Who Are Pope Francis’s Critics?
The latest cover of the new New Republic features Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig taking on conservative anxieties about Pope Francis’s possible “radicalism.” The essay isn’t just about the pope; it offers a larger critique of the way that conservatives, Catholic and otherwise, relate to and interpret the human/Western/Christian past. I have a few disagreements with this depiction, and a few critical generalizations I’d make about the liberal tendency in Catholic thinking and debate right now. But I’ll save those for another post; for now I think it would be helpful for the discussion of Catholicism in the Francis era to spend some time distinguishing between the different groups who have doubts, or flirt with having doubts, about this pontificate, because in Bruenig’s account they run together a bit and I think the distinctions are actually enormously important.
A preliminary point to make is that Francis’s genuinely strident critics — as opposed to skeptics or fretters or unsettled observers — are quite few in number. “The differences in opinion between Francis and the movement collectively known as the ‘American right’ appear especially numerous,” Bruenig writes, “and unusually bitter.” She has examples — I’m one of them — and they do add up to a current (or currents) of criticism, but not all of them/us are obviously “bitter,” the American right is a lot bigger than a few pundits and bloggers, and it’s worth noting that the divide she sees opening up is largely invisible in public polling. In the latest Pew survey, for instance, the pope is just as popular (and he is very popular) among Catholics who vote Republican as among Catholics who vote Democratic, and he has slightly higher net favorables among self-described “conservative” Catholics than among self-described “moderates” and “liberals.” To the extent that the anxieties Bruenig identifies are visible in polling at all, they may show up in the somewhat elevated number of conservative Catholics who say their views of Francis are “mostly favorable” rather than “very favorable,” or the pope’s slightly higher net-unfavorables among Catholic Republicans — but that “higher” means a net of 10 percent, compared to 7 percent for Catholic Democrats, which is hardly the stuff of deep, bitter divides. (Pew’s old polling on Benedict XVI didn’t break things down by party or ideology, but I’d lay odds that his unfavorable numbers among Catholics who self-identify as liberal were much higher than than Francis’s currently are among any definition of the American Catholic right.)
So what we’re talking about here, what Bruenig is analyzing, is for now more a tendency within the intelligentsia (and the world of comment threads, but perhaps I repeat myself) than a large-scale phenomenon. And its various elements don’t all fit easily under a single label or description. Instead, I would divide them into three groups:
1. Traditionalists. These are Catholics defined by their preference/zeal for the Tridentine Rite Mass and their rejection of (or at least doubts about) various reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Some attend mainstream parishes that offer the mass in Latin, others are affiliated with orders specifically organized around the old rite, others are connected to parishes run by the (arguably; it’s a long argument) schismatic [sic] Society of Saint Pius X. [There is loose terminology here. For example, SSPX can’t have parishes, since parishes must erected by proper authority (which the SSPX lacks).] There’s lots of variation within traditionalist ranks (my friend Michael Brendan Dougherty, cited by Bruenig, is a “trad” of a different sort than, say, this fellow), [Michael Voris] but the important things to emphasize are first, that their numbers (in the American context and otherwise) are quite small; second, that their concerns are not usually the same as those of the typical John Paul II-admiring conservative Catholic (traditionalists were often not admirers of the Polish pope); and third, that their skepticism of Pope Francis was probably inevitable and pretty clearly mutual. [Douthat seems to be painting this group as the fringe of the intelligensia.]
For instance, Bruenig notes that Rorate Caeli, a traditionalist site, greeted Jorge Bergoglio’s election by describing him as “a sworn enemy of the traditional Mass.” But what she doesn’t mention is that as Francis, he has often vindicated those fears: He has demoted the traditional mass’s most prominent champion within the Vatican, cracked down on a prominent traditionalist order, and frequently singled out traditionalist tendencies and practices for criticism in his remarks. Traditionalism has, it’s fair to say, a paranoid streak and then some, but even paranoids have enemies, and since the Tridentine mass was essentially suppressed in much of the church for a generation and more, Francis’s moves have not exactly been calculated to reassure Catholics of this persuasion about their place within the church.
This doesn’t mean traditionalists are “right” and the pope is “wrong.” (If you want to understand where Francis might be coming from, consider that the SSPX seminary in Argentina during his years as archbishop of Buenos Aires was run by this charmer.) [He is referring to former SSPX bishop Williamson. This has been my thesis.] But it means that the conflict here has very specific contours, and the stakes involved are distinctive and not particularly influenced by, say, Francis’s social and economic vision (which some traditionalists find entirely congenial; see this Rorate Caeli post for an example). Which makes it very different from my second case study … [While this gives Rorate far too much ink, it does situate that site well in this set of three groups.]
2. Catholics who are economic conservatives or libertarians. […]
[Remember that the catholic Left such as the Fishwrap has been trying to paint anyone who doesn’t want redistribution of wealth or who doesn’t embrace the zero-sum game view, or who sees free markets as a way to raise more people out of poverty more effectively and more quickly as a “liberatarian”, which for them is a cuss word. They’ve created a straw-man, chimeric “libertarian”. Again, a true laissez-faire libertarian is a pretty rare bird.]
3. Doctrinal conservatives. These are conservative American Catholics whose Francis-era anxieties center around the issues raised during last fall’s synod on the family, and particularly around Cardinal Walter Kasper’s proposal to admit Catholics in second marriages (which the church does not recognize as marriages at all) to communion — an issue I may have written aboutfrom time to time.
That picture — coming around to the point of this rambling taxonomy — is simply this. A future in which Francis’s “radicalism” (a term that would require yet another post to unpack, so I won’t) is defined by his approach to the social gospel, globalization and the poor is one in which the tension with traditionalists will remain intense but not high-profile, in which the tension with free-marketeers and libertarians will percolate in interesting ways, and in which conservative doubts about this pontificate will remain a particularly American phenomenon and a mostly elite-level tendency overall. [Again, with the small in number theme. However, I think this group is growing in size and awareness, as are the other two, above.] And it’s a future, at this point, that I would welcome, since I’d be very happy to spend more time arguing with Bruenig about the church’s historical relationship to the welfare state and less time arguing about German cardinals and divorce.
But a future in which this pope’s “radicalism” extends to moves that look like an implicit change of doctrine around communion and/or marriage … in which it’s not just Hannity but the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that’s in conflict with the throne of Peter … well, in that future the economic issues would become a sideshow, and the pope’s existing conflict with traditionalists would become the template for a doctrinal conflict that’s wider, global, and essentially unknowable in its results. And it’s that future, for reasons that I believe are more Christian than “conservative”, that I’d very much prefer the Catholic faith be spared.