Is Pope Francis Keeping Conservative Catholics at a Distance?

As American conservatives are challenging the Republican Party to return to its constitutional roots, many Catholic conservatives are trying to cope with a parallel sense that the new leader of the world’s Catholics has not reached out to them. Having initially blamed the “media” as the reason why Pope Francis is sounding less than clear about Catholic teachings, many who have followed the tenets of their faith for years feel like the rug has been pulled out from underneath them.

According to Laurie Goodstein at the New York Times, conservative Catholics are, in fact, feeling “left out of the pope’s embrace.” In the eight months since he was elected, Francis has become a rock star, having won world-wide affection for his love of the poor, the humble life, and, especially, non-Catholics, atheists, and those he considers to be on the fringes of society.

“But not everyone is so enchanted,” Goodstein writes. “Some Catholics in the church’s conservative wing in the United States say Francis has left them feeling abandoned and deeply unsettled.”

Conservative Catholic writers and bloggers, in fact, have congregated online and in teleconferences to console each other and provide what could easily be viewed as a type of therapeutic support group. Questions such as, “How do we deal with how the media are portraying the pope?” and “Does the pope not support the work the pro-life movement has done over these years?” are being considered with the blunt awareness that, unlike his two predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Francis appears to be creating more a sense of uncertainty about Catholic teaching ostensibly for the purpose of making the Church attractive to a wider audience.

Soon after Francis began giving his now-famous impromptu interviews, worried conservative Catholics were being treated to “sermons” from some writers who invoked the scripture’s parable of the prodigal son, with conservatives being cast in the role of the faithful, but angry, son who could not comprehend why his father was lavishing all sorts of luxury on his brother, who returned home after spending his inheritance on wine, women, and song. “Unfallen-away” Catholics, framed as stoking the flames of sibling rivalry, were seen as unwilling to open up the Church’s doors to those who might be brought back into the fold if only conservatives tried harder to be more welcoming and forgiving.

For his part, Francis’ statements have not really contradicted Catholic doctrine, but he has a way of straddling the outer edge of the Church’s teachings, so that a “spin-loving” liberal media can push it over the line, allowing cafeteria-type Catholic readers, perhaps, to breathe relief that, finally, there is a pope who is unconcerned with Church rules, one who says atheism and homosexuality are fine, and that abortion can be placed on the back burner.

Perhaps some of what Pope Francis says needs to be taken with a grain of salt. In one of his now famous interviews, published recently in a Jesuit magazine, the new pontiff said of himself, “I am a really, really undisciplined person,” and even offered that this vice has caused him problems in the past.

“But I am always wary of decisions made hastily," said Francis. " I am always wary of the first decision, that is, the first thing that comes to my mind if I have to make a decision. This is usually the wrong thing."

Such a self-described flaw, one that implies impulsivity or even questionable judgment, might continue to cause him problems within the scope of his role as leader of the world’s Catholics, especially since he also seems to thoroughly enjoy frequent spontaneous public speaking, where such a characteristic could be readily on display.

The result of his spontaneity, however, has pitted some who believe the Church is too “rule-conscious” against conservatives who celebrate the tenets of their faith.

For example, conservative Catholic writer Steve Skojec recently felt the need to defend himself against being referred to as a “rigorist” by Catholic supporters of Pope Francis. He explained what happened to him when the world began to get to know the new pontiff:

Then he started speaking. And the statements he has been making are intensely problematic. 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. Many of his other statements, by and large, are less egregious, though they are still quite problematic. They are open to wildly varying interpretation because they are made without context, thus leaving it open to the will of the interpreter to apply it.

Skojec’s point is supported by the recent invocations of the words of Pope Francis by people in politics and those involved in Catholic left organizations.

