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 wasvoted 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.”
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