Conflict among Catholics
Evangelicals should care about the direction of the Roman Catholic Church
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When conservative Roman Catholics and conservative Protestants are on the same side in the culture wars, contending together for life, marriage, and religious liberty, we develop a cultural movement with common purpose. So what do we do when some of our allies in the fight are subject to unfriendly fire from those within their own church?
That’s the case this week as a semi-official Catholic newspaper released a transcript of a recent talk by Pope Francis with a group of Portuguese Jesuits. The pope, the first Jesuit to become pope, frequently meets with his former confreres on his travels abroad. And the Jesuit order is widely known as a liberal force within Catholic circles, as Americans can see from the leftward lean of Jesuit universities like Georgetown and Santa Clara.
So it should come as no surprise that a skeptical European Jesuit would ask the pope how he feels about American Catholics who criticize his leadership. In a rambling, unscripted response, Francis answered: “The situation is not easy: there is a very strong reactionary attitude. It is organized and shapes the way people belong.” After explaining that Catholic doctrine is constantly evolving or progressing to meet the needs of the time, he continued, “If you don’t change upward, you go backward, and then you take on criteria for change other than those our faith gives for growth and change. And the effects on morality are devastating.” The pope criticized a “climate of closure” in the United States, where “ideology replaces faith,” and things are “all rigid and contorted.”
Francis has occasionally given voice to his frustration with conservative roadblocks to the reforms he desires. There are elements in the Catholic Church, especially in Europe, that seek a liberalization of Catholicism on social questions like women’s ordination, same-sex unions, and divorce-and-remarriage. The Vatican, to its credit, has tried to slow some of the more radical efforts, going so far as to warn of a schism if the German Catholic Church embraced these proposals.
Yet Francis seems sympathetic to some of these changes, and he sends suggestive signals. But in fulfilling those goals he faces two hurdles. First, he faces a body of doctrine developed by his conservative predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Second, he faces conservative bishops, often in major positions of influence. Many American (and African) bishops appointed by the previous two popes, who were stalwarts of orthodoxy, remain in office—think of Cardinal Tim Dolan in New York and Archbishop Jose Gomez in Los Angeles. Indeed, recent elections for leadership within the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops consistently shows a preference among the American episcopate for conservatives over Francis’s more recent appointments, even as Francis showers cardinal red on his reformist allies.
Nevertheless, what some would call “reactionary” or “backwards,” others would see as a direct defense of the truth of scripture. 1st Timothy warns us against “anyone [who] teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine and teaching which is in agreement with godliness,” while 2nd Timothy tells us, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own lusts.” To guard against heresy is not backwards or rigid or close-minded.
As American evangelicals, we care for the direction of the Catholic Church globally and in the United States because we care about unborn babies, the family, and religious liberty. Many Roman Catholics have been champions for these issues—perhaps the most multi-denominational annual moment in America is the March for Life each January. Though Francis has not wavered on abortion, he has sent at best mixed messages on same-sex unions, and has also shifted tone on economics and prioritized climate change. At such moments we must stand with conservative Catholics, our allies in the moral trenches, that they may not waver.
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