of her friends and her favorite saints.
She regularly attends Mass, is a longtime stalwart in her church’s anti-abortion movement and is a believer that all the Church’s doctrines are true and beautiful and should be obeyed. She loved the past two popes and keeps a scrapbook with memorabilia from her road trip to Denver in 1993 to see Pope John Paul II at World Youth Day.
But Kurt recently took the Pope Francis prayer card down and threw it away.
“It seems he’s focusing on bringing back the left that’s fallen away, but what about the conservatives?” said Kurt, a hospice community educator. “Even when it was discouraging working in pro-life, you always felt like Mother Teresa was on your side and the popes were encouraging you. Now I feel kind of thrown under the bus.”
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 in order 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 so 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 stunned when they saw that Francis said in that interview, “the most serious of the evils” today are “youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.” It compounded the chagrin when he said in an earlier interview that he had intentionally “not spoken much” about abortion, gay marriage and contraception because the church cannot be “obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines.”
Steve Skojec, 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.”
In an interview Friday, Skojec said he was overwhelmed by the positive response to his blog from people who said they were thinking the same things but had not wanted to say it in public. He said he has come to suspect that Francis is a “self-styled revolutionary” who wants to change the church fundamentally.
“There have been bad popes in the history of the church,” said Skojec. “Popes that murdered, popes that had mistresses. I’m not saying Pope Francis is terrible, but there’s no divine protection that keeps him from being the type of guy who with subtlety undermines the teachings of the church to bring about a different vision.”
Most American Catholics do not share his objections. A poll taken soon after the interview by Quinnipiac University found that 2 in 3 agreed that the church is too “obsessed” with a few issues.
In parsing Francis’ statements in recent weeks, other Catholic conservatives are concluding that nothing he has said contradicts the Catholic catechism, with some of his language even echoing Benedict’s. But in interviews, the words conservatives used most often to characterize Francis were “naïve” and “imprudent” because he is saying things in ways that the news media and the church’s “enemies” are able to distort, and that there are consequences.
Some pointed to a vote on gay marriage just last week in Illinois. Two Catholic state legislators who voted to approve same-sex marriage there cited the words of Pope Francis: “Who am I to judge.” The pope said those words in response to a question about gay people during a long, freewheeling interview on an airplane in July. But Francis has not changed Catholic teaching, which holds that marriage is only between a man and a woman, and that gay sex is wrong but that gay people are worthy of mercy and respect.
Matt C. Abbott, a Catholic columnist in Chicago with Renew America, a politically conservative website, said in an interview Friday, “I wish that he could have chosen some different words, expressed himself in a different way that wouldn’t have been so easily taken out of context.”
Abbott said, “For orthodox and conservative Catholics, the last few months have been a roller-coaster ride.” He added in an email, “I’m not a big fan of roller coasters.”
Some Catholic conservatives are sharing over the Internet prophecies that foretell of tribulations for the church. In one, an Irish woman predicted that Benedict would be held hostage. Others cite the German mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich, who wrote of a “relationship between two popes,” one who “lives in a palace other than before,” which some now see as a reference to Benedict. During this time there arises a “false Church of darkness.”
But some Catholics initially alarmed by Francis’ remarks are now trying to calm others.
Judie Brown, president and the co-founder of the American Life League, a Catholic anti-abortion group, said, “Pro-lifers are upset because they feel the pope is selling out the pro-life movement. And that’s not at all correct. If you read everything he’s been saying, especially in his Wednesday sermons, there’s no question that where he stands is consistent with what the church has been teaching.”
At the Pregnancy Aid Clinic in Hapeville, Ga., a Catholic-run nonprofit center where women who come for pregnancy tests are counseled against abortion, staff members gathered around a kitchen table last week and cautiously said they had been grappling with the pope’s message and trying to take it to heart.
Alexandra P. Shattuck, the clinic’s director, said she had studied the pope’s first published interview in her parish’s Bible study class and concluded that the news media had taken Francis’ warning not to “obsess” about abortion out of context. She said Francis was really trying to teach about mercy.
“I think he was completely right,” added Katie Stacy, development coordinator at the clinic and a recent college graduate. “The focus should be not only on love and mercy, but on treating the women in these crisis situations with love and mercy.”
The room was crammed with baskets of empty baby bottles to be distributed to Atlanta parishes to fill with coins and bills as donations. The staff members said most priests are far from obsessed with abortion or contraception, preaching against it only during “Respect Life Sunday.”
“When a pope makes a statement off the cuff or in an interview, it’s not an infallible statement,” said Chris Baran, the clinic’s board president. “What he said in a statement does not change any teaching of the church that’s been around over 2,000 years.”