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Fear of a Radical Pope

The conservative struggle for the future (and past) of the Catholic church

Illustration by Steve Brodner

In 2013, I traveled to Cambridge, England, to study for a master’s degree in Christian theology. I had been active in church as a teenager, but it was not until college that I began to feel a spiritual calling twisting in my heart. I suspected that my cause would be bound up with that of Christ’s beloved poor; I had always wanted to understand why people even in wealthy countries are left impoverished, and how, as a Christian, I should reflect theologically on that predicament. But when I arrived in Cambridge, at 22 years old, my notion of how to achieve that was still hazy and incomplete. I found myself adrift in England, where both the people and the surroundings were cooler than my native home in Texas. One fall morning before my first term began, I took a walk around the labyrinthine courtyards and moss-covered edifices of Jesus College. I soon realized that I had lost my way, both in the literal sense of a stranger wandering a new city, but also in a subtler one, as a young person trying to find herself as a student and spiritual aspirant.

Jesus College is built on the site of a twelfth-century nunnery. The remains of the original abbey include the refectory and chapel, a stark and steep gothic church of graying stone. Inside, the chapel was dim and cavernous, with faded frescoes giving a vague suggestion of the sidelong eyes and swanlike necks of the high Middle Ages. As I looked around, a priest emerged from the incense smoke enveloping the altar. He was a slightly nervous man of average height and build, with elfin features and an unparalleled keenness.

“Are you lost?” he asked.

Father John Hughes became my degree supervisor, teacher, spiritual guide, and friend. I loved him almost instantly, in the uncritical and voracious way one is allowed to love a mentor. He possessed a deep wealth of knowledge about everything I cared about: Saint Augustine, political theory, private property, wealth, and social justice. John called himself a Christian socialist, the first I had ever met, and an appellation to which I aspired. A young priest, he asked to be referred to by his first name. I forgo his honorific only in memory. In his presence, I called him Father.

The study of theology demands painstaking work backward through a winding tangle of older thoughts. To do so meaningfully requires a guide, and John proved to be a particularly capable one. Faithful living for Catholics, such as myself, depends on engagement with the Church’s direction on life issues. This process is not merely an academic one, but deeply spiritual. I wanted to know, for example, what Augustine thought of private property because I feel called to the cause of the poor; John’s mentorship on the subject was for me more than an exercise in personal enrichment. He was building within me the love necessary to follow through on my spiritual calling.

The world’s most renowned Christian theological guide is, of course, the Pope. He is, in a sense, a steward of the Church’s religious past, a clerical leader who must mediate the institution’s traditions as a public figure and symbol, and in his writings and pronouncements, which bear a great deal more authority among the Catholic faithful than do papal visits or interviews. The Church views herself in terms of apostolic succession and papal primacy—terms that describe a continuous transmission of authority that can be traced to the original apostles of Christ. The Pope has a special relationship to the past, being the recipient of so much carefully preserved thought and practice. Each Pope, therefore, must make use of the richness of Church tradition, while also ministering effectively to a world of ever-evolving challenges and realities.

Pope Francis ascended to the papacy two years ago, becoming Catholicism’s first leader from South America. A curious narrative soon emerged with regards to his approach to the past and the traditions of the Church among cultural, political, and religious conservatives in the United States. He has made no substantial changes to Catholic doctrine, and yet has nonetheless earned opprobrium worthy of extreme tampering. It seems rather that Francis inspires uncomfortable feelings, and affronts particular dispositions rather than particular doctrines. A key moment for testing this hypothesis is on the horizon: This summer Francis is expected to publish an encyclicalan authoritative papal document indicating an issue’s pressing priority—on the environment. It will reportedly address matters of environmental stewardship and climate change. (No specifics of the document have been issued yet.) As its release draws near, American conservatives have begun protesting supposedly vast reforms that have not happened. Steve Moore, chief economist at The Heritage Foundation, has declared Francis an adherent of a “modern pagan green religion”; Maureen Mullarkey, a writer for the religious journal First Things, charged the Pope with “bending theology to premature, intemperate policy endorsements.” No one but Pope Francis and his closest advisers know what is contained within the encyclical. Conservatives troubled by the very suggestion of a theological approach to climate change have been forced to expose more id than argument, dragging in such temporal terms as modern and premature. Pope Francis will travel to Washington, D.C. in September to address Congress, a visit already hotly anticipated. To understand the responses of conservative Catholic politicians like Representatives Paul Ryan and Peter King to papal pronouncements on inequality and climate change requires untangling the Church’s other trinity: of the Pope, the past, and the right wing.

