Is Pope Francis helping or hurting the Catholic Church? For some, the jury is still out on that matter while for others—both of the left and the right—they have their answer and there is nothing that will change their opinion.
About three weeks ago there was a forum at Georgetown University at which several prominent Catholic journalists gave their opinions. They lined up, as one might expect, according to ideological lines. When speaking of the polarization in the Church today that seems to be growing ever greater under the strain of Francis’ leadership, Gregory Erlandson, president and publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, a right of center publication said “I’m a little more skeptical this early in his pontificate around his ability to heal that polarization” R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, a journal established by famous convert-priest, the Reverend Richard John Neuhaus to reconcile Catholic Tradition with Reganomic Philosophy was stronger in his critical view of Pope Francis saying: “Is he helping overcome divisions? He’s very comfortable with condemnation actually,” he said. “He very quickly condemns traditionalist Catholics, and that’s not always helpful in overcoming polarization.”
Father Matt Malone, SJ, editor of the progressive weekly America, framed the question differently by pointing out the divisions in American Society and claiming that these divisions have flowed over into the Catholic Church in this country. “One of the principle problems we have in American society right now is the collapse of our discourse.” He went on to say that our political partisanship has “found its way into our ecclesial discourse in disturbing ways.”
Paul Baumann, the editor of Commonweal, another progressive journal, expressed his opinion that too often those who speak for the Church aren’t responding to the deeper questions being asked by contemporary Catholics. In tones somewhat reminiscent of the theme that Cardinal Kasper keeps hitting, Baumann said: “We think that there are new situations facing Catholics, facing Americans, that old answers the church provides don’t quite make sense,” he said. “We believe it seems to me that we need to pursue these questions in an open and responsible way.”
In some ways, I suspect each of the participants had a piece of the truth. Pope Francis is not afraid of confrontation. He is a Jesuit and has been trained in absolute and unquestioned obedience to authority. While he encourages dialogue, I think he is surprised by dissent when the conversation is finished. The resistance of Cardinal Burke and several others to the direction that the recent Synod took I think caught Francis a bit off guard. I don’t think he will remain too shocked to respond. In fact, I think through the coming year he will make his position more and more clear in order to bring the 2015 Synod members on board with his direction. To do this we will see more “shuffling of the deck” as those in his administration who are not working with him will find themselves in positions where their resistance is ineffective. Of course, there is only one Sovereign Military Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem to which he can send a Cardinal-patron but Holy Mother Church has other gulags. Dissent will be not only tolerated but encouraged at the point of discussion but not when it is time for consensus. Anyone who was educated by the Jesuits understands that.
As for healing the rift with traditionalist Catholics, I think Francis is somewhat indifferent on matters liturgical but he is unwilling to allow disharmony in the Church. He clearly has no interest himself in the pre-conciliar rites. He probably does not understand why people might choose to approach God through rites that might be intellectually sound but are practically unintelligible to the ordinary Catholic. His experience in the Church of Latin America where there is little interest in reviving the Tridentine Liturgy and where the Liturgical renewal following the Second Vatican Council has been responsible for a new vitality in the Church makes the antiquarian approach to worship seem strange. Nonetheless, he has done nothing to suppress the permissions for widespread use of the old forms granted by Pope Benedict in Summorum Pontificum. On the other hand, in his conviction that the Church must be reborn as the Church of the Poor and his focus on Social Justice he is likely to make no allowance for those whose social program is not in harmony with his. This is, for most American conservatives, far more threatening than his liturgical praxis. Francis has been outspoken on Immigration, the Death Penalty, economic inequality and other hot-button issues and he will insist that both hierarchy and faithful be on that bus whether they pray in Latin, English, or Klingon.
And I think his opening the Pandora’s Box of divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, living together before marriage and other matters of sexual mores brought up at the recent Synod—and his willingness to listen and to dialogue—makes it clear that he is in touch with the “new situations” facing Catholics today, especially younger ones.
Is there division in the Church today? Absolutely. There is division through western society and it is as strong in the Church as elsewhere. I don’t think Pope Francis is going to spend a lot of time addressing it. He will have a relatively short papacy and he will focus on getting done what he needs to get done without being distracted by dissent. I think he will make it increasingly clear where he stands and one either stands with him or not with him, but he sees that standing against him is standing against the Church. He won’t address it for the laity, but the leadership—bishops, archbishops, cardinals—will climb aboard the Francis train or find themselves left at remote stations in the ecclesial outback.