Pope Francis is Upsetting Conservative U.S. Catholics — Here’s Why

Pope Francis leads a Mass on the occasion of All Saints' Day on Nov. 1, 2014 at Campo di Verano cemetery in Rome on Saturday. (PHOTO CREDIT: Vincenzo Pinto, AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis leads a Mass on the occasion of All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1, 2014 at Campo di Verano cemetery in Rome on Saturday. (PHOTO CREDIT: Vincenzo Pinto, AFP/Getty Images)

A senior American cardinal in the Vatican says that under this pope, the Roman Catholic Church is “a ship without a rudder” and the faithful “are feeling a bit seasick.”

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput complains that a recent Vatican conference called by Pope Francis produced “confusion,” adding, “Confusion is of the devil.”

A group of conservative lay Catholics say they felt “betrayed” by a preliminary report from the conference that proposed a more welcoming attitude toward gay men and lesbians.

Turnabout is supposed to be fair play, but for these and other U.S. Catholic conservatives and traditionalists, the papacy of Francis also seems to be infuriating, worrying or just plain puzzling.

“The conservatives had it all their way for about 30 years, and now the shoe might be on the other foot,” says the Rev. Paul Sullins, a priest who teaches sociology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. “Now they feel on the outside a little bit, which is exactly how the progressives used to feel.”

That was during the papacies of John Paul II (1978-2005) and Benedict XVI (2005-13), doctrinal conservatives who brooked little discussion and less dissension when it came to church teaching on issues such as ordination of women and compulsory priestly celibacy.

Many conservatives struggle to get a handle on Pope Francis, who since taking office last year warned against an “obsessive” concern with culture war issues, such as abortion and gay marriage; encouraged discussion of church teaching on things like contraception and divorce; and asked, regarding gay men and lesbians who profess religious faith, “Who am I to judge?”

Conservative reaction ranges from open dismay over Francis’ direction to the more common conviction that it’s not the pope promoting liberalization, but a news media that reports his frequent off-the-cuff remarks out of context for a public with little grounding in Catholicism.

“A lot of mainstream media reporting is based on what people hope Pope Francis is saying, instead of what he is actually saying,” says Arina Grossu, a 31-year-old University of Notre Dame graduate who worships in the Archdiocese of Washington. The result, she concludes, “only adds to the noise and confusion.”

But Sullins, the church sociologist, says that for some conservatives the problem starts at the top: “Their feeling is, ‘We’re out here on the front lines in the culture wars — fighting abortion, gay marriage. It seemed Benedict had our back, and Francis doesn’t.”

The veteran Vatican watcher John Allen asked last month in The Boston Globe: “Is a tipping point drawing close when conservatives who have been inclined to give Pope Francis the benefit of the doubt will, instead, turn on him?”

America’s 78 million baptized Catholics form the nation’s largest religious denomination. Some yearn for a simpler time — like 2012. “When the pope says, ‘Don’t judge,’ I don’t agree with that,” says Mick O’Connell, a 68-year-old Catholic from Philadelphia standing outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. “It’s his job to judge right from wrong.”

Any doubt that times are changing ended with last month’s Vatican synod, or church council, which brought hundreds of bishops and other Catholics to Rome for two weeks to discuss the application of church teaching on marriage and family life.

After the pope announced plans for the conference last year, the Vatican took the unprecedented step of sending questionnaires to local dioceses seeking grass-roots opinion on matters such as same-sex marriage, contraception, cohabitation and divorce.

Liberals cheered a preliminary report on the proceedings that, consonant with Francis’ inclinations, expressed welcome to gay men and lesbians of faith and hope for gentler treatment of Catholics who live together outside of marriage or have divorced and remarried outside the church (and thus cannot receive Communion).

Conservatives then rallied and struck much of what they found offensive in the first report from the synod’s final one — a move widely reported as a rebuff of Francis. But the damage was done.

Chaput expressed dismay over the debate in Rome, saying, “Confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was one of confusion.”

Cardinal Raymond Burke, former archbishop of St. Louis and now head of the Vatican’s highest court, has been even more outspoken. In an interview with a Spanish Catholic weekly published last week, he said of the pope’s leadership: “Many have expressed their concerns to me. … There is a strong sense that the church is like a ship without a rudder.”

One conservative Catholic group, Voice of the Family, said its members felt betrayed. After an Australian married couple at the synod described their decision to let their gay son bring his partner home to celebrate Christmas, Voice coordinator Maria Mardise said, “The unqualified welcome of homosexual couples into family and parish environments damages everybody, by serving to normalize the disorder of homosexuality.”

The synod will be followed by another, larger session next year on the same topic. And no matter what happens then, substantive change can be ordered only by Francis himself.

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The Associated Press
Rick Hampson

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