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Is the pope Catholic?

Pope Francis delivers the Urbi et Orbi benediction at the end of the Easter Mass in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican on March 27, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Max Rossi/Files *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-WELDON-OPED, originally transmitted on April 11, 2016.

NEW YORK (RNS) That’s always been the jokey answer to a dumb question, but it’s now a serious issue for Catholic intellectuals who have been criticizing, and defending, the Catholic bona fides of Pope Francis, especially since the pontiff released a landmark document on family life earlier this month that some say calls into question the church’s teachings on the permanence of marriage.

“A catastrophe,” one traditionalist blogger called the apostolic exhortation, “Amoris Laetitia,” or “The Joy of Love,” which was released by the Vatican on April 8. Francis “departs from church teaching” in the exhortation, wrote another.

“Suddenly the rhetorical question, ‘Is the pope Catholic?’ doesn’t seem so rhetorical anymore,” Claire Chretien wrote in a pointed critique at the conservative Web outlet The Federalist.

The unusual debate — after all, it’s not often that a pope is accused of heterodoxy — has grown so serious, in fact, that on Tuesday evening (April 19), the Jesuit-run Fordham University hosted a panel of Catholic experts titled: “Is the Pope Catholic?”


RELATED STORY: Will papal document settle the controversies?


From left to right, participants at a Fordham University panel titled, “Is the Pope Catholic?” are Former New York Times religion writer and Commonweal magazine editor Peter Steinfels; Alice Kearney Alwin, director of Mission and Ministry at Marymount School, a Catholic girls school in Manhattan; New York Times columnist Ross Douthat; Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a theologian at Manhattan College; and moderator John Sexton, president emeritus of New York. Photo courtesy of Fordham University

From left to right, participants at a Fordham University panel titled, “Is the Pope Catholic?” are Former New York Times religion writer and Commonweal magazine editor Peter Steinfels; Alice Kearney Alwin, director of Mission and Ministry at Marymount School, a Catholic girls school in Manhattan; New York Times columnist Ross Douthat; Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a theologian at Manhattan College; and moderator John Sexton, president emeritus of New York University. Photo courtesy of Fordham University Office of Alumni Relations

Among the four participants was New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who has been one of Francis’ leading critics on the Catholic right, openly wondering about the pontiff’s doctrinal purity and whether he is leading the Catholic Church into schism.

Also on the panel was former New York Times religion writer and Commonweal magazine editor Peter Steinfels; Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a theologian at Manhattan College; and Alice Kearney Alwin, director of mission and ministry at Marymount School, a Catholic girls school in Manhattan. John Sexton, the polymath president emeritus of New York University and a Fordham theology alum, moderated.

While none of the panelists directly challenged Francis’ faith, Douthat was most outspoken in criticizing Francis’ approach in general, and in “Amoris Laetitia” specifically, a document that Douthat said was “designed to introduce a level of ambiguity into church teaching that had been absent.”

“It’s clearly a deliberately destabilizing document. And whether that destabilization is good or bad is something that liberals and conservatives can argue about,” he said.

Steinfels took up that argument, saying that “what Ross might call ambiguity I might call ‘complexity.’”

But he added that did not change what Steinfels said was his basic pessimism about the future of the church, at least in North America.

Alwin, on the other hand, said she was much more positive about the kind of effect Francis has had, especially on the children she deals with.

She described herself as “joy-filled” about this papacy and the more merciful aspect of the faith that, whatever the doctrinal disputes, she says is having an impact on the next generation.

Imperatori-Lee was also relatively upbeat — at one point she noted to laughter that it was odd the two women were more hopeful about the future of Catholicism than the three men — and she said it was important to see the exhortation as “a global document” and not just about U.S. concerns.

She also noted that Francis also spoke in very supportive terms about feminism, in contrast with other church leaders. “I enjoyed that line,” she said.

But Douthat was steadfast that the contemporary Catholic Church is not at all rules-obsessed and harsh and in need of a transfusion of mercy, as Francis and his supporters suggest. On the contrary, he said, he sees no signs of such conservatism – and he acknowledged that conservative Catholicism is “divided and confused” and “has no clear answers” to the crisis.

“But the idea that there is this glorious future church waiting to be born as long as we get rid of the dead hand of 1950s Catholicism that the pope seems to perceive everywhere he looks is nuts! It’s just nuts. That’s not where Catholicism in the West is right now,” he said.

“Catholicism in the West is divided, disorderly, badly catechized and extremely liberal in terms of the perspective of the average self-identified Catholic.”

What Douthat and the panelists seemed to agree on was that change, or “development,” as theologians like to put it, does happen in church — a fact that traditionalists do not often like to recognize — but that the real debate is about how change happens, and what can change and what is essential.

“I think that where we agree is that the church, rather than having a desire to be liked, expresses in the world God’s desire to save, however that happens,” said Imperatori-Lee. “If the church is not doing the work of salvation, then it is a failure.

“Insofar as the church does the work of salvation, then it succeeds. What we keep should be at the service of salvation for the most number of people at any given point in history. And what we discard should be anything that is an impediment to that will to save.”

In the end, then, it seemed that the question was not so much whether the pope is Catholic, but what Catholicism is.

