Pope Francis: Advocating for the Poor, Making Enemies

Pope Francis came to the papacy as an outsider, a non-European and the first Jesuit elected leader of the world’s Catholics. He very quickly gave up many of the traditional trappings of the papacy and encouraged — even required — those of us who have more to share with the many around the world and in our own backyard who have so much less.

Cardinal Jorge M. Bergoglio SJ, (Pope Francis) in 2008. (Photo by Aibdescalzo, own work, GFDL http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html, via Wikimedia Commons

Cardinal Jorge M. Bergoglio SJ, (Pope Francis) in 2008. (Photo by Aibdescalzo, own work, GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, Guardian contributor Andrew Brown contends that speaking out about poverty and hunger and other matters that cause disparity, divisiveness and despair has made Pope Francis “one of the most hated men in the world today.” Hated not by “atheists or protestants, or Muslims” but by “some of his own followers.”

That’s tough talk about the man who came on the world scene in 2013 and captured the hearts and minds of many Catholics who hoped that here was the pope who would drag the Catholic Church, “kicking and screaming” if necessary, into the 21st century. There was hope that he would make changes to counteract those of his predecessors, St. John Paul ll (canonized by Francis, by the way) and Benedict XVl, who had, together, managed to reverse much of what was accomplished by Vatican ll.

Given to offhand remarks and spontaneous answers to questions, often put to him by the press accompanying him on his travels, Pope Francis had also raised hopes that significant changes could be coming to age-old doctrines many Catholics had long since abandoned. For those more liberal Catholics, the pope seemed the answer to their prayers, while for the more conservative adherents to the faith, his approach was something close to anathema. Brown quotes an anonymous English priest who admits, astonishingly:

We can’t wait for him to die. It’s unprintable what we say in private. Whenever two priests meet, they talk about how awful Bergoglio [Francis’ family name] is…he’s like Caligula: if he had a horse, he’d make him a cardinal.

I admit to having my own problems with Francis – I think he will never allow women to be ordained deacons; that he will probably allow older, married men to be ordained before he will ever consider ordination for women; that he seems to have no intention of changing the church’s teaching on contraception although that particular doctrine is pretty much universally ignored by many who still consider themselves Catholic; and that his opinion on homosexuality, while tempered with a certain compassion, still seems to be that “we love the sinner but hate the sin.” But as you can see, my problem is that he doesn’t go far enough whereas his detractors — who are many and powerful, according to Brown, “almost a quarter of the college of Cardinals” judging by a vote taken at the last worldwide bishops’ meeting — “believe that the Pope is flirting with heresy.”


The latest fury, which dates to 2016, was the publication of a document, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), in which Francis suggests that divorced and remarried Catholics or unmarried couples and their families might be able to receive communion while remaining in their particular situations. The topic had been discussed at synods called by Francis in 2014 and 2015, during which he had indicated bishops would have the final word on how this would precede, suggestions including that such couples would discuss their situations with a clergyman and, presumably under certain circumstances, be given permission to participate in the Eucharist. To his conservative enemies, according to Brown, this was tantamount to changing the church’s long-held sanctions against divorce. But while they have attempted to force the pope to “abandon and renounce this effort,” Brown writes that Francis has given no indication that he will do so.

Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke. (Photo via Vatican Press Office https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/documentation/cardinali_biografie/cardinali_bio_burke_rl.html)

Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke. (Photo via Vatican Press Office)

Cardinal Raymond Burke and three retired Cardinals, Walter Brandmüller, Carlo Caffarra and Joachim Meisner addressed a letter to the pope in September of 2016 in which they put to him four questions (in ecclesiastical terms, a “dubia”) intended to address what they termed the “grave disorientation and great confusion” caused by Amoris Laetitia and which the pope ignored.

To accuse the pope of possible heresy is, as Brown puts it “the nuclear option in Catholic arguments” because if the pope is right in this question of communion for the divorced and remarried, then “all his predecessors have been wrong.” And while it’s a known fact that all over the world divorced and remarried Catholics are receiving communion, still, Francis’ enemies seem concerned that his “cautious reforms,” are an indication that the teachings of the church are not eternal. The voices of Francis’ enemies have become louder and more outspoken. An American journalist and convert to Catholicism, Ross Douthat, in 2015, wrote an article in The Atlantic bearing the headline “Will Pope Francis Break the Church?” The pope’s views on homosexuality and divorce have “allowed the smoke of Satan” to enter the church, according to an Archbishop from Kazakhstan.

