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November 11, 2013 1:56 PM Red Shoe on the Other Foot

By Ed Kilgore

I noted on Friday that Pope Francis’ new tone and expression of Vatican priorities has had an emboldening effect on embattled liberal Catholics in the U.S. (and presumably elsewhere). But the Francis Era is rapidly becoming a nightmare for hard-core Catholic conservatives.

From time immemorial, conservative Catholics in this country have made it a habit to go running to the Vatican to secure “discipline” against their more liberal coreligionists. The most famous occasion was the successful campaign at the end of the nineteenth century to secure a papal condemnation of an “Americanist” heresy whereby U.S. Catholics allegedly argued that Catholic anti-liberal and anti-democratic political teachings did not apply to the very different context of this country. It intensified again in the wake of Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical prohibiting “artificial” methods of birth control, which was widely disregarded by the American Catholic laity and many parish clergy. During the hyper-traditionalist papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, liberal Catholics were increasingly hedged in by conservative prelates and periodically lectured to or investigated by the Vatican (typical was the crackdown launched just last year on U.S. nuns thought to be focused too much on social justice issues at the expense of promoting the Church’s teachings on “family life and human sexuality”).

Now the red shoe of the Pope seems to be on the other foot, with conservative Catholics complaining they are getting no love from Francis, as reported by the New York Times’ Laurie Goodstein:

In the eight months since he became pope, Francis has won affection worldwide for his humble mien and common touch. His approval numbers are skyrocketing. Even atheists are applauding.
But not everyone is so enchanted. Some Catholics in the church’s conservative wing in the United States say Francis has left them feeling abandoned and deeply unsettled. On the Internet and in conversations among themselves, they despair that after 35 years in which the previous popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, drew clear boundaries between right and wrong, Francis is muddying Catholic doctrine to appeal to the broadest possible audience.
They were particularly alarmed when he told a prominent Italian atheist in an interview published in October, and translated into English, that “everyone has his own idea of good and evil” and that everyone should “follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them” — a remark that many conservatives interpreted as appearing to condone relativism. He called proselytizing “solemn nonsense.”
They were shocked when they saw that Francis said in the interview that “the most serious of the evils” today are “youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.” It compounded the chagrin after he said in an earlier interview that he had intentionally “not spoken much” about abortion, same-sex marriage or contraception because the church could not be “obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines.”

Goodstein goes on to quote U.S. Catholic conservatives who seem to regard Francis in the same light as a Borgia Pope—an evil to be endured and outlasted. There are even some hopeful references to the self-retired Benedict that sound like the first stirrings of interest in labeling Francis an antipope.

I’m sure a lot of this talk is an overreaction (on both sides of the barricades, actually), since Francis has hardly overturned the tables of Catholic teachings. But it’s amusing to see the conservatives who are so used to genuflecting towards Rome staying decidedly on their feet.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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