Why Conservative and Liberal Catholics Can’t Escape One Another

Before Pope Francis was elected, conservative Catholics had fallen into a habit of dismissing the more liberal form of Catholicism as an old and faded thing, a vision of the future that belonged to the church’s past, a relic of the 1970s that had little purchase among younger Catholics seriously practicing their faith.

The last 10 years have been hard on this kind of confidence. A college of supposedly conservative cardinals elected a surprisingly liberal pope. Moral and theological debates supposedly settled by Pope John Paul II were conspicuously reopened. The Latin Mass, rehabilitated under Pope Benedict XVI, was partially suppressed. Progressive theologians found themselves back in favor; formerly conservative bishops suddenly evolved. It seemed as though liberal Catholicism had been merely hibernating, awaiting a new pope, a new spring.

But lately, in both Rome and the United States, I’ve had conversations with well-informed Catholics in which the old conservative confidence has made a comeback. The idea of the Francis era as a “last gasp” for the Catholicism of the boomer era has figured prominently. The assumption that progressive Catholicism has no real long-term viability has returned. The fear that the next pope might be another liberalizer, younger and more ambitious than Francis, has largely receded.

This new confidence reflects a specific reading of the waning years (or what are probably the waning years) of the Francis pontificate. First, there’s a sense that the current pope’s liberalizing program has reached its limits: The Vatican’s halfway-opening to blessings for same-sex couples was essentially rejected by many of the church’s bishops, and the subsequent papal document reiterating church teaching on gender identity felt like an acknowledgment that the space for innovation had (for now) run out.

Second, there’s a view that Francis’ capricious governing style has alienated even many churchmen who are not especially conservative and created little appetite for a sequel or “Francis II” successor. This is the theme of a sweeping assessment by Damian Thompson, an English Catholic journalist, in the online magazine UnHerd, which argues that while Francis’ maladministration and continuing scandals (including the protection of favored clerics accused of sexual abuse) have often been ignored by the secular press, they have made a strongly negative impression on the cardinals who will elect his successor.

Finally there’s the belief that there has been no “Francis effect” in the pews or wider culture that would justify continuing his project — no big return of lapsed or disaffected Catholics, no revitalization of Catholic institutions, no wave of Francis-inspired vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Instead, under his liberalizing leadership, the church’s decline in the developed world has arguably accelerated — making it easy for conservative forms of Catholic faith to regard themselves once again as the only bulwark against secularization, and thus the only Catholic future.

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