In September, for example, John Gehring, the head of the George Soros-funded Faith in Public Life, called upon Francis’ remark in the same Jesuit interview, i.e., “I’ve never been a right-winger,” to liken conservative Catholics to the “Pharisees” of Jesus’ day, often used as an example of those who hypocritically practice the rules of their faith without concern for the true spirit that underlies them:

Conservative Catholic pundits like George Weigel and Bill Donohue (not to mention a few U.S. Catholic bishops) must be wondering who took the keys away. The spin will begin soon enough from the Catholic right, which will highlight the fact that the pope has made no changes to church teaching. This misses the point entirely. Something far bigger is happening. Pope Francis is rescuing the Catholic Church from those grim-faced watchdogs of orthodoxy who in windowless rooms reduce Catholicism to a laundry list of no’s.

The Francis Doctrine, if you will, is about building a more joyful, merciful, collegial church that opens doors instead of building up walls. I’m reminded of Jesus taking on the Pharisees in all their righteous moralizing and obsession with legalism. This is a pope who recognizes that a church primarily known for what it opposes rather than what it loves is doomed to irrelevance. “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules,” Francis says. “Ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.”

In an example of how Pope Francis’ words have infiltrated politics, this past week the Illinois legislature’s passage of its same-sex “marriage” bill was reportedly enabled in part because of Francis’ comments on homosexuality.

The Chicago Tribune reported that two Catholic Illinois state representatives, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, cited the pontiff’s words from another impromptu interview in explaining their decision to support same-sex “marriage.”

Advocates soon received additional help from Pope Francis, who warned that the Catholic Church could lose its way by focusing too much on social stances, including opposition to homosexuality.

"If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?" Francis said in July.

The comments sparked a wave of soul-searching by several Catholic lawmakers who had battled to reconcile their religious beliefs with their sworn duty to represent their constituents who were increasingly supportive of gay rights even as Cardinal Francis George remained opposed.

"As a Catholic follower of Jesus and the pope, Pope Francis, I am clear that our Catholic religious doctrine has at its core love, compassion and justice for all people," said Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, a Democrat from Aurora who voted for the bill after spending much of the summer undecided.

House Speaker Michael Madigan also cited the pope's comments in explaining his support for the measure.

"For those that just happen to be gay — living in a very harmonious, productive relationship but illegal — who am I to judge that they should be illegal?" the speaker said.

Similarly, a Catholic pastor in New York, associated with the liberal Pax Christi organization, invoked Francis’ words when he told his bishop he would not permit his parish to hold the U.S. Bishops’ collection for the military service, because he believed it promoted increased “militarism in our culture.”

According to Rev. Timothy Taugher, Pope Francis said, “The true force of the Christian is the force of truth and of love, which means rejecting all violence. Faith and violence are incompatible!”

“There have been bad popes in the history of the church. Popes that murdered, popes that had mistresses,” Skojec told the Times. “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.”

Other conservative Catholics have calmed themselves by concluding that Francis has said nothing that contradicts Catholic doctrine, and that, in fact, much of what he has said is simply a reiteration of what Catholic teaching has been all along.

“But in interviews, the words that conservatives used most often to characterize Francis were ‘naïve’ and ‘imprudent,’” writes Goodstein. “They believe that he is saying things in ways that the news media and the church’s ‘enemies’ are able to distort, and that there are consequences.”

In an interview with the Times, Matt C. Abbott, a conservative Catholic columnist in Chicago with Renew America, said, “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.”

“For orthodox and conservative Catholics,” Abbott added, “the last few months have been a roller-coaster ride.”

Alexandra Shattuck, however, director of a Catholic crisis pregnancy clinic in Georgia, said that she had studied one of the pope’s interviews in her parish’s Bible study class, and came to the conclusion that the news media took Francis’ warning not to “obsess” about abortion out of context.

Katie Stacy, the development coordinator of the clinic agreed, adding, “I think he was completely right. The focus should be not only on love and mercy, but on treating the women in these crisis situations with love and mercy.”

In addition, the clinic’s staff agreed that most priests are far from obsessed with abortion or contraception, rarely preaching about them at all.

“When a pope makes a statement off the cuff or in an interview, it’s not an infallible statement,” said Chris Baran, the president of the clinic’s board of directors. “What he said in a statement does not change any teaching of the church that’s been around over 2,000 years.”


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