“As far as the Catholic Church is concerned,” Benedict said in a 2006 address, “the principal focus of her interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person.” The top two “not negotiable” items, he said, are the protection of life upon conception and the promotion of heterosexual marriage as distinct from “radically different forms of union which in reality harm it .”
Now many of the same traditionalists are attempting to reconcile Francis’s seemingly open statements with this sense of what it means to be Catholic. The conclusions they reach vary greatly.
Some report praying deeply on the matter and finding that struggling with the dissonance has strengthened their connection to their faith. They are sharing widely online essays with names like “Pope Francis is killing me,” and “Why Pope Francis makes me uncomfortable.”
Mary Ellen Barringer, a Silver Spring resident who attends Mass daily, says she misses Benedict “desperately.” Right away, she said, Francis challenged all Catholics to do more . She felt him saying to people like her: Writing checks to pro-life causes isn’t enough, you need to get closer to the disenfranchised and the poor. She felt him telling her she was being smug about less traditional Catholics.
“He is calling every single one of us to love our neighbor as ourselves, which is a really hard thing to do,” she said. “We tend to have barriers up in society : Republican, Democrat, liberal, whatever. We don’t just sit down and say, ‘Why do you think this or that?’
“Maybe Pope Francis is calling me to love someone whose views I don’t like. And how much better would the world be if we got over all this.”
Gregory Popcak, a marriage and family counselor on the radio and in private practice in Ohio, describes being sent deep into prayer after several clients used Francis’s public words to push back on Popcak when he explained church teachings on sex and love. One client recently quit, saying, “I’m much more of a Pope Francis-Nancy Pelosi Catholic, and you’re an old-school, Pope John Paul II Catholic,” he recalled.
First, he felt frustrated, then ashamed.
The story of the prodigal son came to him, and he saw in himself the good son. “The good kid who stayed behind, did everything his father told him to do, ,” Popcak wrote in a recent online essay that prompted dozens of people to share similar sentiments. “People who left the Church, who hated the Church . . . were suddenly realizing that God loved them, that the Church welcomed them, and all I could do was feel bitter about it.”
Royal rejects conservatives who “make excuses” for Francis. Over history, he contends, “there are better and worse popes and God allows them. . . . I’m learning to live with it. We had one of the greatest living intellectuals [in Benedict] and now we’ve got a guy who doesn’t seem to think clear expression is important.”
Some Catholics feel Francis is resurfacing fights that followed the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. Conservatives felt liberal Catholics misinterpreted the Council’s intention and took “open” too far.
The last two popes seemed to agree, making a priority of establishing “Catholic identity” among people and institutions by emphasizing the importance of crystal-clear doctrine, particularly on issues around human reproduction and marriage.
“The angry screaming debates in parishes — I don’t want to go there again,” said Lawler. “Things were calming down.”
Conservatives who perceive too much ambiguity in Francis’s remarks were heartened to note that the pope in recent weeks excommunicated a priest who spoke in favor of women’s ordination, gave some of his most anti-abortion comments and called a rare Synod on the Family, which they believe will be a vehicle for reinforcing orthodoxy . But so far they have not garnered the same kind of attention as the pope conversing with an atheist.
Barringer, 56, said she worries that Francis’ words could be twisted by the media and others to hurt the religious freedom of conservatives like herself. But she is keeping faith.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that the holy spirit helped the cardinals pick the right man for the church in 2013,” she said. “ If I truly believe that, I believe whatever he says is leading us where the Lord needs to lead us.”
CORRECTION:An earler version of this story mischaracterizes Catholic teaching on homosexuality. This version has been corrected.