No one can dispute the fact that Jorge Mario Bergoglio has had an extraordinary year since being elected to lead the Roman Catholic Church last March. Every gesture, from his choice of the name Francis to his penchant for cold-calling parishioners, has endeared him with a most unusual fanclub, including atheists and gays. He has been on the cover of the Advocate and Rolling Stone and he was voted Time’s Man of the Year. He also attracts tens of thousands of Catholics and curious onlookers to his weekly Sunday blessings and Wednesday audiences in St. Peter’s square—something that hasn’t been seen in Rome since the early days of John Paul II. He even has his own fanzine and smartphone app.
But just as the Pope’s pedestrian popularity grows, bolstered no doubt by a savvy public relations move from within the Vatican to get the ‘good news’ message out to the mainstream press, there are a growing number of dissident voices from deep within the Catholic community who aren’t exactly impressed with the so-called “Francis effect” on the church as a whole.
In fact, toeing the new party line instilled by Francis is proving to be the greatest challenge for conservative Catholics who are quite used to a prudent and predictable Pope. Francis’s comments about showing mercy to divorced couples, not judging gay priests and even toying with further examination of civil unions outside the church have proven to be tough for conservative Catholics to swallow. John Vennari, noted Catholic observer and editor of “The Catholic Family News,” has been pounding a steady drumbeat on the danger of Francis’s widespread populist appeal since his election a year ago. “He seems to have a good heart and some good Catholic instincts, but theologically he is a train wreck—remarkably sloppy,” Vennari wrote in a recent blog post. “Though this might shock some readers, I must say that I would never allow Pope Francis to teach religion to my children.”
In an NBC news piece titled “Not Everyone Loves Francis,” Boston College theology professor Thomas Groome pondered whether or not true Catholic conservatives would be able to keep supporting the Pope’s new approach towards acceptance and mercy and still keep their faith. “I think it will be a real test for conservative Catholics,” he told NBC. “They have always pointed the finger, quoting the Pope for the last 35 years. Suddenly, will they stop quoting the Pope? It’ll be a good test of whether or not they’re really Catholics.”
But it’s not just traditionalists who are finding fault with Francis. Writing in the New Statesman, John Bloodworth, editor of the popular British progressive political blog Left Foot Forward, warns that Francis is no different from his predecessors and that the Catholic Church “stands on roughly the same political terrain as it did under the leadership of Pope Benedict.” He says part of Francis’s popularity is simply a result of “clever repackaging” of the same Catholic propaganda coupled with a troubled society’s search for a new hero, which, he says, “has resulted in people switching off their critical faculties and overlooking inconvenient truths.” Bloodworth blames the mainstream press for essentially drinking the Catholic Kool-Aid without really checking for substance. “Pope Francis’s position on most issues should make the hair of every liberal curl,” he says. “Instead we get article after article of saccharine from people who really should know better.”
Some liberal Catholics believe that Francis is missing an opportunity to use his popular appeal to really make a substantive difference. Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, says that part of Francis’s appeal was his predecessor’s weakness. “To go from such an uncharismatic Pope to such a natural and warm leader like Francis has made people interested in what he has to say,” O’Brien told The Daily Beast. “But he’s not exactly Che Guevera for the church.”
While O’Brien believes that Francis’s off-the-cuff comments about divorced couples and gay priests are “driving the uber-conservative Catholics insane,” he worries that the Pope is actually getting a lot of undue credit for being a revolutionary when he hasn’t exactly shaken up the most troubling problems within the church. “I think that he could have a bigger impact, especially when it comes to women,” he says. “If Pope Francis has a blindspot, that’s it.”
O’Brien says that allowing divorced people to take communion or even be remarried in the Catholic Church would be a good first step towards moving beyond rhetoric. So would allowing women a greater role as decision-makers in the Church rather than isolating them further. O’Brien points to an interview Francis gave to a slew of Jesuit magazines earlier this year, in which he essentially poured cold water on any hope ofgender equality within the Catholic Church heirarchy. “I am wary of a solution that can be reduced to a kind of ‘female machismo,’ because a woman has a different make-up than a man,” Francis said in the interview. “But what I hear about the role of women is often inspired by an ideology of machismo.” O’Brien says by locking women out of the room when decisions are made, he is sidelining half of the Catholic Church. “Comments like that cancel out a lot of the good,” O’Brien says.
