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Inside the Pope’s Fight With U.S. Conservatives

The pope is taking on climate change and poverty — but his toughest battle may be with the alliance of right-wing clerics and politicians.

Pope FrancisPope Francis

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Pope Francis


hen Pope Francis arrives in Washington, D.C., on September 22nd, it will not only be his first papal visit to the United States; it will be his first visit ever. He’s 78 years old, but he spent most of his life in his native Argentina, as a Jesuit priest and later cardinal. Aside from required trips to Rome for official church business — he always insisted on flying economy —the former Jorge Bergoglio rarely left Buenos Aires. His one substantial vacation for pleasure, a trip to the Holy Land in 1973, was not well-timed: He arrived just as the Yom Kippur War was breaking out and so spent most of his visit confined to his Jerusalem hotel room.

In Washington, Francis will meet with President Obama at the White House. He will also travel to New York — where he will speak at the United Nations General Assembly, celebrate a mass at Madison Square Garden and visit the 9/11 Memorial — and Philadelphia, where he will visit Independence Mall and inmates at a local prison and appear at a global Catholic conference called the World Meeting of Families. And he will become the first pope to address a joint session of Congress, thanks to an invitation from House Speaker John Boehner, a devout Catholic. The New York Times described the papal visit as a “long-held dream” of the speaker, who has been sending feelers to Rome for the past two decades. Francis is “not afraid to take on the status quo or . . . say what he really thinks,” Boehner told the Times. “So I’m sure the pope will have things to say that people will find interesting, and I’m looking forward to his visit.”

edBoehner’s enthusiasm might have slightly dampened had the pope been able to enter the U.S. the way he’d originally hoped — via Mexico, crossing the border as a show of solidarity with immigrants. The idea was ultimately nixed because of logistical and scheduling difficulties. But the fact that it was floated at all is yet another illustration of Pope Francis’ brilliant understanding of his own power as a disrupter. During the two and a half years of his papacy, the unscripted, often radical words and actions of the pope have thrilled believers and nonbelievers alike, on a scale no contemporary religious leader other than the Dalai Lama has approached. “People who’ve thought of the church as the incarnation of evil at worst or the Easter Bunny with real estate at best have been telling me, ‘I love your pope!’ ” says Michael Sean Winters, a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter. And yet many conservative American Catholics — in particular, politicians — have found themselves unmoored by Pope Francis’ profound tonal shift.

For generations, the religious right has been allowed to define the terms of the debate when it comes to the intersection of faith and American politics, placing an emphasis on culture-war issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage that tended to work against progressives. So it’s been awkward, to say the least, for Republican Catholic officeholders to be faced with a pope who, six months into his papacy, told an interviewer that the church should not be “obsessed” with “issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.” He wasn’t changing doctrine, but the top-down shift in emphasis was striking — “The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear, and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” Francis said — and with his actions, he went even further. In January, for instance, he reportedly met with, and hugged, Diego Neria Lejarraga, a transgender Catholic man from Plasencia, Spain, after Lejarraga wrote Francis a letter. Though a local priest had called Lejarraga “the devil’s daughter,” at the meeting, Francis told him, “You are a son of God, and the church loves you and accepts you as you are.”

In April, two years earlier than expected, Francis unceremoniously ended an investigation of U.S. nuns that started under his predecessor, Pope Benedict. The nuns had been accused of trafficking in “radical feminist themes” and of straying from Catholic teaching by not focusing enough of their attention on issues like abortion, but Francis personally summoned four members of the group under investigation to the Vatican and expressed his appreciation for their work in a nearly hourlong meeting. “The conservative effort to control the church during prior papacies was very effective,” notes Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of the progressive Catholic lobbying group Network and a speaker at the 2012 Democratic convention. “They created a fear factor among the moderate leadership about being reported to Rome. What Pope Francis has done is freed them from fear.”

For his part, the pope has maintained a relentless focus on his own obsessions — the poor and the dispossessed of the world, and how their lives are ravaged by unbridled capitalism, a grotesque and insatiable consumer culture, climate change, globalization — in powerful, plain-spoken language that is the opposite of anodyne and that at times places him, rhetorically at least, far to the left not only of the Republican Party but of most Democrats, certainly President Obama and Hillary Clinton. 

