The Papal Paradox: is the woke Pope alienating his flock?

·7 min read
Pope Francis is complicated – but he can still inspire enormous loyalty
Pope Francis is complicated – but he can still inspire enormous loyalty

It’s not that often that a video message from a Pope to a global gathering goes viral, but that is what happened this weekend, when Pope Francis addressed the World Meeting of Popular Movements in the US. To an audience of community leaders, anti-poverty campaigners and environmental groups, he began arrestingly: “Dear social poets… that is what I like to call you: social poets. You are social poets because you have the ability and the courage to create hope where there appears to be only waste and exclusion.”

He went on to attack social media companies for encouraging “hate speech, grooming, fake news” and to condemn agribusiness and mining for destroying habitats. He then called for a basic income and shorter working hours… And that wasn’t even the half of it.

When the 84-year-old Jesuit Pope gets the bit between his teeth, he can be very good value, a genuine populist. He is much less of an intellectual than his predecessor, Pope Benedict, but he gets on the radar: after one visit to the EU, he left in a battered old Fiat. It’s a real pity that he isn’t attending the climate conference in Glasgow, because he would have lambasted all the global leaders there for inaction and we could have had another picture of him and Greta Thunberg together – the last one was in 2019 – beaming.

He is popular with many younger Catholics. In a survey last year by Stephen Bullivant and Ben Clements, 55 per cent of young Catholics in Britain (especially mass-goers) thought he was a change for the better for the papacy. My daughter, 14, says that her age cohort likes him. “He’s liberal, “she says. “And he interacts with you.”

But while he can reach parts few other modern Popes reach, he is still a divisive figure within the Church, of which he is head.

Not to put too fine a point upon it, lots of Catholics can’t stand him – liberals, as well as Conservatives. This week, in a riveting piece for The Spectator website headlined “Is the Pope a Protestant?”, Damian Thompson argues that you could indeed say the Pope has “gone Protestant”. He says: “Francis may be pursuing a liberal policy agenda, but it’s also quirky and incoherent. He is Jesuitical in the pejorative sense of the term, constantly shifting his position in order to keep both his opponents and supporters on their toes. But his leadership has none of the positive attributes of his order: it has created an intellectual mess.”

This is strong stuff, though not half as strong as a priest he quotes, who expressed the hope that the Pope would drop dead that very night. Francis himself intimated that there are people who’d like to see him off. After his colon operation in July, someone asked him how he was. “Still alive,” he replied, “though some people want me to die.” If you’re Pope, being paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get you.

The groups he most often sees as the enemy are conservatives hostile to his approach. And he doesn’t pull his punches with them. Though he didn’t mention them by name, he referred to America’s biggest religious broadcaster, EWTN, recently as “the work of the devil”. They speak well of him, too.

He’s especially combative towards “backward-looking” critics of his new direction for the Church – towards a synodal structure in which grassroots parishioners have a say in how the Church is run. We’ll see how that turns out.

Most of the people who are uneasy with the direction of the papacy are indeed conservatives. But some are liberals, like the former Irish president, Mary McAleese, who declared earlier this year that she was unimpressed by the Pope whose “chummy words to the press often quite reasonably raise hopes of church reform which are subsequently almost invariably dashed by firm restatements of unchanged church teaching”. He raises hopes, but “he is the Pope who toes the old hard line”.

McAleese’s particular preoccupation is gay rights. On this and on the question of whether divorced and remarried people can receive communion, the Pope can give off mixed messages. He’s undoubtedly genuinely anxious to be receptive and welcoming to gay people in the Church, but he’s never blessed same-sex unions or suggested that the Church could do so. As for giving communion to people who would be traditionally considered to be living in adultery – those who remarry while their previous spouse is alive – he has told bishops and priests to be “pastoral” and consider the people in front of them. Is that yes or no?

And what about politicians who vote to make abortion accessible, including late-term abortions? Can they receive communion? On the actual issue, Francis is unequivocal. “Abortion is homicide,” he declared to journalists recently, which is clear. But then he went on to declare that, as a priest, he had never refused communion to anyone, which isn’t much use to US bishops who must decide what to do when pro-choice Joe Biden pitches up for communion. He talks tough on abortion, but then gives a warm reception to pro-abortion Nancy Pelosi when she came to the Vatican.

As for the really terrible succession of scandals around child abuse by members of the Church, most recently in France, Francis is as shocked as anyone. Asked for his reaction to the report on abuse in France, he said simply: “Shame.” And yet it took forever for his commission dealing with the issue to reach conclusions and for them to be put into effect. He is a reformer who often seems to lack the organisational drive to see his reforms through.

But it would be unfair just to focus on negatives. The Pope is eloquent and genuinely committed to environmental issues; his encyclical, Laudato Si’, was an attempt to explore how people can be stewards of creation. On giving admission to migrants, he’s liberal, probably more liberal than many Catholic congregations. And when it comes to the position of women, no one has appointed more women to senior positions within the Church, ever, including important areas, like finance and governance, though he has not gone in the direction of women’s ordination as priests and bishops. The paradox of the pope is that he is reformist and liberal, and yet, when it comes down to it, supportive of tradition because he has to be; the Pope may be a Protestant in some ways, but he is still a Catholic.

But has he actually done anything to broaden the appeal of the Church in a secular culture? Professor Stephen Bullivant, a sociologist at St Mary’s University, observes: “If you ask people why they like him, then you often discover that they – paradoxically – see him as being/embodying everything that they think the Catholic Church isn’t – ie, they see him as a pro-science, pro-LGBTQ, pro-environment, religious and moral relativist. The trouble is, of course, that those general impressions aren’t terribly accurate either of Francis or the Church.

“This means two things. Firstly, that people’s attraction to (their construction of) Pope Francis doesn’t end up making them any more attracted to the Catholic Church. And secondly, they end up constantly being disappointed by things Pope Francis actually does or says. (My favourite example of this whole phenomenon is a Rolling Stone article, ‘Guess the Cool Pope Isn’t So Cool After All’).”

Another paradox of the Pope is that he may be liberal, but he’s a liberal authoritarian. This was particularly evident in his crackdown on those who attend mass celebrated according to the so-called Tridentine rite, which was the norm before the Second Vatican Council. Here, nice Pope Francis showed his SS side, in obliging congregations who wanted to hear mass in the old rite to get permission from their bishops and newly ordained priests to obtain permission from the Vatican. Trouble is, those congregations include many families and young people.

He’s complicated, then, Pope Francis – but he inspires enormous loyalty. Eamon Duffy, the historian whose book on the papacy, Saints and Sinners (Yale University Press), stops before Francis, says simply that “he’s the Pope I’ve been waiting for my entire life”. And by the looks of things, Francis hasn’t run out of steam.

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