When Pope Francis became the first pope in history to address a joint session of Congress four years ago this month, his right-wing American critics were already in a fevered state. A pope who viewed economic inequality and climate change as sanctity of life issues similar to threats posed by abortion rattled religious conservatives who assumed they had a monopoly on values debates in politics. Before his landmark encyclical on the environment was even released, conservative Catholic commentators preemptively lined up to take shots. Papal advisor Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras singled out “movements in the United States” as the epicenter of the anti-Francis backlash.
If there was any doubt that Pope Francis isn’t fazed by his increasingly vocal American foes -- even relishes their opposition -- that question was answered recently aboard the papal plane as the pope traveled on a three-nation tour of Africa. “It’s an honor that Americans are attacking me,” Francis told Nicolas Seneze, a French journalist who presented the pope with his new book, How America Wanted to Change the Pope, which chronicles U.S. conservatives’ efforts to undermine Francis. The topic flared again aboard the flight back to Rome when the pope was asked about a loose network of conservative Catholic media organizations, self-appointed orthodoxy police and bishops who view Francis as a rogue reformer.
“The things I say on social matters are the same that John Paul II said,” Francis said in a reference to a late pope widely embraced by conservative Catholics even as his teachings on economic justice and labor rights were in line with Francis. “Ideologies enter into doctrine,” the pope explained. “And when doctrine slips into ideology, there is the possibility of schism. I pray that there will not be schisms. But I am not afraid.”
So what’s the beef between the pope and Americans? To be clear, most Catholics in the pews don't have a problem with Pope Francis. While his once glowing approval ratings have declined as the clergy abuse crisis again makes headlines, more than seven-in-ten American Catholics view the pope favorably. Polling shows Catholics who are Republicans or lean toward the Republican Party are far less enthused about Francis.
Anxiety about the pope on the American right isn’t new. In one of his first media interviews after his election, Francis moved to recalibrate perceptions about Catholicism in the popular imagination. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” the pope said. “The teaching of the church is clear and I’m a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” This amounted to near heresy for many conservative religious leaders in the United States, where the values narrative in politics had been largely defined by those very issues for decades. A generation of conservative bishops and Catholic politicians who selectively drew from a narrow slice of church teaching to the exclusion of broader social justice doctrine suddenly found themselves on the defensive.
A pope from the global south also continues to offer a stinging critique of neoliberal economics that poses a clear threat to a wealthy American church where Republican politicians and big money donors often rub shoulders with conservative bishops. The Catholic philanthropist Timothy Busch, who has blasted the minimum wage as an "anti-market regulation," hosts a $2,600-a-ticket gathering at his Napa vineyard every summer as part of an initiative co-founded by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput. This year’s meeting featured Cardinal Raymond Burke, a former archbishop of St. Louis now at the Vatican, who has described the church under Francis as a “ship without a rudder.” Burke is the lead American singer in the vocal anti-Francis chorus.
Also at the Napa gathering were Trump loyalist Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and former Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who decimated public sector unions and collective bargaining in that state. In contrast, orthodox Catholic teaching has endorsed living wages and unions since Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical on labor. Even the business school at The Catholic University of America in Washington has received $13 million in funding from the Charles Koch Foundation, founded by the billionaire industrialist who bankrolls a network of right-wing groups fighting unions and efforts to address climate change. The Acton Institute, led by the Catholic priest Fr. Robert Sirico, is more aligned with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce than Pope Francis as it preaches a gospel of free-market fundamentalism and libertarian economics that reach thousands who attend its “Acton University” seminars in Grand Rapids, Mich.
While progressive Catholics often took issue with the more conservative priorities of Pope Benedict XVI, Francis opponents are brazen, anointing themselves more Catholic than the pope. A priest who directed the doctrine office at the U.S bishops’ conference under the Benedict papacy accused Francis of spreading “chronic confusion” with his teachings and appointing bishops who “scandalize” the faithful. A well-funded network of conservative Catholic media outlets, including the global Catholic media empire EWTN and the National Catholic Register (owned by EWTN) frequently give platforms to anti-Francis voices.
When the former Vatican ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, wrote an 11-page manifesto urging Pope Francis to resign for allegedly failing to act on sexual misconduct allegations against the now defrocked ex-cardinal of Washington Theodore McCarrick, Viganò chose the National Catholic Register and LifeSite News to air his broadside. Viganò has since largely retreated from public view and journalists have disproven the bulk of his claims.
Pope Francis’ opponents will continue to engage in the strange pursuit of appointing themselves the true guardians of Catholic orthodoxy while doing everything they can to undermine the successor of St. Peter. In Rome, the pope stays focused on reform and renewal, building a legacy that will long outlast his detractors.
Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life.