Pope Francis agitates conservative U.S. Catholics

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SHAFAQNA – A senior American cardinal in the Vatican says that under this pope, the Roman Catholic Church is “a ship without a rudder” and the faithful “are feeling a bit seasick.”

The archbishop of Philadelphia complains that a recent Vatican conference called by Pope Francis produced “confusion,” adding, “Confusion is of the devil.”

A group of conservative lay Catholics say they felt “betrayed” by a preliminary report from the conference that proposed a more welcoming attitude toward gays.

Turnabout is supposed to be fair play, but for these and other U.S. Catholic conservatives and traditionalists, the papacy of Francis also seems to be infuriating, worrying or just plain puzzling.

“The conservatives had it all their way for about 30 years, and now the shoe might be on the other foot,” says the Rev. Paul Sullins, a priest who teaches sociology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. “Now they feel on the outside a little bit, which is exactly how the progressives used to feel.”

That was during the papacies of John Paul II (1978-2005) and Benedict XVI (2005-13), doctrinal conservatives who brooked little discussion and less dissension when it came to church teaching on issues such as ordination of women and compulsory priestly celibacy.

Many conservatives struggle to get a handle on Pope Francis, who since taking office last year warned against an “obsessive” concern with culture war issues, such as abortion and gay marriage; encouraged discussion of church teaching on things like contraception and divorce; and asked, regarding gays who profess religious faith, “Who am I to judge?”

Conservative reaction ranges from open dismay over Francis’ direction to the more common conviction that it’s not the pope promoting liberalization, but a news media that reports his frequent off-the-cuff remarks out of context for a public with little grounding in Catholicism.

“A lot of mainstream media reporting is based on what people hope Pope Francis is saying, instead of what he is actually saying,” says Arina Grossu, a 31-year-old University of Notre Dame graduate who worships in the Archdiocese of Washington. The result, she concludes, “only adds to the noise and confusion.”

But Sullins, the church sociologist, says that for some conservatives the problem starts at the top: “Their feeling is, ‘We’re out here on the front lines in the culture wars — fighting abortion, gay marriage. It seemed Benedict had our back, and Francis doesn’t.”

A SYNOD FOR THE AGES

The veteran Vatican watcher John Allen asked last month in The Boston Globe: “Is a tipping point drawing close when conservatives who have been inclined to give Pope Francis the benefit of the doubt will, instead, turn on him?”

America’s 78 million baptized Catholics form the nation’s largest religious denomination. Some yearn for a simpler time — like 2012. “When the pope says, ‘Don’t judge,’ I don’t agree with that,” says Mick O’Connell, a 68-year-old Catholic from Philadelphia standing outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. “It’s his job to judge right from wrong.”

Any doubt that times are changing ended with last month’s Vatican synod, or church council, which brought hundreds of bishops and other Catholics to Rome for two weeks to discuss the application of church teaching on marriage and family life.

After the pope announced plans for the conference last year, the Vatican took the unprecedented step of sending questionnaires to local dioceses seeking grass-roots opinion on matters such as same-sex marriage, contraception, cohabitation and divorce.

Liberals cheered a preliminary report on the proceedings that, consonant with Francis’ inclinations, expressed welcome to gays of faith and hope for gentler treatment of Catholics who live together outside of marriage or have divorced and remarried outside the church (and thus cannot receive Communion).

Conservatives then rallied and struck much of what they found offensive in the first report from the synod’s final one — a move widely reported as a rebuff of Francis. But the damage was done.

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput expressed dismay over the very fact of the debate in Rome, saying, “Confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was one of confusion.”

Cardinal Raymond Burke, former archbishop of St. Louis and now head of the Vatican’s highest court, has been even more outspoken. In an interview with a Spanish Catholic weekly published last week, he said of the pope’s leadership: “Many have expressed their concerns to me. … There is a strong sense that the church is like a ship without a rudder.”

One conservative Catholic group, Voice of the Family, said its members felt betrayed. After an Australian married couple at the synod described their decision to let their gay son bring his partner home to celebrate Christmas, Voice coordinator Maria Mardise said, “The unqualified welcome of homosexual couples into family and parish environments damages everybody, by serving to normalize the disorder of homosexuality.”

The synod will be followed by another, larger session next year on the same topic. And no matter what happens then, substantive change can be ordered only by Francis himself.

A NEW VIBE FROM ROME

The Argentine Jesuit was elected pope in March 2013 after Benedict unexpectedly retired. He immediately became famous for his openness and relative informality. He lived in a modest guesthouse instead of the palatial papal apartments; he telephoned rank-and-file Catholics out of the blue; he tweeted.

Before Easter, he went to a prison and — in imitation of Christ at The Last Supper — washed the feet of inmates, including Muslims.

His style made him an appealing personality. (On Comedy Central, the normally hard-boiled Jon Stewart crowed, “I love this guy!) His seemingly impromptu remarks made him a sensational one.

Flying to Rome after World Youth Day in Brazil, he told reporters: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

In another interview, he said the church shouldn’t speak so insistently about wedge issues like abortion and homosexuality: “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.” He added: “We have to find a new balance.”

In yet another interview, he said that ”everyone has his own idea of good and evil” and should ”follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them” — a seeming rejection of a black-or-white view of morality.

This year, when asked about the role of women, the pope insisted that they “must be more present in places of decision-making in the church.”

Francis’ first appointment to fill a major U.S. post also raised conservatives’ hackles.

Spokane Bishop Blasé Cupich, who is replacing Chicago’s retiring conservative Cardinal Francis George as archdiocese, is a moderate, conciliatory prelate who asked his priests not to pray in front of abortion clinics because it was too provocative.

David Gibson, an experienced church observer, wrote in a Religion News Service article that Cupich’s appointment “may signal the beginning of the end of three decades of conservative dominance.”

Whatever some traditionalists think of him, Francis remains extraordinarily popular with U.S. Catholics; he regularly receives approval ratings over 80%. Moreover, many stand with him. For example, a Quinnipiac University poll a year ago found that 68% of Catholics agreed that the church was too focused on a few moral issues.

American political labels like liberal and conservative don’t mean the same thing in the church. Holly Smith, a 36-year-old Catholic from Falls Church, Va., says she is perceived by outsiders as conservative when she opposes abortion, and liberal when she opposes the death penalty.

Accordingly, many Catholics feel the world just doesn’t get Francis. When he made headlines last week for saying that the Big Bang theory of the universe’s origin was consistent with Catholic theology and cosmology, Smith felt frustrated.

Although the pope’s remark frequently was presented by news media as another example of the pope’s outspoken liberalism, she knew he was merely repeating a position announced in 1951 by Pope Pius XII and reiterated by several popes since.

LOVE FOR THE POPE

In the church, terms like liberal, progressive, conservative and traditionalist have more to do with how Catholics perceive authority. That puts dissident conservatives in a tough spot; the very figure to whom they look for leadership appears to be going in the wrong direction.

But a conservative exodus — or schism — seems a long way off.

In a 2,000-year-old institution that proclaims immutable truth, the continuities between papacies almost always dwarf the differences. And the differences are almost always more about emphasis than substance.

As the head of that church, almost any pope can count on a vast reservoir of good will, especially if he seems as sincere and humble as the one who currently walks in the shoes of St. Peter. It’s simple, says Sullins: “Francis is the pope, and Catholics always love their pope.”

They’ll get a chance to show it in person next year, when Francis makes his first U.S. papal visit to attend the World Meeting of Families. Where? Philadelphia. His host? Archbishop Chaput.

source : http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/11/01/pope-francis-catholics-americans-culture/18263293/

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