Ross Douthat: three groups of Pope Francis’ critics on the ‘right’

The insightful Ross Douthat of, remarkably, Hell’s Bible (aka New York Times) has some comments about Pope Francis’ critics on the right.  This is worth your time.  It is long, so we’ll have just a taste here.  Keep in mind that he doesn’t go into Francis’ critics on the other end of the spectrum, and they are growing in number as their dissatisfaction with him grows.

My usual black and red treatment:

Who Are Pope Francis’s Critics?

The latest cover of the new New Republic features Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig taking on conservative anxieties about Pope Francis’s possible “radicalism.” The essay isn’t just about the pope; it offers a larger critique of the way that conservatives, Catholic and otherwise, relate to and interpret the human/Western/Christian past. I have a few disagreements with this depiction, and a few critical generalizations I’d make about the liberal tendency in Catholic thinking and debate right now. But I’ll save those for another post; for now I think it would be helpful for the discussion of Catholicism in the Francis era to spend some time distinguishing between the different groups who have doubts, or flirt with having doubts, about this pontificate, because in Bruenig’s account they run together a bit and I think the distinctions are actually enormously important.

A preliminary point to make is that Francis’s genuinely strident critics — as opposed to skeptics or fretters or unsettled observers — are quite few in number. “The differences in opinion between Francis and the movement collectively known as the ‘American right’ appear especially numerous,” Bruenig writes, “and unusually bitter.” She has examples — I’m one of them — and they do add up to a current (or currents) of criticism, but not all of them/us are obviously “bitter,” the American right is a lot bigger than a few pundits and bloggers, and it’s worth noting that the divide she sees opening up is largely invisible in public polling. In the latest Pew survey, for instance, the pope is just as popular (and he is very popular) among Catholics who vote Republican as among Catholics who vote Democratic, and he has slightly higher net favorables among self-described “conservative” Catholics than among self-described “moderates” and “liberals.” To the extent that the anxieties Bruenig identifies are visible in polling at all, they may show up in the somewhat elevated number of conservative Catholics who say their views of Francis are “mostly favorable” rather than “very favorable,” or the pope’s slightly higher net-unfavorables among Catholic Republicans — but that “higher” means a net of 10 percent, compared to 7 percent for Catholic Democrats, which is hardly the stuff of deep, bitter divides. (Pew’s old polling on Benedict XVI didn’t break things down by party or ideology, but I’d lay odds that his unfavorable numbers among Catholics who self-identify as liberal were much higher than than Francis’s currently are among any definition of the American Catholic right.)

So what we’re talking about here, what Bruenig is analyzing, is for now more a tendency within the intelligentsia (and the world of comment threads, but perhaps I repeat myself) than a large-scale phenomenon. And its various elements don’t all fit easily under a single label or description. Instead, I would divide them into three groups:

1. Traditionalists. These are Catholics defined by their preference/zeal for the Tridentine Rite Mass and their rejection of (or at least doubts about) various reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Some attend mainstream parishes that offer the mass in Latin, others are affiliated with orders specifically organized around the old rite, others are connected to parishes run by the (arguably; it’s a long argument) schismatic [sic] Society of Saint Pius X. [There is loose terminology here.  For example, SSPX can’t have parishes, since parishes must erected by proper authority (which the SSPX lacks).] There’s lots of variation within traditionalist ranks (my friend Michael Brendan Dougherty, cited by Bruenig, is a “trad” of a different sort than, say, this fellow), [Michael Voris] but the important things to emphasize are first, that their numbers (in the American context and otherwise) are quite small; second, that their concerns are not usually the same as those of the typical John Paul II-admiring conservative Catholic (traditionalists were often not admirers of the Polish pope); and third, that their skepticism of Pope Francis was probably inevitable and pretty clearly mutual. [Douthat seems to be painting this group as the fringe of the intelligensia.]

For instance, Bruenig notes that Rorate Caeli, a traditionalist site, greeted Jorge Bergoglio’s election by describing him as “a sworn enemy of the traditional Mass.” But what she doesn’t mention is that as Francis, he has often vindicated those fears: He has demoted the traditional mass’s most prominent champion within the Vatican, cracked down on a prominent traditionalist order, and frequently singled out traditionalist tendencies and practices for criticism in his remarks. Traditionalism has, it’s fair to say, a paranoid streak and then some, but even paranoids have enemies, and since the Tridentine mass was essentially suppressed in much of the church for a generation and more, Francis’s moves have not exactly been calculated to reassure Catholics of this persuasion about their place within the church.