Conservatives have been wary of Francis since his ascension in March 2013. On the day he was named Pope, the far-right Catholic blog Rorate Caæli called Francis “a sworn enemy of the traditional Mass.” In the following summer, legendarily plainspoken Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput said that the right wing of the Church “generally have not been really happy” with Francis’s papacy. Francis had that week made his famous quip, “Who am I to judge?” when asked about homosexuality. He was referring specifically to gay people who follow Church teaching and seek a celibate life within the Church, and thus his statement was entirely in keeping with Catholic doctrine. The trouble seemed to stem largely from the fact that he had used the modern parlance gay. In May 2014, conservative Catholic writer Michael Brendan Dougherty published a provocative op-ed in The Week arguing that “Catholics must learn to resist their Popes—even Pope Francis.” Dougherty suggested that the legitimacy of papal teaching—and in a sense, the principle of papal infallibility—was subject to review by the greater body of Catholic faithful. The duty of the believer, he concluded, “is not just to rebuke and correct those in authority ... but to throw rotting cabbage at them, or make them miserable.”

There have always been grumblings about popes, but the differences in opinion between Francis and the movement collectively known as the “American right” appear especially numerous, and unusually bitter. In October 2014, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who is Catholic, wrote that in matters of marriage and family life, “[Francis] may be preserved from error only if the Church itself resists him.” The “error” he referred to was Francis’s leadership at the Synod on the Family, held in Rome in October. The Pope’s hand-picked prelates had drafted a working document for the synod, which contained early, and mildly positive, language regarding homosexual orientation and the possibility of communion for the divorced. “Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community,” the document originally read, adding, “For some [divorced and remarried persons], partaking of the sacraments might occur were it preceded by a penitential path.”

The final report issued from the synod was substantially revised, and most of this language was removed. Communion remains generally unavailable to the divorced and remarried, and Church attitudes toward homosexuality continue to be negative. Conservatives were nonetheless rattled by Francis’s willingness to flexibly address what appear to be “modern problems”: gay people in the Church and the ever-growing number of divorced and remarried persons. At the end of his column, Douthat wondered, with some anxiety, if Francis might “be stacking the next synod’s ranks with supporters of a sweeping change” that would leave traditionalists unfairly on the wrong side of history.

Pope Francis and President Barack Obama exchange gifts during a private audience at the Vatican last March.
Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Conservatism gives up its nature with its name. At its core, conservatism represents a commitment, however often flouted, to the conservation of some element of the past. Contemporary American political conservatism—especially of the kind marketed as “neoconservatism”— usually maintains a fixation on markets and freedom from nosy states while simultaneously preferring a close personal regulation of one’s behaviors. Irving Kristol, an influential neoconservative, wrote in his 1976 essay “What Is a Neoconservative?” that conservatives should be “respectful of traditional values and institutions” as a central tenet of their politics and practice. Kristol believed that obligation to “the sovereignty of traditional values” kept people moored to the past in a way that prevented the nihilism that leads to authoritarianism and anomie. The freedom of markets and appropriate weakness of the state depend on citizens preferring traditional modes of living to the heady vertigo of progressivism. Like many neoconservative luminaries, Kristol was Jewish; but, as has been pointed out elsewhere, the success of early neoconservatism arose largely from the intellectualization of white working-class cultural sentiment. Neoconservatism, though preceding the rise of the “Christian right,” bore the seeds of that movement from its inception.

Conservatives describe themselves in terms of attachment to the past. In a 2014 National Affairs article titled “The Conservative Governing Disposition,” Philip Wallach and Justus Myers addressed a question they felt had been neglected during the Republican Party’s previous two presidential defeats: “What is conservatism?” Conservatism, they argued, is more a disposition than a set of political goals, one for which “social practices, habits, and institutions embody the accumulated wisdom of trial-and-error experience.” This thinking detaches conservatism from the realm of policy, and returns it to the core of conservative commitments, where they believe it should be. At the center of the conservative disposition, Wallach and Myers locate a belief that explains why conservatives “doubt the ability of fallible people to overhaul [the] evolved social order according to their vision of how it should be.” The conservative disposition springs from the conviction that there is something transcendently meaningful about the past. “Conservatism has the most to offer societies,” Wallach and Myers wrote, “that have much worth conserving yet run the risk of dissipating their inheritance through wrong-headed, sweeping changes.” What obtains today, in the conservative mind, does so because it was found worthy in the past, and humility should prevent us from meddling too much with received wisdom.