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

19 Comments

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  • In two or three decades the Church will be reduced to street stands manned by smiling volunteers of all sexes and giving out lucky wafers for a donation to some charitable cause.

  • A catchy headline, but little to do with the debate. The final sentence summed it up:- What is catholicism?

    A hierarchical medieval monachy trying to impose its outdated teaching on a 21st century post-modern society?

    Or a church of the people of God who care more for their neighbour than their own selfish lifestyles?

    To call the pope’s The joy of love “…clearly a deliberately destabilizing document…” reflects more the fear of Douthat to a genuine dialogue on what it means to be “catholic”. Francis has begun that dialogue; we wait for the response from the rest of the hierarchy. The people have already made their decisions on the moral questions from the pope’s exhortation.

  • The pope was crystal clear: no abortion – not even to save a woman’s life, no birth control, no same-sex marriage. Nothing about his Church’s sex abuse victims. Same media tricks during this pontificate. Broadcast the traditionalists inconsequential concerns, stay silent about this pope’s multitude of victims around the world.

  • From the photo caption:

    “…and moderator John Sexton, president emeritus of New York.”

  • The pope was crystal clear: no abortion – not even to save a woman’s life, no birth control, no same-sex marriage.

    There are a fair number of denominations now that have completely given way on these points. Those keen for such approval of these acts might want to hurry in joining them before they go extinct. Not that I am urging anyone to do so, of course.

    Nothing about his Church’s sex abuse victims.

    But that was not the subject of this exhortation.

    Broadcast the traditionalists inconsequential concerns, stay silent about this pope’s multitude of victims around the world.

    But they are not inconsequential. They go to the heart of the Church’s truth claims. If the Church has gotten these things wrong for its entire 2,000 years, how can it be believed about anything?

  • While it’s not surprising that Peter Steinfels is pleased with what seems to be a further progressive push in praxis (if indeed not doctrine) that seems likely to result from this whole episode, it *is* interesting that he is so skeptical about the Church’s future prospects in North America. It would have been interesting to hear more in this report about why he’s so pessimistic.

  • Can’t wait for the biology department’s seminar: “Does a bear defecate in the woods?”

  • The “pro-lifers” don’t say anything about the deaths in war. They proffer pictures of fetuses. Where then are the pictures of Priests molesting and sodomizing little boys? Why no extreme sensitivity and outrage about that? Priest with his pants down and little boy with pants down bent over a chair and wondering what the hell is going on. Traumatized for the rest of his lifetime. I can be brutal too. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. …..How come I have never seen a poor little unwed teen aged mother in a Catholic Church? Where are the bleeding hearts then? It is just cold hearted motor-mouthing and holier than thou posturing, which is covering up a deeply detached attitude to other human beings….No, I have never had an abortion.

  • Actually, the Pope is the one who is the traditional Catholic, and American Conservatives who think Catholicism is a branch of American right-wing politics are the radicals.

  • The Pope is Catholic. What the Pope is not is an American Catholic. So, the challenge for American Catholics is simple: do they want to finally, convert to the Catholic faith and leave behind their Americanism or do they want to found another faith or do they want to leave the faith. But the key here is not Catholicism. Hence, the key is secular Americanism because that is what American Catholicism has become: a strictly American faith and largely secular at that.

  • The Pope is a realist. The Catholic church has been hit with hundreds of millions of payouts. 600 million in Boston alone. What to do? Catholics seem to be tapped out so where does a new money stream exist? Catholics that want back into the church seem to be willing to pay. Annulments, once hard to get are going from $1,200 up. Yup, Pope Evita the money keeps rolling in. All wallets are welcome.

  • In two or three decades? What are you high? Unless governments across the planet suddenly decide to steal the church buildings from the Church, there’ll be plenty of altars and incense for quite a while.

  • I believe the conservative movement within the Catholic church is dying out. The future is a liberal movement that will be the reason the Catholic church will survive. They realize that they must make changes in their doctrine and they give small changes to their followers in hope of keeping them and attracting new members.How they keep holding out on women priest is beyond me. It would be a great beginning to eradicating homosexual priests.Plus it would show the world that women can perform just as well or even better at this level.

  • ‘I believe the conservative movement within the Catholic church is dying out.” Good, we don’t need shameless Americanism polluting the wellspring of Salvation.

    ” The future is a liberal movement that will be the reason the Catholic church will survive.” No, the Church will survive because God said that, in the war between God and the powers of hell and sin, the Church will prevail, always.

    “They realize that they must make changes in their doctrine and they give small changes to their followers in hope of keeping them and attracting new members.” Except nothing was changed and we attract new members because we don’t. Take a look at the Christian denominations that DID change? The Catholic Church is actually growing world wide while the others continue to decline.

    “How they keep holding out on women priest is beyond me.” The same way she has done for 2000 years: by saying no.

    ” It would be a great beginning to eradicating homosexual priests.” The Methodists and Episcopalians would beg to differ.

    “Plus it would show the world that women can perform just as well or even better at this level.” Except they can’t. That isn’t something the Church said; it is something God said.

  • “Annulments, once hard to get are going from $1,200 up.” Except that, in his recent mittis, he declared that the cost should be reduced as much as possible if not pro bono.

  • I would say from your response that you are a very happy Catholic. I wish you and your faith the very best!

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