Vatican conservatives rebel against Pope Francis, the pope hailed by news media

Haven't we read this Washington Post story before? Every few months, someone big in the mainstream press writes this same basic story.

A quick summary: Conservatives hate Pope Francis because he is the liberal that we -- as in the mainstream press -- say he is, even though, dang it, he hasn't actually changed any of the loathsome doctrines that we think are so terrible. But we love this pope's quips, as opposed to his actual sermons and writings, and we'll keep printing those quotes over and over. Oh, and if your don't like the version of Pope Francis that we're describing, then you oppose this pope.

Or words to that effect. But the key is that conservatives inside the Vatican are planning a revolt of some kind. We know this because some of them are talking about "confusion" in the church, confusion that -- this is crucial -- has nothing to do with the media's consistent portrayal of the pope as a heroic liberal seeking doctrinal reform, although he hasn't changed any yet. And why does the pope keep urging everyone to go to confession? Doesn't Francis know that no one goes to confession anymore, because that would imply that sin is real?

The latest version of this parable, in The Washington Post, opens with a Vatican City anecdote in which the uber-conservative Cardinal Raymond Burke "appeared" -- no one actually heard the exchange -- to have reminded the pope that papal powers to change doctrine are limited.

Gasp. Someone arguing with a Jesuit? I have never heard of such a thing.

Burke’s words belied a growing sense of alarm among strict conservatives, exposing what is fast emerging as a culture war over Francis’s papacy and the powerful hierarchy that governs the Roman Catholic Church.
This month, Francis makes his first trip to the United States at a time when his progressive allies are heralding him as a revolutionary, a man who only last week broadened the power of priests to forgive women who commit what Catholic teachings call the “mortal sin” of abortion during his newly declared “year of mercy” starting in December. On Sunday, he called for “every” Catholic parish in Europe to offer shelter to one refugee family from the thousands of asylum-seekers risking all to escape war-torn Syria and other pockets of conflict and poverty.
Yet as he upends church convention, Francis also is grappling with a conservative backlash to the liberal momentum building inside the church. In more than a dozen interviews, including with seven senior church officials, insiders say the change has left the hierarchy more polarized over the direction of the church than at any point since the great papal reformers of the 1960s.

Yes, there are scare quotes around the words "mortal sin." And, yes, once again Pope Francis is being hailed as a liberal for taking pastoral actions linked to abortion (that whole sending folks back to confession thing again) that had also been used by his two predecessors and by many bishops, including conservatives, in North America.

As you read this Post epic, count the number of on-the-record sources -- especially on the doctrinal right. The key, you see, is that the conservative revolt is so serious that only progressive sources will talk about it.

Let's keep reading.

The conservative rebellion is taking on many guises, in public comments, yes, but also in the rising popularity of conservative Catholic Web sites promoting Francis dissenters; books and promotional materials backed by conservative clerics seeking to counter the liberal trend; and leaks to the news media, aimed at Vatican reformers.
In his recent comments, Burke was also merely stating fact. Despite the vast powers of the pope, church doctrine serves as a kind of constitution. And for liberal reformers, the bruising theological pushback by conservatives is complicating efforts to translate the pope’s transformative style into tangible changes.
“At least we aren’t poisoning each other’s chalices anymore,” said the Rev. Timothy Radcliffe, a liberal British priest and Francis ally appointed to an influential Vatican post in May. Radcliffe said he welcomed open debate, even critical dissent within the church. But he professed himself as being “afraid” of “some of what we’re seeing.”

What, precisely, is a "transformative style" and how does one turn it into actual doctrinal "reforms" (meaning that the doctrines are wrong and need reform)? Ah, there's the rub.

Let's keep reading.

Rather than stake out clear stances, the pope is more subtly, often implicitly, backing liberal church leaders who are pressing for radical change, while dramatically opening the parameters of the debate over how far reforms can go. For instance, during the opening of a major synod, or meeting, of senior bishops on the family last year, Francis told those gathered, “Let no one say, ‘This you cannot say.’ ”

Ah, the return of omniscient anonymous voice. The sources on both sides agree on that point? Or, once again, are we dealing with a Jesuit who is in favor of open debates inside of debates behind closed doors?

Since then, liberals have tested the boundaries of their new freedom, with one Belgian bishop going as far as openly calling for the Catholic Church to formally recognize same-sex couples.
Conservatives counter that in the current climate of rising liberal thought, they have been thrust unfairly into a position in which “defending the real teachings of the church makes you look like an enemy of the pope,” a conservative and senior Vatican official said on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely.
“We have a serious issue right now, a very alarming situation where Catholic priests and bishops are saying and doing things that are against what the church teaches, talking about same-sex unions, about Communion for those who are living in adultery,” the official said. “And yet the pope does nothing to silence them. So the inference is that this is what the pope wants.”

Now, there is the key source. If a reporter uses an anonymous source, it is crucial for that reporter to tell readers as much information as possible about the location of that source and its level of authority. In this case, we have one "conservative and senior Vatican official." This is about as on-the-record as this story gets. Are there other conservatives who agree? Who disagree? Maybe on the record?

Now, clearly these debates are real. The story also admits that these kinds of arguments happen all the time. So what is making the debates so fierce this time?

Once again, let me offer my own take on the Pope Francis debates, focusing on the various camps on the Catholic right.

There may be a few -- repeat few -- who (1) see him as a secretly liberal Machiavelli who is steering the Catholic boat toward icebergs in order to cause massive doctrinal changes. There are others who think (2) he is fine, when you read him in context, and that the press is to blame for any confusion that exists. There are others who (3) think he means well, but that he is naive when it comes to how his off-the-cuff papacy will be presented in the media. I am sure there are other options on the right that I missed.
A key question, in these conspiracy discussions, centers on whether Pope Francis is getting bad coverage that distorts his true agenda (a mercy follows repentance agenda) or precisely the media coverage that he secretly wants, since he really does (wink, wink) plan to edit the Catechism at some point down the line.
Notice that it's almost impossible to escape the role of the press in discussing all of this.

A few other points in this "liberal" campaign. Where is the doctrinal liberalism in concern about the environment? That's the same document that notes:

Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? ...

Also, where is the doctrinal liberalism in calls for the church to take in Syrian refugees? What are the crucial doctrines at stake in Vatican financial reform?

Are the debates inside the Vatican real? Of course. Is there some confusion in the church at the moment? Of course. Is this creating a dangerous state of revolt? That would be true, perhaps, if the pope's doctrinal agenda is precisely the one implied by the Post story. Is the pope trying to twist church doctrine in the direction that the Post and its anonymous sources say that he is?

Let's see. Let's see what the pope does, in his actions, and what he writes, in the actual documents that he produces on these issues. This pope -- did I mention that he is a Jesuit? -- is letting the two sides argue out in the open. Let's see what he writes once the arguments are over.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Contrast the simple, two-camps arguments of the Post article with the following essay from The New Yorker, which is on the same basic topic, kind of. Quite a difference.

Please respect our Commenting Policy