This treatment of the past unites religious and political conservatives. Indeed, the Catholic Church has its own version of the conflict between conservatism and progressivism that one finds in American politics. Between 1962 and 1965, the Vatican held the Second Vatican Council at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It was the twenty-first ecumenical council of the Catholic Church, a meeting of Catholic leaders and theologians first convened by Roman emperors in the early years of the Church, and now by Pope John XXIII, to settle the place of the Catholic Church in the modern world. The ramifications of Vatican II, as it is known, still command the contours of contemporary Catholicism.

Vatican II addressed matters of liturgy: the language used in Mass (vernacular versus Latin), ecclesiology, and the place of Catholic teaching in the modern world. The intention of “modernizing” Catholic expression and teaching, which was brought up in the most incremental terms, was enough to alienate conservative Catholics. Church historian and professor Massimo Faggioli pointed out in his 2012 book Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning, that traditionalist Catholics “have grown much more vocal in denouncing the council as synonymous with disaster and chaos in the Church. Their negative view of the results of the liturgical reform could be applied uniformly to all of the major developments of Vatican II (ecclesiology, ecumenism, religious freedom, and the Church and the modern world) without altering their level of outrage.” Faggioli also observes the connection between “the main accusers of Vatican II as a ‘rupture’ with the tradition of the Church,” and those who “questioned the very legitimacy of Vatican II as a council in the tradition of the Church, its previous councils, and papal magisterium.” Traditionalists were offended not only by the outcome of Vatican II’s reforms, but by the idea of modernization itself, as though such a thing could be truly avoided.

Francis frees a dove given to him by a member of the crowd for his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican.
Associated Press/L’Osservatore Romano

Francis was not present at Vatican II. But suspicion of a Catholic gesture toward modernity—and thus the world—colors the attitudes of conservative Catholics toward him, and helps explain the rancor with which his minimalist approach to change has been received. The spirit of the council also affected the socio-political standing of the Church in Latin America in a way that could not help but influence Francis. Liberation theology, for example, was fruit of the same vine as Vatican II, despite official condemnations of it from the Vatican beginning in the late ’70s. In 1979, Pope John Paul II opened a speech at a conference in Puebla, Mexico, by declaring, “Christ, as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive man from Nazareth, does not tally with the Church’s catechesis.” It should come as no surprise that Pope Francis, who was born in Argentina, has not been nearly as censorious toward liberation theology as his predecessors, even undoing a few of the penalties imposed by John Paul II on priests who espoused it; or that this perceived warmth has inspired anxiety among his conservative critics.

Father John was frustratingly circumspect in his directions to me. One rainy afternoon he gave me a book to read. “Write up your thoughts,” he said, and that was all. I turned the book, a heavy hardback, over in my hands. It was In Defence of War, a Christian theological treatment of modern warfare by Nigel Biggar. I was at Cambridge to study the theology of private property, especially in the political theory of Augustine. It was unclear why he would want me to read a book defending war. And since I had no idea what John wanted me to learn from the book, I didn’t know what to look for in it, or how to produce something he would approve of. By then, I had become desperate to do work he would be proud of. The love of students for their teachers poured into my mind through the texts we read: “And I began to love him,” Augustine wrote of his mentor, Saint Ambrose, in the fifth book of his Confessions, “of course, not at the first as a teacher of the truth, for I had entirely despaired of finding that in [God’s] Church—but as a friendly man.” Love, Augustine came to find, layers upon love: This is especially true of teachers who are at once guides, friends, mentors, and pastors. Still, I happened to be reading Umberto Eco’s 1980 medieval-era novel The Name of the Rose in my spare time, and I imagined myself, rather dramatically, as a modern-day version of Adso of Melk, a novice monk blindly following his wise master through a labyrinth of theological controversy, mystery, and text.

My review of A Defence of War, which I presented to John some time later, focused on the role of property in conflict. This seemed a stretch, but I couldn’t think of any other way of doing it. He took his time reading my paper, settled, as he often did, in a high-backed chair near an empty fireplace in his office. His glasses rose on his thin nose as he began to smile: “You focused on Augustine,” he said. I had come up with a rather critical Augustinian reading of Biggar’s book, while Biggar had equally rooted his argument in Augustinian arguments for just war. As it turned out, this was the goal of the assignment: to reveal to me the vastly different interpretations that can issue from ostensibly identical classical frameworks. The point was so simple it is still distilling in my mind. When you go digging in the past, you always find what you’re looking for.

