Increasing numbers of Catholic conservatives are worried that Pope Francis is quietly unraveling the legacy of his predecessors, and want a return to the good old days when Popes such as Benedict and John Paul regularly thundered against contraception, homosexuality and abortion.
Instead, what they have now, according The National Catholic Reporter, is a dangerous reformer who is diluting Catholic teaching on moral issues like homosexuality and divorce while focusing on social problems such as climate change and economic inequality.
Interviews with four Vatican officials, including two cardinals and an archbishop, as well as theologians and commentators, highlighted conservative fears that Francis’ words and deeds may eventually rupture the 1.2 billion member Church.
Chatter on conservative blogs regularly accuses the Argentine pontiff of spreading doctrinal confusion and isolating those who see themselves as guardians of the faith.
The NCR quoted Damien Thompson, associate editor of the British weekly The Spectator and a conservative Catholic commentator, as saying last month on Twitter:
Going to bed. Wake me up when this pontificate is over.
Thompson was among conservatives stung by a freewheeling news conference Francis gave on a flight home from Mexico.
In it, he stirred up the US presidential debate by criticising Republican candidate Donald Trump’s immigration stance and made comments that were interpreted as an opening to use contraceptives to stop the spread of the Zika virus.
Said a conservative Rome-based cardinal who took part in the conclave that elected Francis three years ago and spoke on the condition of anonymity:
Every time this happens I wonder if he realises how much confusion he is causing.
Another senior official, an archbishop in an important Vatican ministry, said:
These comments alarm not only tradition-minded priests but even liberal priests who have complained to me that people are challenging them on issues that are very straight-forward, saying ‘the Pope would let me do this’ why don’t you?’
At the end of the synod last year, Francis excoriated immovable Church leaders who he said “bury their heads in the sand” and hide behind rigid doctrine while families suffer.
One of the leading conservative standard bearers, Ross Douthat, the Catholic author and New York Times op-ed columnist, has expressed deep worry about the long-term repercussions of the issue of communion for the divorced and remarried.
It may be that this conflict has only just begun. And it may be that as with previous conflicts in Church history, it will eventually be serious enough to end in real schism, a permanent parting of the ways.
The conservative standard bearer in Rome is Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, a 67-year-old American who in 2014 told an interviewer that the Church under Francis was like:
A ship without a rudder.
Francis was not pleased. That same year, he removed Burke as head of the Vatican’s highest court and demoted him to the largely ceremonial post of chaplain of a charity group.