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.”