In the eight months since he became pope, Francis has won affection worldwide for his humble mien and common touch. His approval numbers are skyrocketing. Even atheists are applauding.
But not everyone is so enchanted. Some Catholics in the church’s conservative wing in the United States say Francis has left them feeling abandoned and deeply unsettled. On the Internet and in conversations among themselves, they despair that after 35 years in which the previous popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, drew clear boundaries between right and wrong, Francis is muddying Catholic doctrine to appeal to the broadest possible audience.
They were particularly alarmed when he told a prominent Italian atheist in an interview published in October, and translated into English, that “everyone has his own idea of good and evil” and that everyone should “follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them” — a remark that many conservatives interpreted as appearing to condone relativism. He called proselytizing “solemn nonsense.”
They were shocked when they saw that Francis said in the interview that “the most serious of the evils” today are “youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.” It compounded the chagrin after he said in an earlier interview that he had intentionally “not spoken much” about abortion, same-sex marriage or contraception because the church could not be “obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines.”
Steve Skojec, the vice president of a real estate firm in Virginia and a blogger who has written for several conservative Catholic websites, wrote of Francis’ statements: “Are they explicitly heretical? No. Are they dangerously close? Absolutely. What kind of a Christian tells an atheist he has no intention to convert him? That alone should disturb Catholics everywhere.”
I have been trying to make sense of this conservative backlash ever since Francis became Pope. A few weeks ago I was at a Jesuit university for an ecumenical gathering of church-related educators. During the conference I tried to ask as many Catholics in attendance as possible if they really thought Francis had departed from the theological teachings of the Church or his immediate predecessors.
It seems to me that Francis is different than John Paul and Benedict in his rhetoric, but is not that different in terms of doctrine. (Although the idea that a Catholic is not called upon to convince an atheist of the truth of Christianity does seem a bit odd). As this article points out, Francis has not budged on gay marriage, gay sex, abortion, etc.... He just does not talk about them as much as his predecessors. Instead he talks about issues of social justice and civility.
I would love to have some of my Catholic readers chime in. Is Francis changing Catholicism or is he merely emphasizing the dimensions of Catholic social teaching that the previous popes did not emphasize?