Pope Francis waves to the crowd in St. Peter's Square on Tuesday (March 19) at the Vatican. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

ANALYSIS: How long will the pope’s honeymoon last?

(RNS) Since the moment of his election on March 13, Pope Francis has been warmly embraced by his own flock and even the media and the wider public in a way his bookish predecessor, Benedict XVI, was not.

Pope Francis waves from the pope-mobile during his inauguration Mass at St. Peter's Square on Tuesday (March 19) at the Vatican. World leaders flew in for Pope Francis' inauguration Mass in St. Peter's Square on Tuesday where Latin America's first pontiff will receive the formal symbols of papal power. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

Pope Francis waves from the popemobile during his inauguration Mass at St. Peter's Square on Tuesday (March 19) at the Vatican. World leaders flew in for Pope Francis' inauguration Mass in St. Peter's Square on Tuesday where Latin America's first pontiff received the formal symbols of papal power. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Polls show that anywhere from 73 percent to 88 percent of American Catholics say they are happy with the selection of Francis, as opposed to about 60 percent who were happy with the choice of Benedict -- and many of those are extremely pleased with the new pope.

Such an effusive welcome is especially good news for Catholic leaders who spent years fending off criticism of Vatican dysfunction under Benedict and a cloud of scandal and crisis at home. And the hot start for Francis is also crucial in building up a reservoir of good will that will be needed when the new pope refuses to bend on unpopular teachings or commits a gaffe of his own.

Yet even as the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio basks in this broad approval as Pope Francis, some constituencies in the Catholic Church are cautious or even angry at his election, and their concern has only grown in the early days of his pontificate.

'Bergoglio is perhaps the worst'

Chief among the critics are the liturgical traditionalists who reveled in Benedict’s exaltation of old-fashioned ways, and are now watching in horror as Francis rejects the extravagant vestments and high-church rituals that were in en vogue for the past eight years.

“Of all the unthinkable candidates, Jorge Mario Bergoglio is perhaps the worst,” an Argentine Catholic wrote in a post at Rorate Caeli, a blog for aficionados of the old Latin Mass rites. “It really cannot be what Benedict wanted for the Church.”

Given that traditionalists are some of the most devoted and vocal Catholics in the church, and that they retain both contacts and influence in the upper ranks of the hierarchy, their pessimism could spell trouble for Francis.

'A Pope Francis problem'

The same could be said of politically conservative Catholics, especially those from the U.S. who have enjoyed access and approval in Rome for decades, under both Benedict and the late John Paul II.

Their concerns, while expressed in more muted tones, are tied to a number of markers: Francis is a Jesuit, for one thing, and even though he is considered a relatively conservative member of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits are considered notorious by the Catholic right.

Their list of alleged faults is long – they advocate engagement with the world, they have shown a willingness to criticize the hierarchy, and they have embraced a radical commitment to the poor. That last one is a priority for Francis as he sharply critiqued unfettered capitalism and austerity politics, even taking on the name of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the poor.

Indeed, the new pope “would likely be considered too liberal for a prime time speaking slot at the 2016 (Democratic) convention,” Charles Camosy, a theologian at Fordham University in New York, wrote in a Washington Post column titled, “Republicans have a Pope Francis problem.”

Detail of St. Francis of Assisi from ``Madonna Enthroned with the Child, St. Francis and four Angels,'' a fresco executed by Giovanni Cimabue between 1278-80 for the lower church of St. Francis Basilica in Assisi, Italy. RNS file photo courtesy of the Custodian of St. Francis Basilica in Assisi.

Detail of St. Francis of Assisi from "Madonna Enthroned with the Child, St. Francis and four Angels,'' a fresco executed by Giovanni Cimabue between 1278-80 for the lower church of St. Francis Basilica in Assisi, Italy. RNS file photo courtesy of the Custodian of St. Francis Basilica in Assisi.


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

St. Francis is also an icon of environmentalism, which the new pope has similarly embraced. That discomfits some conservatives – as does praise for Francis from liberation theologians like Leonardo Boff and Jon Sobrino. Rumors are already afoot that Francis might beatify slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed by a right-wing death squad for speaking out against injustice.

Not only that, but Francis allowed Vice President Biden and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, both Democrats who support abortion rights, to receive Communion at his installation Mass.

Moreover, while Francis is as orthodox as Benedict on the church’s doctrines of sexual ethics, he has shown what is to some a disconcerting willingness to seek pragmatic solutions to difficult issues, such as when he supported civil unions for gay couples in Argentina in an unsuccessful bid to thwart a gay marriage law.

Skepticism on the left

On the other side of the spectrum, however, some left-wing Catholics are leery of Francis, or openly criticize him for what they see as his antagonism to gay rights. They also question his track record on sex abuse by clergy and his disputed role during Argentina’s “Dirty War” in the 1970s, when some say he was not sufficiently vocal in speaking out against the military junta.

“The election of a doctrinally conservative pope, even one with the winning simplicity of his namesake, is especially dangerous in today’s media-saturated world where image too often trumps substance,” the feminist theologian Mary E. Hunt wrote at Religion Dispatches.

“A kinder, gentler pope who puts the weight of the Roman Catholic hierarchical church behind efforts to prevent divorce, abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage – as Mr. Bergoglio did in his country – is … scary,” Hunt said.

