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A somber, divided Catholic Church heads into Easter

This Lent, with its ashes and somber reflections, is about to close and the Catholic Church heads into what should be a joyous Easter season with its promise of resurrection and new life. This year, however, feels anything but joyous. 

The elevation of Jorge Mario Bergoglio 11 years ago as Pope Francis promised a fresh start to a scandal-ridden Catholic Church stained by decades of priestly abuse and coverups by church leaders. From the start, Pope Francis had a very different vision of the papacy, one that would be down to earth, with its priests, bishops and cardinals acting less like royalty and receiving papal instructions to be like “shepherds with the smell of sheep.” 

To that end, Pope Francis established a multi-stage two-year synodality listening program involving all churchgoers that began in 2021. Around the world, listening sessions were held with the laity given a prominent voice and a chance to make their long-suppressed views heard. 

In October, delegates convened in Rome to hear the results and establish a way forward. While prominent Catholic leaders were among those gathered at the Vatican, representatives included men and women from all different walks of life and cultures. 

Perhaps the most memorable moment at the gathering occurred when a facilitator at one of the tables, said, “Excuse me, your Eminence, she has not finished speaking.”  

This October, the Synod will convene once again for nearly a month. Among the topics that are likely to be discussed are the role of women in the church and whether they can serve as deacons, changes to priestly formation, how continued synodality can occur both at the diocesan and parish levels, the role of gays and lesbians in parish life and how the church should welcome those in “irregular relationships,” including divorced and remarried Catholics.  

In many ways, this represents the culmination of an extraordinary papacy. 

But Pope Francis’s call for synodality has been met with virulent and unprecedented criticisms that have become personal. Last month, a cardinal (or cardinals) released a document titled “The Vatican Tomorrow.” Hiding under the cloak of anonymity, it accused the pope of being “autocratic, vindictive, careless, intolerant and ambiguous,” and claimed that thanks to Pope Francis the church is “more fractured than at any time in her recent history.”  

Acting as an advertised job description for a new pope, the writer urges the rejection of doctrinal “ambiguity”: “Disregard for canon law and proper canonical procedure undermines confidence in the purity of the Church’s mission.”  

For years, conservative Catholics have been discomforted by Pope Francis and his instructions to mingle with the sheep. In 2020, papal biographer George Weigel authored “The Next Pope” in which he argued for doctrinal clarity:  “The Catholic Church of cultural accommodation — the church uncertain about the truth of revelation and therefore incapable of proclaiming the gospel fearlessly — is dying or dead.” 

New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan sent copies of Weigel’s book to every cardinal around the world. 

Francis reminds us that “indietrismo,” or being backward-looking, is useless and that “doctrine progresses, expands and consolidates with time.”    

But the conservative attacks have continued unabated. During the papacies of St. John Paul II or Benedict XVI, no liberal cardinal issued screeds directed at them. 

Pope Francis has observed that “there is a very strong reactionary attitude” among church leaders particularly in the United States that is “not easy” to endure. 

Such criticisms have taken the form of a political campaign — if not for an individual, than for an idea. But selecting a new pope is not “The Making of the President.” Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit — not politics — guides the anointing of a pope. Anonymous letters akin to conducting a political campaign are as unbecoming as they are divisive. 

The criticisms directed at the 87-year-old pontiff have made him into a polarizing figure. A December 2023 Gallup Poll found the pope’s unfavorable rating among Americans at a record high of 30 percent. While 70 percent of liberals view Francis very favorably, only 42 percent of conservatives hold a similar view.  

In many ways, Pope Francis’s people-oriented papacy is much like the ministry of Jesus Christ — and just as controversial. Jesus ministered to tax collectors (the authorities of the Roman Empire) and prostitutes, noting that “those who are well have no need of a physician.”  

The company Jesus kept created controversy and was vehemently opposed by the religious leaders of his time. But from Jesus’s ministry flowed a vibrant Church — one that Francis is determined to renew again.  

As the theme of the upcoming October gathering in Rome states, the goal must be “For a synodal church: communion, participation, and mission.” Or, as Pope Francis once put it, “Let’s keep moving forward!” 

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America. His forthcoming book is titled “Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism.” He can be reached at johnkennethwhite.com.  

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