Could you imagine the Pope getting all buddy-buddy and exchanging gifts with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas? Neither can a certain group of American Catholics. (Image Source: Reuters)
If there is one consensus concerning Catholics right now, it is that Pope Francis has done some pretty incredible things. Francis' brief tenure has already brought things that were a radical departure over Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, from the name and his first act of washing a Muslim prisoner's feet, to the internal reforms and the various interviews, taking a far more ambivalent approach on gays, atheists, and birth control than his predecessors did. Consequently, many Catholics of a "conservative" strain, and/or more traditionalist Catholics, are freaking out over Pope Francis' "antics." However, in reporting on these Catholics, people are missing the point of Catholicism, as well as religion in America.
While it goes without saying elsewhere, one thing must be made clear to Americans over and over again: The Roman Catholic Church is a conservative religion. Actual leftists and actual conservatives — two political forces that do not really exist in American politics — could tell you this with clarity almost immediately. The Church is pro-life, remains hostile to homosexual activity as well as most other sexual activities, does not support sex outside of marriage, and refuses sexually active and/or married priests. Nothing that Pope Francis has actually said or done has changed that.
What has changed is not the church doctrine so much as the approach to the church doctrine as it relates to the modern world. Following the massive reforms of the Second Vatican Council, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI attempted to turn these changes around by creating a policy that called for strict adherence to church doctrine, and a complete submission to papal authority. This policy, in existence for an entire generation, catered to traditionalist Catholics left out by the Second Vatican Council, and also catered to a different set of American Catholic: Catholics who, wishing to relate to the larger Evangelical Protestant and Pentecostal community that became an influential political force in the same time period, sought solace, emulation, and power through doctrine and authority. To them, John Paul and Benedict's emphasis on theology and law over the message of helping others and doing good works felt like a security blanket against the rapid changes of the modern world, and allowed them to feel less guilty for joining in the intense greed that the American economy developed.
Pope Francis represents a complete break from all that, without changing the doctrine itself. While he has called for a Synod on matters of the family, and he has made movements to reform the Vatican internally, he has not asked to change the laws of the Church itself. Francis, in stating that he is in no place to judge gay priests, is not suddenly saying that priests can be homosexual in the Church, but rather that, as long as they remain celibate, and as long as they do the right thing as priests, then it does not matter if they are gay or not. The same with atheists: Atheists are still considered wrong to the Church, but they are welcomed never the less.
What is scaring these "conservative" American Catholics is not that this Pope is "liberal." Pope Francis is not a liberal in the slightest. Rather, it is that Pope Francis' complete focus on social justice and doing good, and minor apathy towards the abortion and gay rights debates, is creating a situation where the Roman Catholic Church worldwide is no longer completely in line with American right-wing politics and American religious "conservatism," which makes these particular Catholics afraid. They face a choice now: Either back the Pope at the loss of their Evangelical and Pentecostal friends, or ignore the Pope to still be part of the American conservative religious community at large. That is not a pretty choice, but then again, American Christianity has not made things pretty in a long time.