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A tale of two critiques: US conservatives begin criticizing Pope Francis on politics, while Italians focus on matters of faith

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The two months between the closing of the Synod of Bishops on the family in Rome at the end of October and the New Year has seen a surprising shift in the approach of many US Catholic commentators on the pontificate of Pope Francis. After nearly two years of support, or at least muted criticism, strong words are being lobbed at the pope over his political involvement. This is contrasting with the growing critique of Pope Francis in Italy over his governance of the Church and his commitment to the defense of Catholic doctrine.

Some conservative political eyebrows raised in the US on December 17 with the announcement from the White House that the pope had been instrumental in helping the US cut a highly controversial deal with Cuba. This was followed by reports that the pope is preparing an encyclical on the environment, which media say will support the theory of man-made “climate change.” These appear to be something of a last straw for some US conservative Catholics who have until now remained largely neutral or cautiously supportive of Francis. The encyclical is reportedly due to be released in order to influence the UN’s next climate meeting in Paris.

A surprisingly sharp critique by Maureen Mullarkey, in a blog post at the US faith-based opinion magazine First Things, appears to have become a touchstone for conservative worries about Pope Francis. Mullarkey lobbed a series of highly charged indictments at Francis that have ruffled some feathers, calling him “an ideologue and a meddlesome egoist” who is “fastidiously attuned to image,” and who, with the announced upcoming encyclical on climate change, is “abandoning nuance for apocalyptic alarmism.”

“His clumsy intrusion into the Middle East and covert collusion with Obama over Cuba makes that clear. Megalomania sends him galloping into geopolitical—and now meteorological—thickets, sacralizing politics and bending theology to premature, intemperate policy endorsements,” Mullarkey wrote.

The tone of the piece prompted a disclaimer editorial by First Things editor R. R. Reno, who said that Mullarkey’s opinion was hers alone and not that of First Things as a whole. Reno indicated that readers had asked whether the magazine, long considered a mouthpiece of “moderate conservatism” in US Christian circles, was “turning into an organ for anti-Francis polemics?”

At the same time, however, Reno presented the more “moderate” voice of Francis’s US critics. Mullarkey’s piece might have been “overdrawn and ill-tempered,” but at the same time, Francis has “spoken his own mind, often in unguarded moments, and sometimes with an exaggerated and divisive rhetoric, some of which he doubtless regrets.”

In much more moderated terms than Mullarkey’s, the young Catholic pundit Thomas Peters, son of the well-known conservative canon lawyer Edward Peters, encapsulated the American Catholic conservative establishment’s critique of Francis’ political involvement, saying that the pope risks placing too much trust in the “incompetent” United Nations on climate.

“The United Nations sees people, and particularly poor people, as the problem, as consumers, which is why they funnel so much money into birth control and population suppression policies,” wrote Peters. “That’s why those who hold power at the UN are the very last people we should be going to if we truly want to help the poor!”

“Preservation of the environment and promotion of sustainable development? No problem,” he continues. “But climate change and the blundering, malicious environment of the UN? No thanks.”

“The pope can do better,” he concludes.

The pope has also aroused worries in the traditionally staunch Catholic community of anti-communist activists, particularly those who have suffered under and later worked against the regime in Cuba. The White House statement confirmed that it had been personal letters from Pope Francis to Cuban leader Raul Castro and to President Obama that paved the way for opening relations between the two countries. Those relations had been closed since the communist takeover in 1959.

The Vatican’s press release confirmed that the secret talks had been hosted in part in Vatican City: “The Holy See received Delegations of the two countries in the Vatican last October and provided its good offices to facilitate a constructive dialogue on delicate matters, resulting in solutions acceptable to both Parties.”

Some Cuban Catholics in the US who suffered under the communist regime, and had reportedly worked with US intelligence to try to bring it down, expressed dismay that the leader of the Catholic Church has helped the US government reach an accommodation with the brutal and unreformed communist regime. An Associated Press report from Miami quoted 53-year-old Efrain Rivas, a Cuban-American who had been held as a political prisoner by the regime for 16 years. “I’m still Catholic till the day I die,” Rivas is quoted saying. “But I am a Catholic without a pope.”

AP also quoted a lawyer, Jose Sanchez-Gronlier, who said he saw “a certain naïveté in the pope.” Sanchez said, “I don’t know what the pope was thinking.” The Cuban-American Republican Senator Marco Rubio told reporters in Washington that he would “ask His Holiness to take up the cause of freedom and democracy.”

At the same time, the chorus of praise for the pope is growing louder from the far left and traditionally anti-Catholic voices, for what they believe are the pope’s actions against the traditional formulations of Catholic doctrine and discipline, particularly in sexual matters. This week, an Italian coalition of organizations like We Are Church, Marxist-inspired “base communities” and well-known anti-Catholic and “dissident” Catholic priests and activists, launched a petition calling for a halt to any criticism of Pope Francis.

