Why So Many American Catholics Loathe Pope Francis
Michael Liccione | July 21, 2017
Around the world, Pope Francis is understandably rather popular. It’s not just that he’s a good pastor; it’s that he doesn’t hesitate to speak truth to power when he can have an effect.
But he’s probably less popular among US Catholics than anywhere else in the Church. The reasons for that are instructive, and not only for Catholics.
Tom Hoopes, writer in residence at Benedictine College, Kansas, recently published a book of reflections on the message of Pope Francis: What Pope Francis Really Said: Words of Comfort and Challenge. Having followed Hoopes’ writing for a number of years, I respect his opinions even when I disagree with him.
So a few days ago, I lapped up a promotional interview for his book: Why Aren’t Catholics Rallying Around the Pope?. It’s for a conservative Australian publication, and it’s a pleasure to hear him explain conservative American Catholics to conservative Australian Catholics!
One complaint common among Americans is that Francis represents a break with Pope Benedict. That isn’t really true, of course. Hoopes says it’s
“…a difference in style, not substance, in Francis from his predecessors. None of them can be classified as “conservative” or “liberal.” They all have “liberal” views on economics, the environment and immigration and “conservative” views on sexual ethics, the role of religion and “old fashioned” Catholic truths such as the Devil, Mary and Confession. When we consider Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia, Francis differs remarkably from Benedict (and all his predecessors)
One stylistic difference is Francis’s harsh attitude toward economic sinners and his red-hot contempt for the Western “myths” he calls out: individualism, consumerism, and blind faith in technology.
That “stylistic difference,” however, sets many conservative American Catholics’ teeth on edge. Most such Catholics are Republicans, originally because of the abortion issue. To be Republican by conviction is, of course, to support “free-market” capitalism, including constant technological innovation and limited government, which usually translates into wanting less labor and environmental regulation as well as reined-in social spending. Given the wave of populism that brought Donald Trump into the White House, it now also means increasing restrictions on immigration and harsher penalties for illegal immigrants.
So it’s largely Francis’ politics that conservative American Catholics dislike. My friend David Mills, another Catholic journalist and editor, notes that they especially resent the Pope’s “…criticism of the kind of totalizing and optimistic kind of free market economics conservative American Catholics embrace…I don't think you can exaggerate how devoted to their politics many Catholics are, to the point that it drives their religion. This has long been a conservative Catholic critique of liberal Catholics, and not unfairly, but it applies to the right as much as to the left.” The problem is hardly that Republicans are pro-life, which all Catholics must be, but that America’s founding is largely inspired by Protestantism and the Enlightenment, both of which gave rise to “free market capitalism.” Catholic social teaching is not bound by American political economic thought, though Pope St. John Paull II in Centesimus Annus, noted that the modern welfare state is often costly, bureaucratic, and counterproductive; further, he averred that it often substitutes for private sector charity that does a better job. Although contending that it can be a mixed blessing, the Pope called capitalism the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs.
But conservative American Catholics also dislike Francis’ welcoming approach to the divorced-and-remarried. Though I’m all-too-familiar with the intricacies of the dispute, I can’t get into them here. Suffice it to say that many think he’s abandoning the Church’s traditional teaching about the indissolubility of marriage: not by denying it—he actually affirms it, in theory—but by making its pastoral application so flexible as to render it irrelevant. In the conservative Catholic mind, there could hardly be any greater papal sin than that. In an explanatory note accompanying their dubia, 4 Cardinals identified what would be at stake if Amoris Laetitia did, by the express intent of Pope Francis, change the Church’s discipline concerning the non-admission to Holy Communion of those living in an adulterous union:
It would seem that admitting to communion those of the faithful who are separated or divorced from their rightful spouse and who have entered a new union in which they live with someone else as if they were husband and wife would mean for the Church to teach by her practice one of the following affirmations about marriage, human sexuality, and the nature of the sacraments:
— A divorce does not dissolve the marriage bond, and the partners to the new union are not married. However, people who are not married can under certain circumstances legitimately engage in acts of sexual intimacy.
— A divorce dissolves the marriage bond. People who are not married cannot legitimately engage in sexual acts. The divorced and remarried are legitimate spouses and their sexual acts are lawful marital acts.
The logic here is airtight. If either of these alternatives is in fact what Amoris Laetitia intends, then it is Amoris Laetitia that needs to be revised. If Pope Francis did not intend either of these alternatives, then it is reasonable to ask him to clarify this as chaos and division spread, thus putting an end to the further growth of beliefs and practices contrary to the doctrine of the Faith.
The net effect of all these resentments is to make a large swath of theologically educated and influential American Catholics very angry with Pope Francis. Asking “Is the Pope Catholic?” no longer seems to be a merely rhetorical question for many. That is not edifying, but neither is it unprecedented.
This is an interesting time for the Church.
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