The conservative reverence for the past does not necessarily mean that their tactics or politics to protect it will be properly traditional. Corey Robin, in his 2011 book, The Reactionary Mind, writes, “while the conservative theorist claims for his tradition the mantle of prudence and moderation there is a not-so-subterranean strain of imprudence and immoderation running through that tradition—a strain that, however counterintuitive it seems, connects Sarah Palin to Edmund Burke.” Thus conservatives can claim a deep attachment to the America of their grandparents while trying to dismantle labor unions and Social Security, mainstays of the era they profess to love. It is more difficult to explain the disconnect between a conservative self-identity deeply interwoven with an attachment to the past, and the conservative politics—inside the Church and out—that often employ themes and practices of the revolutionary movements they seek to counter.

Chalking it up to duplicitousness, opportunism, or malice, as progressives tend to do, fails to identify the internal tension of conservatism. The past, whatever we make of it, is in some permanent but elusive way unknowable to us. We have texts, reconstructions, artifacts, stories—all things that add up to less than a single human memory. The difficulty of the historical record, burdened as it is with the attitudes and interpretations of those who have come before us, is only the beginning of the troubles one encounters when it comes to appropriating the past. Indeed, as philosopher and Brown University professor Charles Larmore reminds us in his 2008 book The Autonomy of Morality, even reasoning itself “bears the mark of our time and place.”

To turn to the past with explicitly political motives—say, to attempt to discover a traditional or old-fashioned approach to a problem—is to saddle history with the task of solving our modern problems, and our own interests can therefore subtly color our understanding of the history we encounter. Alastair Roberts, a contributing editor to the journal Political Theology Today, cites the philosopher Charles Taylor’s concept of “authenticity” in locating contemporary individualism in the conservative tendency to seek the past:

“The turn to historic liturgies among many [conservatives]today has been shaped by a need created by expressive individualism’s quest for authenticity. Plagued by a disquieting sense of inauthenticity amidst the simulacra of postmodern consumer culture, many in quest of traditional liturgy can be like the stereotypical hipster who seeks out ‘honest’ and ‘authentic’ vintage styles in the thrift store.”

The hipster relates to the smoking jacket he scavenged from a secondhand shop as a symbol of old-fashioned masculinity. This is very different than the way the wearer once related to it, and the affected performance of old-fashioned masculinity is as thoroughly contemporary as any brand new performance of gender; indeed, it can only be intelligible by comparison with modern alternatives. And the same is true of liturgy: To insist that the Church differentiate herself from the world by adhering to the praxis of the past—be it saying Mass in Latin or ignoring man-made climate change because it is not present in biblical text—is to relate to the past in a wholly modern way. Those who ignored climate change in the Middle Ages did so because it was unknown, not because they intended to make a particular statement about the transcendent factual bearing of the biblical text. We can ape their attitudes, but the outcome is always historical reenactment, no closer to medieval practice than Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones.

The instinct to return to the modes of thinking dominant in the past is a purely modern one. In that case, the conservative disposition is embattled by nature: While it desires to make use of all worthy inheritance, it actually invents what it inherits. Perhaps this is what Rimbaud meant when he wrote, at the end of A Season in Hell, “One must be absolutely modern.” It is not so much a choice as a fait accompli. To consider whether or not one would prefer to be modern is to be modern; the decision is already made.

Pope Francis approaches the past with dialogue, not mere deference, in mind. He knows that the only useful approach to the past is to recognize it as a work in progress. This has the effect of imbuing accumulated tradition with no special authority over current conclusions. The present and the past must speak as equals, as both are works of human effort. From that alone conservatively disposed Catholics might flinch. This attitude—this disposition—allows him to utilize a modern lexicon while drawing on Church tradition. Consider, for instance, his remarks on financial inequality, in which he called for a “legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the state, as well as indispensable cooperation between the private sector and civil society.” Pundits like Fox News host Sean Hannity erupted into paroxysms of anxiety, speculating that the Pope had some newfangled socialist schema in mind. Meanwhile, conservative leaders such as Catholic League President Bill Donohue offered only a lukewarm defense of their pontiff, deflecting outrage by arguing that Francis’s remarks were not really as radical as they seemed. And they weren’t: The Catholic Church has always been “liberal” on economic matters. Since the early centuries of the Church, prominent theologians such as Ambrose, Augustine, and Saint John Chrysostom have emphasized that private property rights obtain only after allhuman needs have been met, and that the excess of the wealthy truly belongs to the poor.