Riccardo Cascioli, editor of La Nuova Bussola Quotidano, noted that the organizers and signatories of the petition are “the same ones who threw mud hand over fist at [Francis’s] predecessors,” John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

The real subject of the We Are Church petition was a strikingly mild critique of Francis in the mainstream Italian daily, Corriere della Sera, by renowned Vatican expert and papal interviewer Vittorio Messori. Messori asked a series of what could at most be called awkward questions about what he saw as the pope’s own internal contradictions.

“My evaluation of this papacy oscillates continually between adhesion and perplexity.” The changeable Francis, he said, has even caused “some of the cardinals who were among his electors to have second thoughts.” Messori’s list of difficulties includes moments on the one hand when Pope Francis, in his homilies at Casa Santa Martha, sounds like an old fashioned parish priest, exhorting people to watch out for the influence of the devil and pray their Rosaries, and on the other when he is telling notorious Italian atheist, anticlerical newspaper men that “God is not Catholic.”

Despite it being far from the first, and nowhere near as critical as many, Messori’s piece has touched off a firestorm of objections from the Church’s far left wing, perhaps due to his fame and respectability as a papal observer. These have culminated in the petition and an outright attack by Leonardo Boff, the notorious Brazilian former priest, liberation theologian and radical environmentalist.

Some Italian commentators have taken Francis-scepticism all the way to a form of “neo-sedevacantism,” the theory that the papal chair in reality is empty and that Francis is an anti-pope. Although this position is regarded even by Pope Francis’s most outspoken critics as extreme, a book titled “He’s not Francis,” by Vaticanist Antonio Socci has become a best seller in Italy, a country that has always loved the drama of papal scandals. The book proposes that due to irregularities in the rules of the 2013 Conclave, the election was technically invalid and Benedict XVI is in reality still pope.

Although this position is mostly considered extreme and canonically untenable, the book’s success has allowed more moderate questions about the pope’s statements and actions to become more respectable. Among the most popular of these Francis doubters is Italian conservative writer and Vaticanist Roberto de Mattei, who recently penned a critique of the pontificate published under the headline, “Tango in St. Peter’s while the boat drifts.” The “tango” referred to the event organized in December to celebrate the pope’s 78th birthday with a mass tango dance in St. Peter’s Piazza. De Mattei summarized Catholic concerns over the pope’s defense of Church doctrine, saying, “Perhaps historians of tomorrow will remember that in 2014 in St. Peter’s Square was dancing the tango, while Christians were massacred in the east and the church was on the verge of a schism.”

The implication, however one approaches the opinions of Mullarkey, de Mattei, Socci, or Messori, is that it is now the accepted narrative that there has been a polar reversal in the Church. Without anyone calling the scores, it is clear that critics of the pope are now found mainly on the “right,” which has traditionally upheld and defended Catholic moral teaching, and his strongest supporting voices are coming from a camp that has been for the last 50 years dedicated to undermining those teachings through the pontificates of Francis’s immediate predecessors.

Through all this, the US conservative Catholic establishment has remained almost silent, cushioning anything that could look like concerns over the pope’s orthodoxy in the most politic of terms. But John Vidal, writing in the Guardian, accurately predicted that it would be the announcement of the environmental encyclical, rumoured now for at least a year, that would drive a deep wedge between Francis and the US conservative Catholics who have long been among the Catholic world’s most avid supporters of the papacy as an institution.

Notably, the British Vidal knew exactly what kind of issue would most annoy US conservatives, and it had nothing to do with giving Communion to adulterers or people in same-sex relationships. Indeed the US conservative Catholic critique can perhaps be summarized simply as outrage that Francis has dared to step into the realm of what they consider purely secular political issues. Climate change and US foreign policy lie firmly, it is held, within the purview of the laity and secular politics. It is, in short, none of the pope’s business.

As a body, the American corps of conservative Catholic pundits have had very little to say on the issues that are most exercising Catholics in Europe. Engrossed in their domestic political affairs, and with the US bishops talking about it very little, the battle over the Synod on the family in October, on issues that pertain deeply to Catholic moral and ecclesiological doctrine, went largely un-commented-upon. In most cases, what commentary there was mainly warned Catholics not to blame Francis for the controversies.

Behind this purely political focus of US professional conservative Catholic commentators, is a long history of objections to papal intervention in what they consider the purely secular realm. This tendency to create a line of separation was called “Americanism,” in the 19th century by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae. It described the acceptance by Catholics of the non-Catholic political doctrine of “separation of Church and state,” with the Church remaining completely without competence in the latter.

While this secular doctrine, derived from the Enlightenment’s political philosophies, was condemned by Pope Pius IX, it has remained the guiding thread in much of US Catholicism. Popes are allowed competence only on issues of sexual morality like abortion and “gay marriage.” One of its more recent manifestations dates to their conflict with the Vatican over papal objections to the US military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. In brief, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI in turn said these wars in the Middle East were unjust, and the US conservative Catholic establishment told them to mind their own business.

This pontificate is likely to continue to arouse sharp criticism from conservative Catholics on both sides of the Atlantic, but it will be interesting to observe whether this distinction of critiques continues. Will the Italians and other European observers continue to express their grave concerns on matters of moral and ecclesiological doctrine? And will their American counterparts maintain their silence on these strictly religious matters in the face of what Roberto de Mattei has called a state of near schism?

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