does the awakened pope alienate his flock?

It’s not that often that a video message from a pope at a global gathering goes viral, but it did happen this weekend when Pope Francis addressed the Global Gathering. popular movements in the United States. To an audience of community leaders, anti-poverty activists and environmental groups, he began strikingly: “Dear social poets… this is what I like to call you: social poets. You are social poets because you have the ability and the courage to create hope where there seems to be only waste and exclusion.

He then attacked social media companies for promoting “hate speech, grooming, fake news” and condemned agribusiness and mining for destroying habitats. He then demanded a basic income and shorter working hours… And it was not even half.

When the 84-year-old Jesuit Pope has a bit between his teeth, he can be very valuable, a true populist. He is much less intellectual than his predecessor, Pope Benedict, but he stands out: after a visit to the EU, he left in a battered old Fiat. It is such a shame that he is not attending the climate conference in Glasgow as he would have blasted all world leaders for inaction and we could have had another photo of him and Greta Thunberg together – the last one was in 2019 – radiant.

It is popular with many young Catholics. In a survey carried out last year by Stephen Bullivant and Ben Clements, 55% of young Catholics in Britain (especially mass spectators) believed he was a change for the better for the papacy. My 14 year old daughter says her age cohort likes her. “He’s liberal,” she said. “And he interacts with you.”

But while he can reach parts that few other modern popes reach, he is still a divisive figure within the Church, of which he is the head.

Not to stress it too much, a lot of Catholics can’t stand it – liberals and conservatives alike. This week in a compelling article for The Spectator website titled “Is the Pope Protestant?” Damian Thompson argues that you could indeed say that the Pope has “become Protestant.” He says: “Francois may be pursuing a liberal political agenda, but it’s also bizarre and incoherent. He is Jesuitical in the pejorative sense of the term, constantly changing his position in order to keep his opponents and supporters on their toes. But his leadership has none of the positive attributes of his order: he has created an intellectual mess. “

It’s something strong, but not half as strong as a priest he quotes, who expressed hope that the Pope would drop dead that night. Francois himself has hinted that there are people who would like to see him go. After his colon surgery in July, someone asked him how he was doing. “Still alive,” he replied, “although some people want me to die.” If you’re a pope, being paranoid doesn’t mean people don’t want to have you.

The groups he sees most often as the enemy are conservatives hostile to his approach. And he doesn’t fire his punches with them. Although he didn’t name them by name, he recently called America’s largest religious broadcaster, EWTN, “the work of the devil.” They talk about him too.

He is especially combative towards “backward” criticisms of his new direction for the Church – towards a synod structure in which grassroots parishioners have a say in how the Church is run. We will see how it goes.

Most of the people who are uncomfortable with the leadership of the papacy are indeed Conservatives. But some are liberals, like former Irish President Mary McAleese, who said earlier this year that she was unimpressed with the Pope whose “friendly words to the press often quite reasonably raise hopes for reform. of the church which are then almost invariably crushed by strong statements. of the teaching of the church unchanged ”. It arouses hopes, but “it is the Pope who follows the old hard line”.

McAleese’s particular concern is gay rights. On this point and on the question of knowing whether divorced and remarried people can receive Communion, the Pope can send contradictory messages. He is undoubtedly genuinely concerned with being receptive and welcoming to homosexuals in the Church, but he has never blessed same-sex unions or suggested that the Church might do so. As for giving Communion to people who would traditionally be considered living in adultery – those who remarry while their ex-spouse is alive – he told bishops and priests to be “pastoral” and to consider people in front of them. Is it yes or no?

And what about the politicians who vote to make abortion accessible, including late abortions? Can they take Communion? On the current question, Francis is unequivocal. “Abortion is homicide,” he told reporters recently, which is clear. But he went on to say that as a priest he had never refused Communion to anyone, which is not very helpful to American bishops who have to decide what to do when pro-choice Joe Biden prepares for Holy Communion. Communion. He speaks harshly about abortion, but then gives a warm welcome to pro-abortion Nancy Pelosi when she came to the Vatican.

As for the truly terrible succession of scandals surrounding the abuse of children by members of the Church, more recently in France, François is as shocked as anyone. Asked about his reaction to the report on the abuses in France, he simply replied: “Shame”. And yet, it took forever for his commission dealing with the matter to come to any conclusions and be implemented. He is a reformer who often seems to lack the organizational will to carry out his reforms.

But it would be unfair to focus only on the negative aspects. The Pope is eloquent and sincerely engaged in environmental issues; his encyclical, Laudato Si ‘ [CORR], was an attempt to explore how people can be stewards of creation. As far as the admission of migrants is concerned, he is liberal, probably more liberal than many Catholic congregations. And when it comes to the position of women, no one has ever appointed more women to senior positions in the Church, including in important areas like finance and governance, although it is not in the direction of the ordination of women as priests and bishops. The paradox of the Pope is that he is reformist and liberal, and yet ultimately a partisan of tradition because he has to be; the Pope may be Protestant in some ways, but he is still Catholic.

But has he really done anything to broaden the appeal of the Church in a secular culture? Professor Stephen Bullivant, a sociologist at St Mary’s University, observes: “If you ask people why they love him, then you often find that they – paradoxically – see him as being / embodying everything they do. think the Catholic Church is not – that is, they see it as a pro-science, pro-LGBTQ, pro-environment, religious and moral relativist. The problem is, of course, that these general impressions are not very accurate either of Francis or of the Church.

“It means two things. First, this attraction of people to (their construction of) Pope Francis does not make them more attracted to the Catholic Church. And second, they end up being constantly disappointed with the things Pope Francis actually does or says. (My favorite example of this whole phenomenon is a Rolling Stone article, ‘Guess the cool pope isn’t that cool after all’).

Another paradox of the Pope is that he may be a liberal, but he is an authoritarian liberal. This was particularly evident in his crackdown on those who attend Mass celebrated according to the so-called Tridentine rite, which was the norm before the Second Vatican Council. Here, the gentle Pope Francis showed his SS side, forcing congregations that wanted to hear Mass in the old rite to get permission from their bishops and newly ordained priests to get permission from the Vatican. The problem is that these congregations include a lot of families and young people.

So complicated, Pope Francis – but he inspires enormous loyalty. Eamon Duffy, the historian whose book on the papacy, Saints and Sinners (Yale University Press), stops in front of Francis, simply says that “this is the Pope I have waited for all my life.” And at first glance, Francis does not run out of steam.

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Larry Struck

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