Back in the 1980s, the National Catholic Reporter, always a force for Church unity, ran a cartoon image of the throne of Peter: a toilet with the papal keys under a ceremonial awning. For the Reporter, it was standard fare. The publication’s chronic snarkiness toward Rome during the long Wojtyla/Ratzinger decades—and even earlier—was as reliable as the sun rising in the east.
Then came Francis. With him, the paper had a Lourdes-like healing, at least on matters papal. Having trashed America’s “conservative” bishops for years, the Kansas City paper suddenly seemed to find an ally in the most unlikely place. And the irony was almost too rich. Here was a pope who might hoist “culture-war” Catholics on their own petard and lead the faithful to more progressive pastures, based on their own paradoxical loyalty to … the pope.
Priorities, personnel, and leadership style always change with a new Holy Father. The times also change, and with them pastoral realities and needs. So in many ways, Pope Francis and the issues that engage him are nothing unusual. But some things in the new regime really are new. All previous recent papal transitions—John XXIII to Paul VI; Paul VI to John Paul II; John Paul II to Benedict XVI—were marked by a continuity of experience that Francis does not share. All these earlier men were directly involved in the hopes and struggles of the Second Vatican Council in way Francis was not. For Francis, collegiality is an inherited idea.
While the Church in the global north stalls and declines, the Church in the global south is expanding rapidly. The center of gravity in the Church is shifting accordingly. As a Latin American, Francis has been formed by legitimate urgencies very different from those that prevail in Europe. His actions reflect this. If he seems to dislike the United States (as rumors suggest), his attitude is hardly unwarranted, given hemispheric history. If he also seems to resent the long European intellectual dominance of the Church (as his behavior suggests), it’s not an unreasonable reaction to northern condescension.
But a pope, unfortunately, can’t afford peevishness. Every word and action has weight. Thus, no matter how well-intended, Francis’s very public decision to live in a Vatican hotel rather than the Apostolic Palace is perceived not merely as a statement of humility and simplicity, but also as a rejection—at considerable financial expense—of his predecessors’ manner of life.
It’s also worth recalling that, quite early in his pontificate, he admitted to a pattern of authoritarian mistakes he had made as Jesuit provincial in Argentina. Whether he learned any useful lessons from that experience is unclear.
In an age of confusion and ambiguity, Francis has repeatedly complained of Pharisees, rigidity, and legalism in the Church. The desire for clarity in complex moral issues seems to annoy him. Instead of encouraging priests, his documents and remarks are full of glancing criticisms. Faithful Catholics who have made real sacrifices to live the hard teachings of the Church feel themselves lumped in with the hard-hearted elder brother in the prodigal son parable.
Cardinals who offer unwelcome counsel, even in private (like the Synod Thirteen), are resented; witness Francis’s intemperate closing remarks at the 2015 Synod on the Family. An ugly incident arose on November 15, when the cardinals who had recently questioned Francis on issues related to Amoris Laetitia appeared to be equated with the loathsome Wormtongue of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy in a tweet by Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, one of the pope’s closest advisers. The tweet was quickly taken down, and Spadaro has since clarified that he had meant to criticize not the cardinals, but rather his own critics on Twitter. Unfortunately, the episode had already become rather ugly, with the tweet interpreted contrary to Spadaro’s intentions by commentators as serious as Ross Douthat. In reviewing this episode, Spadaro might question the prudence of engaging with his opponents on social media. He might also consider the atmosphere currently being created—for on matters related to Amoris Laetitia, Rome has seemed focused on intimidation, despite numerous expressions of concern about the document’s impact on the sacramental integrity of marriage and the Eucharist.
In the United States, the reservoir of affection for the pope—any pope—runs very deep among faithful Catholics and their bishops. It very much includes Francis. This is what separates most U.S. Catholics from the derisive carping of publications like the National Catholic Reporter. It also sets them apart from the destructive criticism now growing against Francis on the ecclesial right. American Catholics love the pope, want to love the pope, and Francis deserves their love and fidelity.
But to the degree Catholics also really know their faith, love the Church, and seek to live her teachings, many are also increasingly uneasy.
The resistance in the United States and elsewhere to the problematic elements of Amoris Laetitia does not arise from Wojtyla/Ratzinger nostalgia, or from leadership style, or from a question of textual interpretation that the passage of time will resolve. It is a matter of doctrinal substance. It is worth fighting about. The problems in the document may be smoothed over for a while, but they will not go away. And the appointment of new cardinals who act as Roman salesmen will not obscure them.
Padraig Wynne is an American writer.
Update (12/5/16): This essay has been modified from its original version, the better to reflect Antonio Spadaro’s clarification of his contested tweet.