By contrast, mainstream Catholics, and Catholic Democrats in particular, have welcomed Francis’ election not only because of his appealing common touch but also because his statements on behalf of the poor may hold out a chance for leveling the playing field in the church’s internal culture wars.

The new pope’s words about fighting economic exploitation and “being a poor church, for the poor” are so insistent that they could put the church’s social justice teachings back on par with its doctrines on abortion and sexual ethics, which have been so prominent for so long that some complain they outweigh any other tenets.

Still, even Catholic progressives could wind up disappointed as Francis begins to unveil his appointments and policies, just as traditionalists and conservatives could be cheered or at least reassured that all is not lost.

As the Rev. James Keenan, a Boston College theologian, says, the Jesuits have an unwritten rule that a new superior should spend the first hundred days of his office learning about the community before making any changes. That means the critics need to make their voices heard now, because the clock is ticking.

Comments

  1. [T]he new pope “would likely be considered too liberal for a prime time speaking slot at the 2016 (Democratic) convention,”?

    I think you likely meant Republican?

  2. the more i read articles of david gipson, the more i think he is the problem for the catholic church. his writing holds no truths.

  3. I don’t think Democrats will have trouble with this Pope. A Pope concerned about the poor and envionmental issues? Nope, that would be republicans who have issues.
    But reading this article it appears to me that only very conservative Catholics were interviewed.
    Not want Benedict wanted? He resigned. He should have NO say in the selection of the new Pope. Theoretically, he should have been dead for this election to take place.

    He was an interesting choice. Perhaps the Cardinals realize that the catholic church is in need of a new direction. You could say that the last pope was not exactly a success for the church.
    Now if he only cleans up the sex abuse scandal, lets women be priests and have positions of authority and allows priests to be married the church would be headed in the right direction.

  4. My I am sick of the pope bashers, no pope can allow wemon priests, if he did he would be an antipope as it is against Christ’s tradition, you must remember God is not democratic he is autocratic, he lays down his law and says follow it, he offers forgiveness, if u break his laws but if u refuse to change he has hell waiting. No pope has any authority to allow wemon priests, unless they deide it is their church and they can do what they like. The sex abuse scandal does not really rest on any popes shoulders it is actually
    The bishops responsibility, u have to understand roles and responsiblities in the church find out a little more before you sound as ignorant as the media, as Jesus said you are in the world but not part of the world, that is of course u do not believe in liberal theology, which preachers Jesus was just a man, there were no miricles, no angels and Jesus really was just a good man with nice ideas. By the way liberal theology is outlawed by the church, but u would not know it as bishops and priests ignore the pope, and do what ever they want, and just to set the record straight I am not a traditionalist, I am just a plain female catholic.

  5. There is no valid reason why women cannot be ordained to the priesthood. As a matter of fact, it is quite likely that women presided at Eucharist in the earliest days of Christianity when the faithful came together to “break the bread” in private homes. By virtue of our baptism, we should all be eligible for this role. It is not likely that we will see this happen any time soon, but my hope is that we may see women in the permanent diaconate during this papacy.

  6. Anyone who calls the Catholic Church “an immutable institution” is clearly unaware of the Church’s history.

  7. It will be interesting to see if the Pope’s leadership style, which includes real humility can have an effect on the bad behaviour of leaders in the financial and political sectors. His humility might serve to address the arrogance of the major leadership figures. I wonder if any other world leader would consider washing the feet of his constituents or even lower themselves to meet them in their own homes. Hello Mr Obama? Mr Cameron? Mr Netanyahu? Mr Meshaal (HAMAS)? See more at: http://tinyurl.com/abtwmo7

  8. Marion, it will never happen. As John Paul II stated in Ordinatio Sacredotalis: ‘ I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful’. A very valid reason!

  9. Kevin,
    It was not quite issued as a dogmatic definition, so I would say there might be a little wiggle room for the church to do something different in the future.

  10. His honeymoon might last a while if he continues like he has started. It will be interesting to see if the Pope’s leadership style, which includes real humility can have an effect on the immoral behaviour of leaders in the financial and political sectors. His humility might serve to address the arrogance of the major leadership figures. I wonder if any other world leader would consider washing the feet of his constituents or even lower themselves to meet them in their own homes. Hello Mr Obama? Mr Cameron? Mr Netanyahu? Mr Meshaal (HAMAS)? See more at: http://tinyurl.com/abtwmo7

  11. The reason that women are not allowed to become priests is because priests are fatherly figures and through them we see God and the Church.

  12. No, I think Pope Francis would be too liberal for the Democrats, because he would chastise them for not doing near enough to stick up for the poor, and to curtail the extreme excesses of Wall Street. The Democrats also would not want to hear how their support for abortion rights feeds into the extreme cult of individualism that is destroying life for the majority of Americans, and eroding Labor Unions.

    By 2016, the Republicans will consider Pope Francis to be a mortal enemy, especially if the Republicans go total Ayn Rand. If this happens, Pope Francis will initiate a Solidarity Counterrevolution similar to the one that John Paul the Great waged against godless Soviet communism, and Pope Francis will be as successful with his Solidaritry movement as John Paul was.

  13. Dios te oiga, hace mucha falta, y hay pocos varones para servir.

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