Pope Francis

On a trip to Bolivia in July, Francis, quoting a fourth-century bishop, referred to the “unfettered pursuit of money” as “the dung of the devil,” and blasted a “new colonialism” that “appears as the anonymous influence of mammon: corporations, loan agencies, certain ‘free trade’ treaties and the imposition of measures of ‘austerity’ which always tighten the belt of workers and the poor.” He also prayed at the site where a Marxist priest had been murdered by a right-wing Bolivian death squad in 1980 and accepted a crucifix from Bolivian president Evo Morales carved in the shape of a Communist hammer-and-sickle. When pressed about the gift by reporters, he shrugged. “For me, it was not an offense,” he said, adding that he’d be taking it back to the Vatican.

Perhaps even more disorienting to the right wing, Francis also directly addressed man-made global warming in an astounding 180-page encyclical titled “Laudato Si’,” or “Praise Be to You” — largely a broadside against the myopic, profit-driven environmental policies threatening our planet. The topic was not a new one for Francis: As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he’d been a key author of a 2007 document released by Latin American and Caribbean bishops that made “ecological destruction” a major focus, denouncing the “irrational exploitation” of natural resources. In “Laudato Si’,” with the help of a scientific adviser, Francis methodically describes a crisis of “global environmental deterioration,” and sets the blame squarely upon human greed and shortsightedness, “compulsive consumerism” and “a throwaway culture, which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish.” Employing language both blunt (“The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth”) and prophetic (“Nothing in this world is indifferent to us”), Francis earned praise from climate scientists at NASA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, as well as Naomi Klein, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Al Gore (with the latter noting, “I could become a Catholic because of this pope”).

The pope’s unscripted and radical actions have thrilled on a scale only the Dalai Lama has approached.

It’s been more fun watching the response of the Republican presidential nominees, six of whom happen to be Catholic and most of them far more comfortable talking about defunding Planned Parenthood or ginning up bogus “religious liberty” issues — the Supreme Court is going to force you to bake a gay wedding cake! — than addressing global warming. Rick Santorum, who has called climate change a hoax, advised the pope to leave “science to the scientists,” while Jeb Bush — who, as governor of Florida, ordered the reinsertion of a feeding tube of a woman in a persistent vegetative state, in explicit defiance of both her husband and the courts — told Sean Hannity, “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope. . . . I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.” Chris Christie, in a similar vein, attempted to demonstrate his independence from Rome with an ill-advised anecdote, sharing with voters at a New Hampshire restaurant that he has used birth control, “and not just the rhythm method!”

(Donald Trump, who is not Catholic, has yet to tweet about what a loser the pope is, but Winters thinks the pair make irresistible counterpoints: Francis’ rejection of many of the trappings of his office has “just blown up” the imperial atmosphere of the Vatican — “You don’t have a court if you don’t live in the palace, and it’s hard to maintain a courtly atmosphere if you’re waiting in line at the cafeteria” — while Trump “would have made a great 16th-century pontiff. When you go to Rome and see all of those baroque churches, what is written over their edifices? The names of the popes who built them. Those were the Trumps of their era!”)

It’s a far cry from the recent past, when conservative U.S. bishops have effectively worked as unofficial dirty-tricks operatives for the GOP, denying Communion or issuing warnings to pro-choice Catholics like John Kerry, Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi. Rep. Charles Rangel, the Harlem Democrat, is Catholic, and says he has had invitations to speak at Catholic high school graduations rescinded by local religious leaders, apparently because of his pro-choice views. “It never really bothered me, because it appeared to be so petty,” Rangel tells me. Needless to say, he’s “very, very excited” about Francis’ address to Congress. “People can distort the Bible any way they want to, but when you have science and religion on the same side of a question, there’s no place for fundamentalists to go. You speak against the pope at your own risk.”

There have yet to be any reported incidents of lefty bishops withholding the Eucharist from prominent climate-change deniers. But there’s no doubt the Catholic right is struggling with life on the wrong side of Vatican activism. As Austin Ruse, the president of the conservative Catholic group the Center for Family and Human Rights Institute, or C-Fam, which lobbies the United Nations on issues like abortion, contraception and gay rights, tells me, “I now know how politically liberal Catholics felt all those years during John Paul II and Benedict, waking up in the morning and wondering what statement of the pope they’re going to have to deal with. I think a lot of orthodox Catholics really tried, in the beginning, to rush out and explain what Francis was saying, to put his statements in context. And now they’ve given up.”

The Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, the seat of the archdiocese of Washington, D.C., is a 10-minute walk from the White House. Before he became an apostle, St. Matthew worked as a tax collector. Now he’s the patron saint of public servants, granting him a special place in the hearts of Catholics in this particular one-industry town and making the cathedral that bears his name a peculiar nexus of religion and politics. President John F. Kennedy’s funeral was held here, and each fall, on the Sunday before the start of the new Supreme Court term, the church celebrates a special mass in which blessings are bestowed upon the justices, a number of whom attend the service (along with other political luminaries, such as John Boehner).

Though the church was built in 1895, there’s something homely and unassuming about its red-brick exterior, especially when compared with grand cathedrals like St. Patrick’s in New York. The interior, on the other hand, possesses the sort of baroque majesty one would hope for, including a soaring 190-foot dome. One Monday in August, about 30 people gathered in the pews for a late-afternoon Mass. A woman in glasses read from the Old Testament (the story of Moses in the desert and the manna from heaven) and then the New Testament (the story of Jesus’ miracle of the loaves and the fishes), setting the table for what seemed to be an obvious theme. But the priest, in his homily, pivoted from the notion of feeding the hungry to the question of belief. After all of these miracles, he asked the near-empty cathedral, what more do we need from God to make us believe? He repeated the question and let it hang in the air for a moment, unanswered. Then he returned to his seat.

Congress isn’t the only tough crowd Pope Francis will be facing in Washington. At the Cathedral of St. Matthew, he will address a gathering of U.S. bishops — most of them appointees of Francis’ far more conservative predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. “The Vatican is very aware of American political resistance to the pope,” says Winters of the National Catholic Reporter, “but they’re aware of the internal church politics in America even more. What is unique with this pope is the number of U.S. bishops who don’t like him.” According to Michael Lee, a professor of theology at Fordham University, “loyalty and obedience” were buzzwords when it came to appointing bishops in the past. “And how different is that from Francis’ messy field-hospital church? You’re really talking about an entire generation of leadership, and some of them suddenly feel like dissidents.”

Funnily enough, the pejorative “cafeteria Catholic” is generally only applied to American Catholics who feel free to ignore teachings about sexual morality — prohibitions on, say, birth control or premarital sex. But the term is rarely thrown at Catholics who are pious when it comes to bedroom issues but take a pass on the church’s clear social-justice message. “The oppressed workers, above all, ought to be liberated from the savagery of greedy men, who inordinately use human beings as things for gain,” Pope Leo XIII wrote in his encyclical “Rerum Novarum” (“On the Condition of Workers”) all the way back in 1891. “The core of the Gospels, as Francis reminds us, is mercy, kindness, caring for the poor, ‘judge not lest ye be judged,’ ” Winters says. “There’s nothing explicit about gays in the Gospels, but this stuff is very explicit!”

In the U.S., though, Irish Catholics dominated, importing with them an obsession with sin and sexual morality; more recently, the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, two years after John Paul II became pope, opened the door for a new generation of conservative Catholic intellectuals like George Weigel and Michael Novak, who promoted a synergy between Catholicism and the free market. John Paul II had come out of Soviet-era Poland and was a fierce opponent of both Communism and the radical Catholic liberation theology sweeping Latin America, and he and Reagan made for natural allies. When they met for the first time, in the Vatican Library in 1982, they bonded over having “survived assassination attempts only six weeks apart in 1981,” Carl Bernstein wrote in Time. “Both believed God had saved them for a special mission.” 

Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul

“The opposition to liberation theology from the Vatican played nicely to the political objectives of the Republican Party,” says Lee. “If people could think of Ronald Reagan and John Paul II as tearing down the Berlin Wall together, that was advantageous, especially when it came to luring Catholics, who had traditionally been Democratic voters, to the GOP. And the theological fine points of the pope’s objectives were lost amidst the geopolitical ramifications.”

