Pope Francis speaks about his trip to Mongolia after greeting journalists aboard his overnight flight from Rome to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia (CNS photo/Lola Gomez).

The Vatican and the U.S. Catholic Church have had a special relationship since the beginning of the political and religious experiment called “American Catholicism.” But that relationship has become more complicated—and fraught—over the course of Francis’s papacy. This was demonstrated most recently in late August when remarks the pope made in Portugal during the World Youth Day gathering were published by the Jesuit-run and Vatican-vetted  Civiltà Cattolica. “You have seen that in the United States the situation is not easy,” he told a Jesuit who’d spent a sabbatical year in the U.S. “There is a very strong reactionary attitude. It is organized and shapes the way people belong, even emotionally. I would like to remind those people that indietrismo [being backward-looking] is useless and we need to understand that there is an appropriate evolution in the understanding of matters of faith and morals.” He further argued for the need to develop doctrine, noting previous examples concerning slavery, nuclear weapons, and the death penalty. “You have been to the United States and you say you have felt a climate of closure,” he told the Jesuit. “Yes, this climate can be experienced in some situations. And there you can lose the true tradition and turn to ideologies for support. In other words, ideology replaces faith; membership of a sector of the Church replaces membership of the Church.” The reaction from certain sectors of American Catholicism was predictable, and two days later, aboard the flight to Mongolia, Francis was asked about it. “They got angry, but let’s move on,” he told reporters.

Much of this latest flap can be attributed to Francis’s style: a lack of verbal discipline, the bypassing of the Vatican’s institutional communications operation, and the personalization of papal government. Yet the incident is one more in a long list of tense interactions between Francis and various voices in U.S. Catholic conservatism, who from very early on saw in the pope a potential heretic, or at least a pope who did not make them “happy,” as Archbishop Charles Chaput put it in a July 2013 interview. That was two months before Francis’s famous interview with Fr. Antonio Spadaro in Civiltà Cattolica, when he said that “we cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods […] it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

Then there were the Synod on the Family and Marriage of 2014-2015, Laudato si’ in 2015, and Amoris Laetitia in 2016, all of which further widened the fault lines. If the intent was to build bridges with American Catholic conservatism or win over skeptics, then Francis’s September 2015 apostolic trip to the U.S. was a failure. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 exacerbated the estrangement within the U.S. Church while further hardening relations between conservative U.S. Catholics and the Vatican. And all of this would pale in comparison to Carlo Maria Viganò’s 2018 attacks on Francis, which were met with silent approval by many U.S. bishops—and public approval by others. At that point, “America wanted to oust the pope,” as French journalist  Nicolas Senèze wrote in his book. In 2019, Francis acknowledged a well-financed and media-backed American effort to undermine his pontificate and said that it was an “an honor that the Americans attack me.”

Francis acknowledged a well-financed and media-backed American effort to undermine his pontificate and said that it was an “an honor that the Americans attack me.”

Now comes the Synod on Synodality (October 2023 and October 2024). Since the start of the synodal process in 2021, conservatives have been pushing back against it as a Trojan-horse effort to change the traditional doctrine and structure of the Church. The main thrust of this campaign has come from the U.S. The latest example is a book titled The Synodal Process Is a Pandora’s Box, featuring a foreword by Cardinal Raymond Burke. The authors are affiliated with the Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) movement, a confederation of reactionary, hardline Catholic organizations with roots in Brazil and with U.S. headquarters in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania; a mass-mailing campaign has been launched to send out free copies of the book to as many priests as possible.

The rockiness of the relationship between conservative U.S. Catholics and the current pope can be traced in part to Francis’s very election in 2013. That’s when, writes David Gibson, the Vatican, led by Francis, “suddenly began pushing Americans to be more flexible, more pastoral, more inclusive and less doctrinally rigid. Rome is now the engine of reform, a historic reversal” from when U.S. Catholicism might have played that role. That dynamic has since been compounded by the rise of a neo-Americanist Catholic establishment devoted to a Western political/civilizational understanding of Christianity in the face of global Catholicism. For these kinds of Catholics, being led by a Jesuit Latin-American pope is more difficult than being led by Italian or German popes.

There’s also the increased distrust of Vatican II among the U.S. episcopate. In the case of the liturgy especially, there’s a sense among traditionalist Catholics and bishops that Vatican II and the post-conciliar period were a new “stripping of the altars”—another Protestant-style Reformation, not a renewal. The interrupted reception of the council’s reforms, if not an outright rejection, has left room for a resurgence of pre-Vatican II Catholicism. Theologically, they also can’t understand the Jesuit and Latin American reception of Vatican II that shapes this pontificate at a moment when the United States is no longer an extension of Europe and is confronting the end of “White Christian America.” They think and operate in a “regime of historicity” that rejects aggiornamento and the development of doctrine, and that yearns for a return to an emphasis on religious certainty, objective truth, sacred mystery, and a sense of beauty nourished by premodern Catholic themes or imagery.