This doesn’t mean traditionalists are “right” and the pope is “wrong.” (If you want to understand where Francis might be coming from, consider that the SSPX seminary in Argentina during his years as archbishop of Buenos Aires was run by this charmer.) [He is referring to former SSPX bishop Williamson.  This has been my thesis.] But it means that the conflict here has very specific contours, and the stakes involved are distinctive and not particularly influenced by, say, Francis’s social and economic vision (which some traditionalists find entirely congenial; see this Rorate Caeli post for an example). Which makes it very different from my second case study … [While this gives Rorate far too much ink, it does situate that site well in this set of three groups.]

2. Catholics who are economic conservatives or libertarians. […]

[Remember that the catholic Left such as the Fishwrap has been trying to paint anyone who doesn’t want redistribution of wealth or who doesn’t embrace the zero-sum game view, or who sees free markets as a way to raise more people out of poverty more effectively and more quickly as a “liberatarian”, which for them is a cuss word.  They’ve created a straw-man, chimeric “libertarian”.  Again, a true laissez-faire libertarian is a pretty rare bird.]

3. Doctrinal conservatives. These are conservative American Catholics whose Francis-era anxieties center around the issues raised during last fall’s synod on the family, and particularly around Cardinal Walter Kasper’s proposal to admit Catholics in second marriages (which the church does not recognize as marriages at all) to communion — an issue I may have written aboutfrom time to time.


That picture — coming around to the point of this rambling taxonomy — is simply this. A future in which Francis’s “radicalism” (a term that would require yet another post to unpack, so I won’t) is defined by his approach to the social gospel, globalization and the poor is one in which the tension with traditionalists will remain intense but not high-profile, in which the tension with free-marketeers and libertarians will percolate in interesting ways, and in which conservative doubts about this pontificate will remain a particularly American phenomenon and a mostly elite-level tendency overall. [Again, with the small in number theme.  However, I think this group is growing in size and awareness, as are the other two, above.] And it’s a future, at this point, that I would welcome, since I’d be very happy to spend more time arguing with Bruenig about the church’s historical relationship to the welfare state and less time arguing about German cardinals and divorce.

But a future in which this pope’s “radicalism” extends to moves that look like an implicit change of doctrine around communion and/or marriage … in which it’s not just Hannity but the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that’s in conflict with the throne of Peter … well, in that future the economic issues would become a sideshow, and the pope’s existing conflict with traditionalists would become the template for a doctrinal conflict that’s wider, global, and essentially unknowable in its results. And it’s that future, for reasons that I believe are more Christian than “conservative”, that I’d very much prefer the Catholic faith be spared.

Me too.

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  1. jacobi says:

    If I may comment Father, not as a Trad,which I am not, but as an ordinary Catholic in the pews who has watched the once expanding, respected and confidant Catholic Church collapse into the discordant shambles it is now, over the last fifty years, this is neither a North American nor a particularly elitist phenomena.

    Quite the contrary, the majority of those who have expressed an opinion, that is those who have simply turned their back on or walked away from the post Vatican II Church, have hardly been intellectual, nor necessarily N. American. I mean much of Europe has done so, and mostly just ordinary, not in the slightest intellectual, Catholics.

    The writer shares one characteristic with the present Holy Father. After reflection, it is still not clear just what exactly he is trying to say.

    Except for one thing. He hopes the pope will not try to change Catholic doctrine on the denial of Holy Communion to those in Mortal Sin. Well, so do I, a simple ordinary Catholic in the pews, because if the pope does try to do that, we have another Reformation and major split in the Catholic Church.

  2. Gerard Plourde says:

    Mr. Douthat’s article is quite thoughtful. He makes excellent points concerning the fact that mainstream Catholic thought does not easily fit into the American Liberal/Conservative paradigm, based as it is primarily on economic matters and individualism (a legacy of its Protestant origins).

    I also think that Pope Francis is not likely to overturn Catholic doctrine. The question of treatment of divorced and remarried (without Church annulment) may be able to be addressed by the couple agreeing to live celebately (much the way the Church counsels homosexual persons). If they do so, following a good confession, they would be in a state of grace and would thus be able to receive Communion.