Indeed, certain conservatives spun John Paul II’s hatred of Marxist totalitarianism into a full-throated embrace of capitalism, downplaying his condemnation of its excesses. (“The Catholic Church has always refused and continues today to refuse to make the market the supreme regulator . . . of social life,” John Paul II said in 1991. “Something exists that is owed to man just because he is man.” Two years later, he noted that the church has always “distanced itself from capitalistic ideology, holding it responsible for grave social injustices.”)

Self-styled papal translators like Weigel and Novak selected passages from often-dense speeches and encyclicals to support their theses. The same thing happened under Pope Benedict: When he called for a redistribution of wealth in a 2009 encyclical, Weigel wrote a column for National Review in which he proposed crossing out such “incomprehensible” passages with a red marker, arguing that they must have been inserted by liberal aides.

Meanwhile, Francis, by speaking so clearly on the subject — often putting aside his prepared text, so his words could not be blamed on staffers — is “not spinnable,” Winters says. “You just can’t do that with this guy. You do hear attempts to manipulate and trim what he’s saying, with what I can only characterize as somewhat racist overtones: ‘Oh, the poor, benighted Argentine doesn’t understand how wonderful us Americans are.’ Well, he knows the consequences firsthand of U.S. courts deciding Argentina has to pay back vulture hedge funds. He’s acutely aware of that. And he understands that capitalism succeeded where Marxism failed when it comes to pushing God to the sideline. Instead of erecting one giant God in the form of the party, we do it with a million little Gods in the aisles of the department store.”

C-Fam’s Ruse thinks certain right-wing critics of the pope, like Rush Limbaugh, have mischaracterized Francis’ message. (Limbaugh has said, “A man of religion, the Vicar of Christ, seems to have fallen in with the Communist way of doing things. . . .  You’ve gotta keep on giving until you’re no longer rich!”) And yet, Ruse complains, “The pope’s using the phrase ‘unfettered capitalism’ — that’s the strawiest of straw men. I don’t know where that kind of capitalism exists. There is crony capitalism, which is big business teaming up with big government, and which I vehemently oppose. If he used phrases like that, it would make people happy. But saying capitalism is filth makes it hard for people to join him in his fight. Because the language of his premise is false.”

Deeply alarmed by the power of Francis’ message, an entire network of -right-wing Catholic organizations has been increasingly willing to push back against the Vatican. Tim Busch, the chairman of the California-based Napa Institute — which holds an annual summer conference that draws Catholic business leaders — recently announced plans to help fund a $3 million research and education program at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., “focused on the compatibility of capitalism and Catholicism.” (Other funders include the Charles Koch Foundation.)

Then there’s the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, which is run by a Catholic priest named Robert Sirico — he’s the brother of actor Tony Sirico, best known for his portrayal of Paulie Walnuts on The Sopranos — and hosts forums with titles like “Government: Less Is More.” Sirico recently wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal attacking “Laudato Si’ ” for its “decided bias against the free market and suggestions that poverty is the result of a globalized economy,” though he failed to disclose the hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations Acton has received from extraction-industry giants such as Exxon Mobil and the Koch family.

The near-impossibility of combating such well-funded disinformation campaigns is a depressing reality for progressives. What has the right so jumpy about Francis is the size of his bully pulpit, which even unlimited spending might not be able to counter. Consider, for instance, the 24/7 global media coverage Francis’ U.S. trip will receive. When else would an economic message as critical of capitalism as Francis’ be granted such a stage? 

Pope Francis

Now it’s important, here, to remind ourselves once again that Francis, for all of the liberalism of his economic and environmental messages, still heads up an organization with a number of medieval positions regarding women and sexuality. Francis has affirmed the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage and female priests, and in his climate encyclical, he links abortion with the throwaway consumerist culture he decries. “I like to say he’s an equal-opportunity annoyer — he really is holding up the whole message,” acknowledges Sister Campbell. Agrees Winters, “Both political parties are well-advised to start every statement with the words ‘I think the pope is challenging all of us. . . . ’ He ain’t a Democrat.”

