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Not all conservative Catholics are unsettled by Francis’s pontificate

Author Stephen Walford and his family meet Pope Francis July 2017 (CNS)

Since the 2016 presidential election, arguing has rapidly supplanted baseball as America’s national pastime. Middle aged-men now congregate in dingy bars to watch 24/7 cable news coverage of the Mueller report. Instead of cheering on the home team during the World Series, they angrily agree with one another that the CNN correspondent Jake Tapper is a charlatan and Fox News host Sean Hannity is the greatest reporter of our age (or vice versa).

Even in Holy Mother Church’s relative halcyon days – the Battle of Lepanto, for instance – our quarrelsome culture would have spilled over from the temporal into the spiritual realm. But Francis’s conduct as Pope has ensured that no abbot or abuela shall be allowed to remain neutral.

Wittingly or not, the Holy Father has reignited moral and liturgical feuds that most of us assumed were happily settled. He praises Martin Luther while accusing traditionalists of flirting with Pelagianism. He urges European governments to welcome Muslim immigrants while condemning President Trump’s border wall as being un-Christian. Some suspect he’s working to readmit the divorced and remarried to Holy Communion, and yet he has refused to allow pilgrims to kiss his ring.

By and large, opinions about Francis are as predictable as they are militant. Theological and political liberals take a positive view of the Holy Father; conservatives, not so much. Those on the Church’s right wing have strongly supported the 2016 dubia (a request for clarification of the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia), and many defended the 2017 correctio filialis (filial correction) – though most stopped short of endorsing 2019’s “heresy letter”. This is the group dismissed by the LA Times as “cranky”, by Reuters as “extremists” and by Fr James Martin as the “Catholic alt-right”.

And yet not all theological conservatives and liturgical traditionalists oppose Pope Francis. A vanguard of well-known writers, academics and priests have stood against the tide of partisan opinion to defend the Supreme Pontiff.

The author Stephen Walford is probably the best-known conservative champion of the Francis papacy, at least in Britain. His book Pope Francis, The Family and Divorce: In Defense of Truth and Mercy carries an introduction from the Holy Father himself. In a 2017 interview with this magazine, Walford said that the abuse he had received from other conservatives had been “unreal”. “It’s the fact that I haven’t buckled,” he offered as the reason for the criticism.

I asked Walford if there were any circumstances under which he would criticise the Pope, or at least decline to rise in his defence. “No,” he replied frankly. “He deserves my love, obedience and respect. He does not need me offering my ‘wisdom’ when his ministry benefits from the Holy Spirit’s ‘charism of assistance’.” What Walford seeks is “a Christianity that is far above labels” – “where, at the centre, the popes guide the Church through history, seeking to help the Church conform itself ever more closely to the love manifested in the Heart of Jesus.”

Tom Hoopes isn’t quite so convinced. The author of What Pope Francis Really Said – a line-by-line rebuttal of the criticisms most commonly levelled against the Holy Father – nevertheless has reservations about the Vatican’s present direction. “Now, if I were a cardinal, things would be different,” he says. “I hope I would have the courage to forcefully press the dubia and shine a spotlight on areas of concern and demand answers.” But, he adds, “I’m not a cardinal.”

Hoopes has no serious objections to a “faithful son of the Church” who feels compelled to “question and criticise the non-magisterial musings of the Pope”. What he opposes is the “attitude of constant criticism of the Pope” prevalent among some conservative Catholics. He laments that the Holy Father receives no credit for “canonising the author of Humanae Vitae in the document’s 50th anniversary year” and then “the Fatima children on the apparition’s 100th anniversary”.

“Do I like Pope Francis?” Hoopes asks rhetorically. “Not particularly.” He’s sceptical of his appointments and fears a return to the “silly Catholicism” of the 1980s. “But,” he continues, “my response to all that is to vigorously defend the Pope where he’s right, not replicate the criticisms that anti-Catholics would offer, intent on proving once and for all that it’s foolish to follow popes and that untrained laity are better off following their own lights.”

For the Legionary priest and blogger Fr Matthew Schneider, defending Pope Francis is part and parcel of his priestly vocation. “To me, the call of the priest online is primarily part of the munus docendi – the power or duty of teaching – which is among the three munera [duties] we receive at ordination,” he tells me. “As such, we are called to defend, explain and promote the Catholic Church and her teaching primarily through words.”

Fr Schneider thinks the problem of anti-Francis conservatives is inherent in the word “conservative” itself – that is, applying partisan language to spiritual matters. “I am strongly orthodox and Catholic,” he says, “but I don’t identify with any political label.”

He’s also sceptical of drawing too sharp a line between Pope Francis and his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who remains a hero figure to orthodox Catholics. “Even though Pope Francis speaks in a different manner to the popes we remember, I don’t see major problems with what he says or his way of speaking,” he tells me. “We need to realise that Francis is more of a pastor, while Benedict … is more a theology professor, so the latter is more used to precise theological language.”

Speaking of Benedict, the fiercest critics of the current papacy often arise from the Latin Mass community. Traditionalists were over-represented among the signatories of the letter accusing Pope Francis of heresy, led by such notable figures as Peter Kwasniewski and Brian McCall.

But there are a few Francis-friendly trads – Zac Mabry among them. A Catholic Herald contributing editor and host of the Roman Circus Podcast, Mabry gives some credit to the Holy Father for the recent explosion of interest in the Tridentine Mass. “The [Extraordinary Form Mass] has grown substantially since this papacy began in 2013,” he notes. “Anecdotally, when I meet new people at my parish, they often mention Pope Francis as one of the reasons they started attending the traditional Mass.” (It’s hard to transcribe the tinge of irony in his voice.)

And what of Francis’s comments about “rigid” Latin Massers? “While rigidity does not appear to be uniquely or even especially a problem in traditional circles, I think it is important that we keep Pope Francis’s warning in mind,” Mabry tells me. “When I see so many parishes and religious orders rigidly clinging to the 1970s and struggling to keep their doors open, I am thankful that Pope Francis has warned traditional Catholics to avoid this type of behaviour.”

Curiously, none of Francis’s defenders suggests that the Holy Father is actually “one of them”. Their support for the Supreme Pontiff seems overwhelmingly to stem from a sense of filial duty or old-fashioned piety. In 2019, this attitude will automatically leave one condemned among the “clericalists”: that nefarious (albeit nebulous) cabal we blame for every evil in the Church, from the sex abuse crisis to declining attendance at Sunday Mass.

Yet we can have great confidence in the voice of Our Lord when He speaks those words: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

Michael Warren Davis is associate editor of the Catholic Herald. Find him at www.michaelwarrendavis.com