In light of these teachings, “liberal” is too modern a word for Francis’s papal economics. They are at once in keeping with the ancient tradition of the Church and intelligible to modern political lexicons, pairing actionable politics with classical Christian ethics. Every blowhard with a stake in unmitigated capitalism, from Rush Limbaugh to The Economist, has had their turn at accusing Francis of sundry McCarthyist infractions, Marxist, Leninist, and otherwise. But the reality is that Francis’s views on economic justice hew more closely to traditional Christian teaching than those of a free marketeer. It is the language of present-day economic movements that arouses such jitters among self-proclaimed proponents of tradition. As German Cardinal Walter Kasper said in a speech on Pope Francis at The Catholic University of America, “[Francis] does not represent a liberal position, but a radical position, understood in the original sense of the word as going back to the roots, the radix.”

The same is true of Francis’s upcoming encyclical. In Crisis Magazine, Rachel Lu, an instructor at the University of St. Thomas, contemplated the ramifications of carbon emissions as a matter of theological concern: “It would smack of intellectual faddism,” Lu wrote, “and it’s always depressing to feel that Church authorities are more focused on trendy social controversies than on the fundamental business of saving souls.” But stewardship of the Earth as the charge of humanity is native to the Genesis account itself, and the dignity due the environment can be traced in the Catholic tradition to none other than Saint Francis of Assisi, whose name the Pope adopted. If Francis’s language on the environment—he told reporters accompanying him on a trip to the Philippines that “We have, in a sense, lorded it over nature, over Sister Earth, over Mother Earth”—sounds too much like a “modern pagan green religion” to folks like Steve Moore, it is only because they have forgotten the words from St. Francis of Assisi’s hymn “Canticle of the Sun”: “Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth / Who feeds us and rules us, / And produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.”

Pope Francis knows that his language is evocative of contemporary ecological movements, but this is a testament to his genius, not his incompetence. Capturing the essence of Catholic tradition in conversation via modern thought makes his theology accessible, if distasteful, to those who would take refuge from the present in an imagined past.

Francis’s handling of tradition and modernity privileges neither, but rather produces a workable synthesis of their contributions. Conservative appeals to the past, in contrast, rely on the sort of “decline” narrative for which they seem especially partial. Newly elected Republican Senator Joni Ernst used her response to this year’s State of the Union Address to reminisce about her childhood in Iowa, recalling that “[my] parents may not have had much, but they worked hard for what they did have.” Ernst’s words harken back to a time when people were satisfied with poverty. They also cast modern-day folk in a less-than-flattering light: We don’t work for what we have and instead subsist on oft-maligned handouts like welfare. Finally, those who do work have less to show for it than the imagined bootstrappers of yesteryear, thanks to the regulatory bogeyman that is the federal government.

This is conservatism at its most reactionary, where a past that never existed functions as carte blanche for nothing more than a glorified U-turn, though the destination would be unreachable even if it were real. Francis’s dialogical approach, meanwhile, yields new riches at every turn. In his 2013 apostolic exhortation on evangelism in the Church, Evangelii Gaudium, Francis uses Augustine’s theological claim that humanity loves beauty to argue for the use of modern art and music within churches: “We must be bold enough to discover new signs and new symbols, new flesh to embody and communicate the word, and different forms of beauty which are valued in different cultural settings, including those unconventional modes of beauty.”

Conservatives inside the Church and out will, in all likelihood, continue to rankle at Francis’s presence, his persona, his wildly successful evangelism. With every word, he offers an obviously superior approach to theirs, one that renders the conservative disposition as unappealing as it is impossible.

The Name of The Rose ends with Adso as an old man, alone in his monastery’s scriptorium. A fire consumed the abbey he once explored with his master, though Adso has, over many years and journeys, salvaged a few half-burnt pages from the ruins of its library. He confesses to searching them superstitiously for some meaning, some message, some guide to what his past should mean. He is adrift without his master William, who died sometime after the novel’s adventure. I, too, am now without my master: Last summer, John died in a car accident. He was 35 years old.

John wrote one book in his life, The End of Work: Theological Critiques of Capitalism. For a while after his death I turned to it like an encyclopedia, scouring it for meaning. I wanted it to answer all of the questions I had intended to ask John, to decode the statements he had made to me off-handedly that I had stored away to decipher later. But it is a book about labor and liturgy, not a book about John and me. If I have discovered anything in the wake of my grief, it is that the past cannot be recovered, but only shabbily reconstructed. It is most useful when considered an open matter. This is true of the past in our lives, of the past in politics, of the past in the Church: Dialogue is the most we can make of it.

And that is enough.