Another perceived weak spot in the Francis papacy for many is his kid-glove approach to the horrific child sex-abuse scandal the church is still dealing with. He has not yet met publicly with any victims of priest abuse like his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI did, and he has persistently avoided making a public apology as Pope. In December, he did announce the formation of a special commission to deal with the issue of predatory priests and child sex-abuse cases, but he has yet to name the commission, meaning that their work has not yet begun. That is especially painful to victims of priest abuse like David Clohessy, head of SNAP—Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. Clohessy says that Francis needs to immediately take tangible steps to remove predatory priests from the parishes and to punish bishops who continue to cover up their offenses.
“Policies, pledges, apologies, meetings with victims won’t work. they’ve all been said and done before. They are public relations placebos,” Clohessy told The Daily Beast. “They don’t safeguard a single child, expose a single predator or deter a single cover up. Symbolic moves are actually hurtful because they cause complacency instead of vigilance and give people false hope that real reform will follow, when it hasn’t followed and isn’t following.”
Clohessy isn’t holding out hope that the Pope’s abuse commission will make any difference. “A ‘carrot only’ approach won't work and he knows it. He must find the courage to wield a 'stick' and he shows little or no sign of being strong and brave enough to do this."
To be fair, Francis has shaken up the top-heavy Roman Curia with new appointments, and he has tapped 19 new cardinals from all over the world to diversify the mostly European College of Cardinals whose most important task will be electing his successor. He has also made some crucial steps towards cleaning up the scandal-prone Vatican bank with the appointment of a new Secretariat of the Economy, Cardinal George Pell from Australia. Writing in his new role as associate editor covering global Catholicism for The Boston Globe, Vatican expert John Allen says that Francis’s substantive moves get less press because they are essentially far more boring than what makes the headlines. He points specifically to the shakeup at the Vatican Bank. “That move may not have the sex appeal of Francis’s symbolic gestures, such as spurning the papal apartment or inviting three homeless men and their dog to his birthday breakfast, but insiders realize there’s little a pope could do that would be more challenging to the Vatican’s old guard,” he writes. “When that decision was announced, one could almost hear the sound of the tectonic plates of the church shifting in the direction of transparency and accountability.”
Love him or hate him, it is still too soon to measure the Francis effect on the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics. Those who support him most say his style appeals to lapsed Catholics and makes moderate Catholics proud, even though a recent Pew Research poll on American Catholics and Pope Franci says it hasn’t lured them back to church just yet. According to the study, “Seven in ten U.S. Catholics also now say Francis represents a major change in direction for the church, a sentiment shared by 56 percent of non-Catholics. And nearly everyone who says Francis represents a major change sees this as a change for the better.” But the same poll showed that church attendance had not shifted since Pope Francis took the helm of the Catholic Church.
Even with all the analysis of Francis’s first year, the least likely person to actually take note is the Pope himself. Father Tom Reese, a senior analyst for National Catholic Reporter and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church, says the Pope won’t likely worry about how people judge his first year on the job. “One of the things people like about Francis is that he is authentic; he says what he thinks in a simple straightforward way,” Reese told The Daily Beast. “If he starts worrying like a politician about what people on the left and right think of him, he will destroy himself. Let Francis be Francis.”
The pope would seem to agree. In a broad interview with Italy’s Corrieredella Sera newspaper, he shunned his popularity and said he is just an average person. “I don’t like ideological interpretations, a certain mythology of Pope Francis,” he said. “Sigmund Freud said, if I’m not mistaken, that in all idealization there is an aggression. To paint the Pope as if he is a sort of Superman, a sort of star, I find offensive. The Pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps peacefully and has friends like everyone else. He is a normal person.”