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The pope and his critics

IN THE NEWS | Censuring of conservative clergy points to larger tensions in the Roman Catholic Church

Pope Francis attends his weekly General Audience at the Vatican in August. Vatican Media via Vatican Pool/Getty Images

The pope and his critics
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Throngs of marchers streamed through downtown Tyler, Texas, last month in a show of support for their local Roman Catholic bishop. The marchers wore sunglasses and Skechers, rosary beads and Rangers caps. And while a few in the lead wrestled with unwieldy banners, many wrestled with a bigger problem—how to practice their conservative Catholic faith under the leadership of the current pope.

The Nov. 18 march came just days after Pope Francis removed Joseph Strickland, 65, as the head of the Diocese of Tyler. Known for his political and theological conservatism and his criticism of the pope, Strickland had refused to resign upon request.

Later in November, Francis reportedly revoked privileges belonging to 75-year-old Cardinal Raymond Burke, a conservative American who openly speaks out against the pope. Burke will no longer have a Vatican-subsidized apartment and salary.

Pope Francis, who turns 87 on Dec. 17, has long stirred consternation among Catholics for his left-leaning views. He has emphasized social justice, called for action on climate change, revised Catholic doctrine to prohibit capital punishment, and made controversial if vague comments about the church’s need to welcome homosexuals. His recent censuring of prelates who criticize him suggests Francis may be trying to put a lid on dissent, despite a church movement toward traditional and conservative beliefs.

Strickland, for example, has repeatedly denounced the pope for his lack of clarity on hot-button issues like sexuality. On May 12 he tweeted criticism of the pope’s “program of undermining the Deposit of Faith,” the body of traditional Catholic teaching. Strickland advised Catholics, “Follow Jesus.”

A family listens to Bishop Joseph Strickland during a rally to support him outside the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore on Nov. 15.

A family listens to Bishop Joseph Strickland during a rally to support him outside the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore on Nov. 15. Wesley Lapointe/The New York Times/Redux

In 2019, Burke was the first of five signatories on a document that, among other things, condemned homosexuality and transgender surgery and upheld capital punishment. Burke also disagreed with the pope’s promotion of COVID-19 vaccines.

Burke and Strickland are not alone. Last year, the Vatican also defrocked outspoken pro-life activist and priest Frank Pavone over what it called “blasphemous communications on social media.”

In August, Francis acknowledged a growing rift but took a hard line. He labeled conservative Catholics in the United States “backward” for viewing church doctrine as “a monolith” that doesn’t change with the times. That could explain an Oct. 31 ruling by the Vatican that opened the door to Catholic ­baptism for transgender people and babies of same-sex couples.

Such posturing puts conservative Catholic leaders in a tough spot. Many are questioning exactly what they owe the pope in terms of obedience. They’re also perplexed by the long leash Francis has extended toward Catholics who have abandoned church teaching—such as U.S. Catholic politicians promoting abortion. Although conservative bishops in 2021 drafted a plan to stop such church members from receiving Communion, the Vatican derailed it.

Catholic influence on American politics is consequential. A 2023 Pew poll shows Catholics make up 28 ­percent of the current Congress. President Joe Biden is a professing Catholic, along with two-thirds of ­sitting Supreme Court justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts.

Francis has been persistently critical of Catholics who are inclined towards more traditional modes of worship, or even a more traditional sort of piety.

J.D. Flynn, a Catholic journalist and canon lawyer, says the tension between Francis and conservative Catholics has built since Francis’ election in 2013. “There was an expectation that Francis would carry on the same theological approach as John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but it became clear that he came from a ­different theological school,” he said. “Francis has been persistently critical of Catholics who are inclined towards more traditional modes of worship, or even a more traditional sort of piety.”

A church split is unlikely in the short term, but Heritage Foundation research fellow E.J. Antoni, a lifelong Catholic, believes mixed messaging has American Catholics living through a sort of split right now. He’s observed the effect on young people: “They look at the modern drapery which the church has adopted today, and in so many of its more liberal ­circles, and they can’t tell the difference between it and the rest of the world.” Antoni says a new movement is afoot—young Catholics attracted to conservative parishes where priests champion traditional church teachings on abortion, sexuality, and family.

The Survey of American Catholic Priests has also found that U.S. priests are growing more conservative in their moral views, politics, and theology.

At the Tyler, Texas, march for Bishop Strickland, Francis did have at least one supporter. She stood curbside, dressed in black, with a poster marked by two words and a mathematical symbol: “Pope > Bishop.”

It’s a position Flynn can understand. He believes the developing conflict will serve a purpose. “Certainly God is allowing this, and hopefully it will clarify critical questions about what the papacy is.”


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