Saturday, August 5, 2017
An American Pope in a Deeply-Divided Catholic Church?
The backlash started almost from the beginning, in 1913 with the installation of Pope Francis (above right), a prelate whose word is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra (in his official capacity) as the leader of the Catholic Church. But his love of the common people, the meek and the poor, his rejection of massively wealthy institutions and growing selfishness had prompted an immediate and growing backlash ranging from his own Vatican headquarters to bastions of conservative Catholicism the world over, but nowhere more than from cardinals, archbishops, bishops and priests… and their followers… in the United States.
Francis’ embrace of people traditionally frowned up by traditional Catholics – particularly from the LGCTQ community – stunned many, particularly in the most conservative parts of the church. He chastised Donald Trump for his divisive immigration policies and his obsession to build a physical wall between Mexico and the United States, when the Pope suggested it was instead time to build bridges. He attacked what he felt was the cold inhumanity of current income-inequality-caused blind, irresponsible and uncaring capitalism.
But his June 2018 ex cathedra encyclical on environmental responsibility as a basic obligation of each and every Catholic was the last straw for too many conservatives. “Francis, the first pope from the developing world, used the encyclical — titled ‘Laudato Si’,’ or ‘Praise Be to You’ — to highlight the crisis posed by climate change. He places most of the blame on fossil fuels and human activity, while warning of an ‘unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequence for all of us’ if corrective action is not taken swiftly. Developed, industrialized countries were mostly responsible, he says, and are obligated to help poorer nations confront the crisis.” New York Times (6/18/15).
Francis seemed immutably committed to his path of bringing his flock back to the non-judgmental loving and giving associated with Jesus himself, away from the richly-appointed institutions that have grown fat in the fertile fields of traditional conservative Catholicism. He looked with horror as high-ranking American Catholics – from clerics to lay people – linked to the American Evangelical Tea Party Right and the Trump administration’s efforts to cut health benefits for poor Americans, discriminate heavily against disadvantaged undocumented immigrants (most of whom were practicing Catholics) struggling to survive and to deny both climate change itself and the very notion of elevating environmental responsibility over the raw need to earn more money – a rather complete rejection of hisLaudato Si.
So he pressed the issue further by unambiguously allowing a very anti-US conservative piece in the Vatican Journal, La Civiltà Cattolica, to be published in July, an article that infuriated conservative American Catholics, from cardinals to worshipers. The “Vatican-vetted journal, singled out Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, as a ‘supporter of an apocalyptic geopolitics’ that has stymied action against climate change and exploited fears of migrants and Muslims with calls for ‘walls and purifying deportations.’
“The article warns that conservative American Catholics have strayed dangerously into the deepening political polarization in the United States. The writers even declare that the worldview of American evangelical and hard-line Catholics, which is based on a literal interpretation of the Bible, is ‘not too far apart’ from jihadists.
“It is not clear if the article, appearing in La Civiltà Cattolica, received the pope’s direct blessing, but it was extraordinary coming from a journal that carries the Holy See’s seal of approval. There has apparently been no reprimand from the pope, who is not shy about disciplining dissenters, and La Civiltà Cattolica’s editor has promoted the article nearly every day since it was published in July…
“The authors of the article argue that American evangelical and ultraconservative Catholics risk corrupting the Roman Catholic faith with an ideology intended to inject ‘religious influence in the political sphere.’ They suggest that so-called values voters are using the banners of religious liberty and opposition to abortion to try to supplant secularism with a ‘theocratic type of state.’…
“That deep suspicion of evangelical fundamentalism and the fear of politicization corroding the conservative hierarchy of the American Catholic church was laid bare by the article in La Civiltà Cattolica. The authors were the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, the journal’s editor, who is a confidant of Francis’; and Marcelo Figueroa, an Argentine Presbyterian minister who is a friend and longtime collaborator of the pope’s.” New York Times, August 2nd.
