The Francis Effect and the Fight Over Catholic Identity


It’s a familiar scene: a “radical” speaker is invited to a college campus, until the skittish university decides to rescind the offer to avoid controversy. The twist? The radical figure here is a Jesuit priest, Father James Martin, and the university was Catholic University.

Father Martin was scheduled to speak at Catholic University’s seminary Theological College, on September 15, when the seminary decided to cancel his appearance.  In an official statement the following day, Catholic University expressed disappointment that Father Martin had been uninvited. Nonetheless, the offer was rescinded, much to the consternation of Martin and others. The issue here is Martin’s latest book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. The book focuses on how the Catholic Church can embrace LGBT people within the faith. As one can imagine, the book has drawn quite a bit of controversy. Catholic University is not the only place to cancel an appearance from Martin; offers were also rescinded from the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, and the UK-based Catholic Organization CAFOD. While CAFOD claimed scheduling issues were the root cause, Martin himself claimed it was again the content of his book that caused the issue. Both these organizations and Catholic University were bombarded with criticism when it was announced that Martin would be speaking; the public reaction likely pressured the organizations to cancel these appearances.  

Martin’s new book exposes the growing fissures in modern Catholicism. The Catholic Church is increasingly torn between its more conservative adherents, and those who want to turn the Church in a progressive direction. Indeed, Martin himself termed some of his critics “the Catholic alt right”. While that may be an exaggeration, there is a ring of truth to it. The conservative side includes bloggers, leaders in Washington like Paul Ryan, a small but vocal number of cardinals, and a fair portion of lay people. The progressive side includes liberal leaders in Washington like Nancy Pelosi, many of the Jesuits, and—challengingly enough—the Pope himself. Catholicism as such is then quite varied. After all, what other descriptive label could reasonably be applied to both Nancy Pelosi and Paul Ryan?

Pope Francis has been somewhat of a lightning rod for these controversies. His papacy has been marked by bold pronouncements on climate change, income inequality, interfaith dialogue, and a reevaluation of how divorced Catholics can partake in the life of the church. Pope Francis is looking toward an inclusive and progressive future. But how can he reconcile that with strong conservative currents within the Church, including from clergy members?

Consider another shocking development from this past September. A group of Catholic clergy and scholars signed a letter expressing opposition to Pope Francis over his encyclical “Amoris Laetitia”. The encyclical expressed sympathy and the prospect of reconciliation for Catholics who have been divorced. Traditionally, the Catholic Church does not recognize divorce in any form; the Pope expressed a hope of softening this hardline stance, but critics were displeased. The signatories included priests, professors, and prominent Church officials, including a number of cardinals. Their adherence to doctrine puts them at odds with the Pope, who seems more interested in opening up the Church to those it had cast out.

With literal centuries of history, it makes sense that the Church would be a slow organization to change. The reforms of the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, in the 1960s were the last major attempt to modernize the Church – and even that faced intense scrutiny. This precedent – modernization in conflict with traditionalism – continues to play out today.

The Church seems divided today, more than ever, on what we might call “wedge issues”. Borrowing a term from political science, wedge issues are salient issues which enhance divisions among people or parties, with little help for compromise. Issues of faith certainly lend themselves to this, as these are often deeply held beliefs. Looking at many salient social issues, it’s easy to see how these could become wedge issues for Catholics with differing ideologies. Abortion, gay marriage and rights, divorce, premarital sex, evolution, even climate change—all of these are dominating public discourse, and have some elements of faith. For many, these issues are black and white -– compromise is impossible. But the problem is that not every Catholic has the same black and white.

An interesting case study is Catholics for Choice. Catholics for Choice maintains that doctrine allows Catholic women to have abortions. This is unsurprisingly a highly controversial claim. Catholic higher-ups, including New York’s Cardinal Dolan, have critiqued the group. Indeed, Cardinal Dolan refused to acknowledge the group as Catholic at all. But the group considers itself unambiguously Catholic. Which one of them is correct? Who has the final say in what is and isn’t Catholic? You may think the Pope, and there is certainly some truth to that. But, as demonstrated above, even the Pope faces resistance. With the prospect of open criticism and pushback from the body of the Church, Pope Francis’s decision-making power seems less than absolute.

Religion is both intensely personal and intensely political. It deals with a person’s individual soul, but also makes universal claims about morality. These claims have real policy implications. So it is inevitable that Catholicism, like any faith, will have a political dimension. The issue here is how much, and what kind of dimension this will have. In the past, the Catholic Church was aligned strongly with the Democrats. But today, Catholics lean Republican by significant margins. The problem is what issues are most salient for Catholics. Catholic teaching can be used to justify expanded social programs, but also to restricting birth control. Catholic teaching can be pro-life, or as Catholics for Choice argue, pro-choice. Admittedly, the latter is an unorthodox position, but the point stands —Catholics for Choice interpret Catholicism in a way that is compatible with abortion. Thus how an individual interprets the varied teachings of the Catholic Church translates into these significant political variations. Conservative Catholics and progressive Catholics ostensibly share the same beliefs. Yet the implications of those beliefs, interpreted differently, put those at odds. Such schisms are increasingly common—and dangerous.

The Church needs to resolve its identity crisis. It seems like Pope Francis wants to do so—to lead the Church triumphantly into the twenty-first century. Others, like Father James Martin, seem to be pushing the Church in the same direction. Whether or not they will succeed, or merely further enlarge the rift between Catholics, remains to be seen.

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