“Most of us try so hard to place him in an American framework, that left-right binary, and it just doesn’t work,” says Rod Dreher, a senior editor at The American Conservative who writes frequently about religion. Dreher is no longer Catholic — he joined the Eastern Orthodox Church in the wake of the pedophilia scandals — but one summer before he converted, he recalled leaving the offices of National Review, where he worked at the time, and mentioning to an editor that he needed to pick up his CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) delivery. “She said, ‘Oh, that’s so lefty!’ ” recounts Dreher. “I thought, ‘That’s weird. What’s so lefty about buying food from local farmers?’ It made me realize that if you’re going to be a faithful Catholic, it’s going to put you at odds with both conventional American liberalism and conservatism.”

All that said, Francis has signaled he’s open to discussing more serious doctrinal changes. In October, a synod — an official ecclesiastical meeting called to discuss doctrine — convened by Francis will gather bishops from around the world for a debate on issues relating to the family; a draft from an initial meeting last fall included a section titled “Welcoming Homosexual Persons,” noting that “homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community,” and also recommended greater tolerance for divorce and cohabitation outside of marriage. Those paragraphs were not approved by the full synod and were struck from the text. But Lee calls the debate “unbelievable. Most unbelievable, perhaps, was the fact that the public was allowed to see the disagreement. That would have never happened under John Paul II or Benedict.”

This month, Francis further startled conservatives by announcing that, during the church’s upcoming Holy Year of Mercy — a special yearlong jubilee focusing on themes of forgiveness — priests could absolve women who’d had abortions, noting that he was “well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision.” Lee points out that Francis has spoken critically of his own “authoritarian” tendencies when he served as a Jesuit provincial superior as a young man in Buenos Aires. “His humility, and his idea of what leadership should look like, all run against that authoritarianism,” Lee says. “It’s a lesson he must have learned in Argentina, and in part I think he’s speaking to that 36-year-old version of himself when he’s allowing these open debates to take place. He hasn’t changed doctrine, yes. But the church has been around for 2,000 years! That change happens at a certain pace. And change can’t happen without discussion.”

One of the bishops attending the synod, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, will also be hosting Francis on his U.S. visit. Chaput comes from a far more conservative wing of the church than Francis. In June, when a local Catholic school fired its director of religious education over her same-sex marriage, Chaput released a statement saying, “There’s nothing complicated or controversial in this. It’s a simple matter of honesty.”

The director, Margie Winters, had worked at the school for eight years. She’s been married to her partner since 2007; they met when both were training to become nuns. “It turned out we weren’t called to religious life, but to life together,” Winters tells me. She says the school administration and her colleagues knew about her wife, but when a parent learned of her marriage and complained to the diocese, the school felt it had to fire her — a move that seemed to outrage the majority of school parents, nearly 200 of whom attended a meeting in support of Winters the week after her firing.

“I have a master’s degree in divinity,” Winters says. “Within church teaching, there is a right of conscience, and that’s how I approach this: I know the God that I believe in loves me and has created me, and the love I have is a good love and a just love, period. I can’t see it any other way.” Winters hopes to meet Pope Francis in Philadelphia and ask him to put a moratorium on future firings of gay and lesbian teachers and to work toward LGBT inclusion in the church.

“All politicians are going to try to get some of the Francis shine on them,” Dreher of The American Conservative says. “The thing I’m more interested in is the effect Francis will have on the American laity. I like to think American Catholics and Christians will be willing to listen to what this pope has to say and be challenged by it. But I don’t know if we’re that kind of country anymore. I don’t think liberals or conservatives are ready to make any big changes based on what he says. Partly that’s due to cynicism coming after the abuse scandals. But more than that, Americans are so individualistic, and he’s got a very difficult job to break through that. Whether it’s individual sexual morality or the free-market economy, we want what we want and will figure out how to get it, and how to rationalize it.”

Sister Campbell remains more optimistic. She’s been noticing how the pope has been speaking to themes of political gridlock. This reminds her of a favorite passage from “Laudato Si’,” which she pauses to read: “Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.”

“This is a huge challenge, this idea of opening ourselves to the pain of our world,” Campbell says. “But that’s really what it’s all about. And it is the antithesis of our politics. The most radical political action Pope Francis is calling for is that we let our hearts be broken open. Then you can no longer be content with business as usual.”

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