But the growing schism between the Pope and too many senior Catholic clerics in the United States is rapidly moving to irreconcilable polarization, a rather direct and immediate challenge to the legitimacy of the papacy itself… and the ultimate axiom of the Pope infallibility as the spokesman for God. Those conservative Catholic forces in the United States are directly confronting and challenging ancient established Catholic doctrine. Challenges that under strict Catholic law could easily lead to excommunication of those who are taking such a strong contradictory tone against the Pope and his official communications. Conservative American critics felt that attacking the La Civiltà Cattolica piece, since it was not written by the Pope nor mandated as a reflection of his official thought, was a safe assault on the obvious vectors of the Pope’s new direction for the church.
“The article and the backlash to it — accusations of anti-Americanism have been rife... — have highlighted the widening distance between Francis and American Catholic conservatives… It is no secret that Francis, the first Latin American pope, who has often criticized capitalism, has a complicated view of his old neighbors to the north.
“Not long after Francis’ election, Vatican ambassadors briefed the pontiff about various situations around the world and suggested that he be especially careful when appointing bishops and cardinals in the United States… ‘I know that already,’ the pope interrupted, according to a high-ranking Vatican official familiar with the details of the conversation, who asked that his name not be used while discussing internal Vatican deliberations. ‘That’s where the opposition is coming from.’…
“Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia [above left], a standard-bearer for conservatism in America, likened the Civiltà Cattolica authors in his weekly newsletter to the ‘useful idiots’ who supported the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. He called the article ‘an exercise in dumbing down and inadequately presenting the nature of Catholic/evangelical cooperation on religious freedom and other key issues.’…
“[But even] before the article was published, many Catholic supporters of Mr. Trump, who won the white Catholic vote, were already wary of Francis for suggesting during the campaign that Mr. Trump was ‘not Christian’ because of his preference for building walls rather than bridges… Francis’ apparent openness on key issues such as granting communion to Catholics remarried outside the church has galvanized the opposition, led by the American cardinal Raymond L. Burke, an outspoken critic whom Francis has repeatedly demoted.
“The essay, which critics have dismissed as woefully ignorant of religion’s deep history in American politics, has energized camps on both sides of the divide. In a Breitbart article headlined ‘Papal Advisers Bash American Christians in Bigoted Screed,’ Thomas Williams, the site’s Rome correspondent and an associate of Mr. Bannon’s, wrote that instead of attacking Mr. Trump and Mr. Bannon, ‘they have ended up attacking America itself.’…
“American Catholic conservatives once unacquainted with being out of papal favor have stewed privately and expressed horror publicly on numerous right-wing Catholic blogs. They accuse Francis of wrecking the church and diluting its doctrine.
“Liberal American Catholics, bruised by crackdowns under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, are less than sympathetic to conservative complaints and have felt emboldened by Francis. They are delighted with the pope’s promotion of figures like Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago, who has started a program against gun violence and opposed Republican health care proposals on the ground that they would strip coverage for the weak and poor. Francis chose him to lead the Chicago diocese in 2014, after the retirement of Cardinal Francis George, a giant of American Catholic conservatism, and elevated him to cardinal last year.” NY Times.
As much as Henry VIII fractured his relationship with Rome – ostensibly over the issue of divorce – to create the Anglican Church, so could the conservative faction of American Catholics, who are disgusted by Pope Francis and his new direction, severe their relationship with Rome to found a new faith. If they try to use existing church property for their new break-away church, legal hell would break loose. Many of the dioceses are separate legal entities that own and control church holdings in various local communities. It would be a mess.
But the bigger mess is the accelerating disconnect between liberals excited by Pope Francis’ bold steps – coming at a time where Catholicism had been contracting – hurtling towards outraged church conservatives, most notably in the United States. But official Catholic doctrine is not decided by a vote. It is dictated by God’s infallible spokesman, the Pope. Someone has to blink… or do the conservatives simply bite their tongues and hope the next pope will see things their way? And if there is a break-away faction, will they anoint an American pope?
I’m Peter Dekom, and the destructive force of deep and irreconcilable polarization is redefining every corner of the earth.