Opposition to Pope Francis Comes Out of the Closet

by Michael Sean Winters

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A recent spate of articles demonstrates that the opposition to Pope Francis is not exactly warming to the idea of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, still less to the pope himself. The more I read the opposition, the more it becomes clear that Cardinal Donald Wuerl, during the synod, was correct when he said of the opposition, “I wonder if some of these people who are speaking, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes half-way implying, then backing off and then twisting around, I wonder if it is really that they find they just don’t like this pope. I wonder if that isn’t part of it.” Not sure whether to file the following examples of disliking the pope under the sad, funny or tragic categories, but they are all, in their different ways, undermining the pope.

First up is Cardinal Raymond Burke’s recent op-ed in the National Catholic Register. The flamboyant cardinal uses the old trick of attacking someone close to the pope, rather than the pope directly, in this instance, Father Antonio Spadaro, S.J. Fr. Spadaro had written that the synod opened a door toward the divorced and remarried. +Burke replies: “The fact is that the synod could not open a door which does not exist and cannot exist, namely, a discernment in conscience which contradicts the truth about the supreme sanctity of the Most Holy Eucharist and the indissolubility of the marriage bond.” Who said anything about “contradicting” the truth? The contradiction – and it is only an apparent one to us poor humans who have more theological work to do – is between “the truth” about marriage and the Eucharist and “the truth” about God’s mercy and, relatedly, “the truth” about the practice of our sister Churches of the East. But, Cardinal Burke expects everyone to use his lens, his weighting of the issues, his sense of what is, and is not, possible. Someone needs to tell him that he was not elected pope in 2013.

At Catholic World Report, Carl Olson breathes new life into one of the more consistent criticisms of Francis coming from the right, that he is confusing and his messages are mixed. Oh, and he scolds sometimes too. As I have noted before, if you talk to the simple folk and the poor folk and, even more, anyone who has experienced marginalization, they do not find the pope confusing. Certainly, some on the left over-state what this pope is about just as some on the right read into Francis’ sayings a palpable dread that is not there. But, this happens in every papacy: U.S. neo-cons engaged in a 25 year effort to narrow the Catholic imagination during the pontificate of St. Pope John Paul II. Olson also takes a shot at one of the pope’s collaborators, Archbishop Blase Cupich, misrepresenting what the archbishop said about conscience and putting the worst possible interpretation upon his words. But, then Olson goes straight after the pope, writing of the closing address to the synod:  “It was a sort of papal tantrum, quite unbecoming both the office and the man.” The Holy Father’s closing remarks certainly were trenchant, the way Jesus’ challenges to the doctors of the law were trenchant. Olson does not note that the speech was apparently well received in the aula because – guess what – the two-thirds of the synod fathers who don’t read First Things had also had to listen to the minority tell them what they could and could not do for three weeks, how they were quasi-heretics for even thinking there could be a different way of thinking about some issues, and casting aspersions on the process and the personnel of the synod.

Speaking of First Things and the narrowing of the Catholic imagination, they published a recent article on “What Really Happened at Synod 2015” that is an excellent example of the genre by George Weigel. Typically, he begins with his throat-clearing attacks on everyone in the media except himself: They simply traffic in gossip but he knows the real deal. I will admit this: Weigel grasps the real deal as explained to him by his sources, but his sources were clearly in the minority at the synod and are among those most opposed to the pope. He repeats the conservative concerns about the synod process and the personnel. He repeats the concerns about the Instumentum laboris. He discerns several “plans” by the Kasperites, although he does not provide any evidence for the existence of such plans and I am guessing no one actually associated with Cardinal Kasper spoke to Weigel for his article. This is just a compilation of conservative fears and talking points pretending to be a report on the synod, in which Weigel’s penchant for narrowing the scope of Catholic theology – and Church teaching - is on full display. And, like Olson, he has a fetish for clarity that bespeaks nothing so much as an unfamiliarity with the actual pastoral challenges posed by modernity.

I am not surprised that there is opposition to Pope Francis. I am not surprised that the upcoming Year of Mercy will occasion more of it, just as the opposition to Jesus grew when he dared to preach God’s mercy. There are some wonderful conservatives I know who love this pope and, even if he is challenging them, they are accepting the challenge and stretching. First Things even published a great example of this with a fine essay by David Bentley Hart. What does surprise me is that the tools to mount the opposition are so clumsy and transparent, so obviously drawn from the school of political dirty tricks not ecclesial discussion and discernment, so lacking theological sophistication and reminiscent of a kind of Catholic fundamentalism that is disturbingly un-Catholic. “They just don’t like this pope,” as +Wuerl said.


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