Rattled by Pope Francis’s admonishment to Catholics not to be “obsessed” by doctrine, his stated reluctance to judge gay people and his apparent willingness to engage just about anyone — including atheists — many conservative Catholics are doing what only recently seemed unthinkable:
They are openly questioning the pope.
Concern among traditionalists began building soon after Francis was elected this spring. Almost immediately, the new pope told non-Catholic and atheist journalists he would bless them silently out of respect. Soon after, he eschewed Vatican practice and included women in a foot-washing ceremony.
The wary traditionalists became critical when, in an interview a few weeks ago, Francis said Catholics shouldn’t be “obsessed” with imposing doctrines, including on gay marriage and abortion. Then earlier this month, Francis told an atheist journalist that people should follow good and fight evil as they “conceive” of them. These remarks followed an interview with journalists this summer aboard the papal airplane in which the pope declared that it is not his role to judge someone who is gay “if they accept the Lord and have goodwill.”
Never mind that the pope has also made clear his acceptance of church doctrine, which regards gay sex and abortion as sins and bans women from the priesthood. Behind the growing skepticism is the fear in some quarters that Francis’s all-embracing style and spontaneous speech, so open as it is to interpretation, are undoing decades of church efforts to speak clearly on Catholic teachings. Some conservatives also feel that the pope is undermining them at a time when they are already being sidelined by an increasingly secular culture.
“When [abortion rights group] NARAL sends you a thank-you note, it’s clear something got miscommunicated,” said Robert Royal, president of the D.C. think tank Faith & Reason.
Francis is “a remarkable man, no one would deny that,” Royal said. “But I’m not sure if he cares about being accurate. He gets into an [evangelizing] dynamic with people and that seems to be the most important thing. . . . In some ways it makes people very anxious. If you do this, what’s the next thing?”
During the previous three decades, popes John Paul II and Benedict shared a focus: Make orthodox teachings crystal clear so Catholics don’t get lost in an increasingly messy, relativistic world.
Catholics also became accustomed to popes who were largely speaking to “the Church,” rather than the public. These men often communicated in the language of Catholic theology, and through books, not through long, freewheeling interviews, like Pope Francis.
“In the past everything you heard from a pope was prepared or formally released. And that was intentional — not to say anything ad hoc. And it’s also intentional that this one does,” said Phil Lawler, editor of Catholic World News, a conservative news agency. “I think his entire focus is outside the church. That’s huge.”
David O’Brien, a historian of the Catholic Church, said debate about popes isn’t entirely new. Controversy exploded when papal infallibility was enshrined in the late 1800s and then again in the 1950s when John XXIII met with a prominent Communist. Journalists speculated the pope may have even included a blessing.
In today’s complicated world, it’s not easy to speak simply about what defines a “good Catholic,” O’Brien said.
Many conservatives thought they knew. That’s because the last two popes, John Paul II and Benedict, made it clear how essential it is to follow church doctrine, in particular prioritizing the need to oppose abortion and gay equality.
“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.