  3. St Donatus says:

    I would disagree with Russ Douthat in one area. I don’t think the ‘conservative’ Catholics are the minority. When upwards of 95% of Catholics don’t believe that the Catholic Church does not teach correctly, that same 95% are no longer Catholic. Did Jesus say, well you can believe whatever you want and you will still be saved? I don’t think so. In fact, today we have three groups that make up the Catholic Church, those who want to believe in whatever they think is best (Cafeteria Catholics) who make up 90 to 95% of Catholics today (I mean if you include those who don’t agree with the Churches teaching on contraceptives), the second is Traditionalists who make up 1 to 2% of the Church and and finally what are called Conservative Catholics, you know, the ones that still believe all the Churches teachings including the Novus Ordo mass, Altar girls, etc. So what you end up with is 5% who actually believe the teachings of the Church (traditionalists and conservative Catholics). This creates a great problem for the Vatican because they don’t want to alienate the 95% because they would have to close about 75% of the Churches. So they walk a fine line, Pope Benedict was trying to reform them and was successful to a limited degree. I saw many people who were Cafeteria Catholic become strong Catholics during this time.

    Pope Francis seems to want to just let them believe and do what they want with no consequences. But I think this is the same rust that caused the Mass attendance rate to go from 80% in 1962 to 25% today. If he continues on his present coarse, I thin that many of those Cafeteria Catholics will get bored with the 1980s folk music and puppets at Mass and just do something more entertaining. (I mean almost everyone goes to heaven, that is the reason for ecumenism isn’t it.) We saw this kind of mentality the 1970s through the 1990s as parishioners learned that protestants, muslems, hindus and buddists are just as good as we are.

    Personally, I think that if the Church really stood up for what it’s own teachings, perhaps as many as 50% of Catholics would eventually fall into line. As it is, many fence sitter Catholics are now doubting Catholic teaching and thinking it will change to whatever they want anyway (kind of the mentality I saw in the 1970s through the 1990s).

    At some point the rose colored glasses will fall off and the Church will wake up but as Pope Benedict said, a much smaller Church.

  4. Mojoron says:

    Pope Frank is popular because he is Pope. He is not particularly popular, contrary to the authors writing, in the conservative catholic group primarily due to his comments of social justice and intimations of “coming across the border from Mexico” into the USA indicating that he too is an alien, not understanding the policies or the issues of illegal immigration. His ideas that all peoples from South America are somehow potential aliens to the North American Continent, are completely false. He needs to stay away from poking the number one provider of money to the coffers of the Vatican in the eye if he wants to be popular with the people who actually give to the plate.

  5. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    How can this critical voice best be classified?:

  6. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    I wonder if Mr. Douthat, when he turns to the “critical generalizations I’d make about the liberal tendency in Catholic thinking and debate right now”, will also attend to attempts to ‘claim’ the Holy Father and the Church in the ways in which Richard Greeman in “Catholicism: The New Communism?” and Judith Marshall in an account of the October 2014 World Meeting of Popular Movements do?

  7. MikeM says:

    Following on Donatus’ comment, when I look back at the point where I made the switch from “cafeteria Catholic” (I thought that I was Catholic at the time… I was just arrogant enough to think that I could reason significantly beyond where the Church was, thus effectively creating my own denomination of one) to being a doctrinally orthodox Catholic, it was Pope Benedict’s example that showed me what I should be doing. His reverence for the teachings and traditions that he had received, despite being the ranking member of the Church and one of the world’s best minds, made my folly so clear. I doubt that I would have gotten the same thing from Pope Francis’ example.

    Perhaps Pope Francis’ example will draw people to God in its own way, and I believe that God uses the tools at his disposal to draw His people to Him, so I don’t assume that God couldn’t have found a way to teach me what I needed to learn. Still, it makes me a little bit uncomfortable with Francis. It’s strange… I kind of like Pope Francis’ personality, but I don’t at all like seeing so much of it.

  8. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Douthat is to the NYT what Allen was to NCRep., a fig leaf of credibility.

  9. oldconvert says:

    To me it looks as if the Holy Father is trying to keep everyone happy, or at least on board, throwing a crumb to the liberals one day, to the conservatives the next. Maybe he is hoping that by this means to allow everyone to settle down to some form of accommodation. It won’t work, Papa. The Church of England is the pattern of why it won’t work.

  10. MarylandBill says:

    I don’t believe Pope Francis is trying to throw crumbs to each group in order to keep them happy. Rather, I think he is doing what his two predecessors did as well (but which was rarely covered because it didn’t fit the media narrative about Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict), he is pushing the whole of Catholic teaching which in its call for radical love, will contain elements that are offensive to those who see the world in purely “liberal” or “conservative” terms. I just read part of Pope Benedict’s “God is Love” where he argues about the need for both individual charity and for social justice.. usually issues that are seen as conservative and liberal respectfully.

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