Why conservative Catholics think Pope Francis is a fraud
March 14, 2017
It’s been four years since Pope Francis kicked off one of the most striking papacies in memory. Within the Catholic world, sadly divided into warring political camps, he is seen as a hero by progressive Catholics and a scourge of conservatives.
Why do so many conservatives dislike Pope Francis? In many cases, because he makes noises they dislike.
Francis has had harsh words against globalized capitalism, has written a major encyclical on the environment, and has been a major supporter of migrants in the crisis seizing Europe. In all these controversies, he actually hasn’t strayed too far from Catholic orthodoxy. But the most charitable version of the conservative critique, which is not unjustified, is that his tone and emphasis make him sound like a straightforward progressive, and risks identifying the Magisterium of the Church with the progressive left.
Then there are the hot-button, below-the-belt issues. Pope Francis clearly would like to overturn Catholic doctrine saying that the faithful who are divorced and civilly remarried but have not received an annulment must refrain from receiving holy communion. He has walked right up to the line of overturning that doctrine, insulted those who oppose the move, and winked heavily at those Catholics who take a “Who am I to judge?” approach to communion. Conservatives fear that Francis’ actions represent tentative first steps down a dangerous slippery slope. Is this the beginning of an eventual undoing of all of Catholicism’s ancient and countercultural teachings on sexual ethics? If he goes too far, could he create a new schism within the Church?
I’m sympathetic to all of these critiques. But here’s the thing: One of the key endeavors of modernity has been to separate religion and politics; but paradoxically, the result of trying to separate them often makes them collapse together. When religion is turned into a private hobby, people turn politics into another kind of religion. My point is that what makes a pope’s legacy isn’t political. It’s spiritual.