Ross Douthat identifies the three groups of Roman Catholic conservatives who are critical of Pope Francis (I don’t think Jason and the Callers made the list — no mention of logic or motives of credibility):
1. Traditionalists. These are Catholics defined by their preference/zeal for the Tridentine Rite Mass and their rejection of (or at least doubts about) various reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Some attend mainstream parishes that offer the mass in Latin, others are affiliated with orders specifically organized around the old rite, others are connected to parishes run by the (arguably; it’s a long argument) schismatic Society of Saint Pius X. There’s lots of variation within traditionalist ranks (my friend Michael Brendan Dougherty, cited by Bruenig, is a “trad” of a different sort than, say, this fellow), but the important things to emphasize are first, that their numbers (in the American context and otherwise) are quite small; second, that their concerns are not usually the same as those of the typical John Paul II-admiring conservative Catholic (traditionalists were often not admirers of the Polish pope); and third, that their skepticism of Pope Francis was probably inevitable and pretty clearly mutual. . . .
2. Catholics who are economic conservatives or libertarians. These are Catholic writers and personalities who have publicly disagreed with the pope’s statements on the economy, capitalism and (pre-emptively, regarding his looming encyclical) the environment; in its crudest form, their criticism proceeds from the same premises as the (not-at-all Catholic) Rush Limbaugh’s famous suggestion that Francis is “preaching Marxism” when he critiques the global economy’s rapacious side. But it’s noteworthy, I think, that the loudest voices here are not usually figures particularly known for their Catholicism. . . .
3. Doctrinal conservatives. These are conservative American Catholics whose Francis-era anxieties center around the issues raised during last fall’s synod on the family, and particularly around Cardinal Walter Kasper’s proposal to admit Catholics in second marriages (which the church does not recognize as marriages at all) to communion — an issue I may have written about from time to time. Many of them are also economic conservatives and likely Republican voters, but not all, and notwithstanding that overlap they mostly regard the stakes in the Kasper/divorce debates as much more theologically significant than the stakes in, say, the pope’s forthcoming environmental encyclical. As with the economic debate, the more prominent the commentator, the more circumspect they tend to be in directly criticizing Francis on these issues: The tendency, instead, is almost always to separate the pope from the Kasper faction, critiquing that faction vigorously while reassuring readers that no doctrinal change is in the offing. (My own approach here is distinctive, and perhaps imprudent.) But at the same time, the pattern in which the debate has proceeded, I think, leaves little doubt that if Francis were to adopt Kasper’s proposals or others like them there would necessarily be much more open opposition from this group.
One way of interpreting this is to say that conservative Roman Catholics are concerned about the language of the liturgy, the economy, or the family. Where, Protestants may wonder, among these criticisms of the pope is a concern about mortal sin and protecting the church as a means of grace for freeing believers from guilt and condemnation? To be fair, Douthat himself as one of the doctrinal conservatives has raised the issue of mortal sin and whether the church could conceivably turn a blind eye to it if it tolerates people on second marriages, or gay couples to take communion.
But it is striking to this observer how little concern there seems to be for defending and maintaining the gospel as set forth by the Council of Trent or even John Paul II’s catechism. It could be that these are settled matters that need no more attention. But if you have ever studied the history of Protestantism, such silence about the most important teachings of the church are likely an indication not of confidence but of indifference.
Earlier this month, the Pew Forum released the results of its latest survey of American Catholic opinion about Pope Francis. The headline was that he’s basically as popular as Pope John Paul II at his peak, but the truly interesting nugget comes when American Catholics are asked to identify themselves politically.
Francis has an 89 percent approval rating among Catholic Republicans, almost identical to his 90 percent mark among Democrats. Among self-described “conservatives” he gets a 94 percent thumbs-up, which is actually seven points higher than his 87 percent approval among Catholics who call themselves “moderates/liberals.”
Perhaps what the conservatives have figured out is that Francis may be all about compassion and mercy in implementation of doctrine, but he’s hardly Che Guevara in a cassock. If there’s a “Francis revolution” underway, it appears to be more about the pastoral application of teaching rather than revisions to it.
As the dust settles, the Catholic Church is still saying “no” to women priests, gay marriage, and contraception, even if it’s trending softer in terms of how those positions are communicated and enforced. It’s an agenda that plays well with moderates, but leaves many liberals disappointed.