And yet, Vatican ll, according to Pope John XXlll, who called the council and “opened the windows (of the church) to the world,” brought about changes most Catholics would not have dreamed possible – “antisemitism was renounced, democracy was embraced, universal human rights were proclaimed,” as Brown reminds us, and the Latin Mass became a liturgical orphan. While it resulted in the laity taking on more prominent roles in the Liturgy, and the celebrant finally facing the congregation, large numbers of Catholics refused to accept the changes.

Where Popes John Paul ll and Benedict XVl reversed much of what Vatican ll had accomplished, Pope Francis has attempted to open the windows and doors even wider while Cardinal Burke’s “combination of anti-communism, ethnic pride and hatred of feminism,” says Brown, has helped to produce such “right wing lay figures as Pat Buchanan, Bill O’Reilly, Steve Bannon and Michael Novak.”

Bannon, in fact, was invited by Cardinal Burke to address a Vatican conference via a video link from California in 2014 in a speech Brown characterizes as “apocalyptic, incoherent and historically eccentric.” The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which Pope John Paul ll considered an ally, has long believed the role of the Church is “to teach the world and not to learn from it.” In its capacity as a guardian of the faith, the CDF has, over the years, silenced theologians who brought forward new and refreshing ways of viewing certain doctrines, forbidding them to publish and firing them from “Catholic” universities.


But much of what Francis has attempted to change has embroiled him in the battle between “conservatives” and “liberals” (Francis being viewed as one of the latter), while Brown insists that the real battle is between “Catholics who believe that the church must set the agenda for the world, and those who think the world must set the agenda for the church.” Those who argue the former obviously remain firmly ensconced in the belief that most moral and ethical matters are black and white, as they were taught from day one, while Francis and his hopeful followers are able to discern very large grey areas in most matters that affect their daily lives.

Steve Bannon. (Photo by By Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (Steve Bannon) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Steve Bannon. (Photo by By Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0,  via Wikimedia Commons)

Pope Francis won’t improve his chances against true conservatives by condemning American capitalism, opposing the death penalty and global markets. And while “some people continue to defend trickle-down theories,” says Francis, it has yet to be “confirmed by facts, and expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.” Those who are excluded, he continues “are still waiting.” He is also on the side of immigrants and has been working to “clean up the curia” a group he views as “corrupt.”

Meanwhile, the priest who told Brown that he “couldn’t wait for him to die,” says that Francis “is an anti-clerical Jesuit.” But Brown insists that overshadowing Francis’ battle with the Vatican is the “infighting over sexual morality and the fact that “Church doctrine hasn’t changed in nearly two millennia – marriage is for life and indissoluble” even though Catholics get divorced and remarried “at about the same rate as the surrounding population.” And while “conservatives” fight against Francis’ attempts to share the Eucharist with divorced and remarried Catholics and with the families of unmarried couples, Francis states very clearly that “what destroys families is an economic system that forces millions of poor families apart in their search for work.”

But just as John Paul ll “struck back at Vatican ll,” says Brown, “unless the church accepts the changes Francis makes, they could simply be rolled back by his successor if he wishes to do so.” That’s exactly what would happen if a formidable enemy like Cardinal Raymond Burke has his way. Burke, who according to Brown likes to don (for ceremonial occasions) a “scarlet cape so long that it needs pageboys to carry its trailing end,” has seen changes brought about by Popes John Paul ll and Benedict XVl being reversed by Francis, and is no doubt willing to go to any lengths to stymie any further attempts at renewal. Francis is 80 years old and subject to the typical ailments that afflict even Catholics as we age, and one can only hope that his successor, whoever that might be, will decide not to “contradict” any changes that Francis manages to engineer. On that premise, Brown concludes, “the future of the Catholic church now hangs.”



Dolores Campbell


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.