Nor can the explicitly political element of opposition to Francis be overlooked. For radical traditionalists and conservatives in the United States, Donald Trump became the new Constantine, saving the Church from the moral decay of the empire, while Francis became the equivalent of the barbarian invasions following the “peak-Catholicism” era of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Conversely, for liberals, Francis is the new Cyrus the Great, liberator of a Church held captive by right-wing ideologues. For this group, Francis represents the older, educated, urban, and politically liberal Catholics for whom the Church of the 1970s was “peak Catholicism,” and who think the Burkes, the Broglios, and the Busches have taken their Church from them. They’re glad to see someone in authority finally pushing back at conservatives, and hope it’s already not too late.

But Francis’s pontificate has also produced a form of papalism that we should keep an eye on. Consider the response of  Cardinal-designate Víctor Manuel Fernández, new prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, to a question from the National Catholic Register’s Edward Pentin about acceptance of Francis’s magisterium. The pope not only protects the “static” deposit of the faith but also, according to Fernández, has a second charism—“a living and active gift… I do not have this charism, nor do you, nor does Cardinal Burke. Today only Pope Francis has it.” This raises some interesting questions about, for example, the interpretation of the constitution of Vatican II on the Church, Lumen Gentium—especially regarding the teaching of the pope and collegiality with bishops (Lumen Gentium 25 relates “charism” and papacy only in the case of infallible pronouncements, when “the Roman Pontiff is not pronouncing judgment as a private person, but as the supreme teacher of the universal Church, in whom the charism of infallibility of the Church itself is individually present, he is expounding or defending a doctrine of Catholic faith. The infallibility promised to the Church resides also in the body of Bishops, when that body exercises the supreme magisterium with the successor of Peter”).

This is not a schism, but it’s not loyal dissent either, since it questions Francis’s service to the Church and the faith.

What’s notable about this moment too is that we’re seeing what William L. Portier calls the rise of an “unintended ultramontanism,” paradoxically traceable to “the popularity of authoritarian politics, the resurgence of integralism in the church, and vocal opposition—especially in the United States—to the reforms of both Vatican II and the present pope himself.” It speaks to the complicated nature of U.S. Catholic theology and ideology. In fact, American Catholics on both sides of aisle are influenced by the papalism of Vatican I as well as the turn to laity brought about by Vatican II. But a progressive ultramontanism will not save U.S. Catholicism from reactionary ideologues, some of whom are extremists and para-schismatics. Others see themselves like the saints and martyrs who felt they had to take the extraordinary step of contradicting papal authority—twenty-first century versions of St. Catherine of Siena or St. Peter Damian—but from a fundamentalist position: Church authority is nothing to the ultimate authority that only God possesses.

But not all U.S. right-wing Catholics who oppose Francis are dead-enders. Tactically, one lesson they’ve learned from the last ten years is that a collective Catholic psyche doesn’t allow them to try, punish, and depose a pope. But they know they can still publicly rebuke him if and when they believe the faith is being endangered. This is not a schism, but it’s not loyal dissent either, since it questions Francis’s service to the Church and the faith. And it’s abetted by social media: adopt a pre-medieval nickname or avatar, lob devastating criticisms while remaining anonymous, win like-minded followers who like and repost all the criticisms.

Strategically, though, the might of conservative U.S. Catholics can be measured not in “how many divisions” they have here, but in how they’ve established alliances in other parts of the world, in ways that are different from previous centuries. In a world of “believers without borders,” these forces could gather to drive not just the next chapter of U.S. Catholicism but perhaps the next pontificate as well. (It will be interesting to see whether the Synod in Rome next month may also become a dress rehearsal for the next conclave.) Yet as Joseph Chinnici put it in the latest issue of the Catholic Historical Review: “The patchwork quilt of American Catholicism seems here to stay.” The progressive Catholic belief that they are on the right side of history and conservatives and reactionaries are on the losing side is also an illusion.

Other churches around the world have been challenged by or struggled with Francis’s pontificate, but none has responded as aggressively as the U.S. episcopate. The approaching Synod on Synodality is supposed to “enlarge the space of the tent,” but they think that Vatican II had already enlarged it too much. They instead want to rebuild, figuratively and literally—to restore the walls and doors and stained-glass windows: the past. It’s a retrograde vision of tradition and teaching. “The future is behind us,” they seem to say. But it’s their vision of the future nonetheless.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II, co-edited with Catherine Clifford (Oxford UP). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

Also by this author
This story is included in these collections:

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.