The Pope and the paradigm shift
Just how deeply Pope Francis is feared and loathed is exemplified by the rise of ultra-conservative Catholic movements on the internet, says the editor of RC weekly The TabletThe current transformation of the Catholic Church has been likened, prosaically, to a change of gear, or more delicately, as a “revolution in tenderness” – the words of the great and sadly lamented Jean Vanier, whose death was announced this week. Vanier’s own life epitomised that revolution: he was a man who “prepared the way of the Lord”. The more contentious and perhaps more ambivalent phrase for the process initiated and being led by Pope Francis is “paradigm shift”, and opponents of this papacy have latched on to it as summarising all they despise.
Just how deeply Pope Francis is feared and loathed is exemplified by the rise of ultra-conservative Catholic movements on the internet. He is surrendering Catholic truth, they angrily insist, to the modernist liberal spirit of the age. Their misgivings came to a head over his apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, published three years ago, in which he tentatively opened the door to the admission to Holy Communion of Catholics who had remarried after divorce. First there was the so-called dubia, a challenge to the Pope by four conservative cardinals to explain how his document was compatible with received Catholic teaching. There have since been other such rebukes, of increasing stridency, the latest of which is an open letter accusing Pope Francis of heresy, signed by, among others, the prominent English theologian Aidan Nichols OP.
How does one explain such venom? Conservative Catholicism has been more or less defined by obedience – blind, if necessary, full-hearted, if possible – to the teachings of the Supreme Pontiff. This was not just a theological anchor but plainly also an emotional one. That is why they find their dissent so painful.
It is impossible to deny that Pope Francis is trying to change the mind of the Church on certain sensitive and contested issues such as marriage, homosexuality, Christian relations with Muslims, the role of the laity – women in particular – and the primacy of evangelisation over a preoccupation with precise doctrinal conformity. He wants a Church of and for the poor and a Church which takes risks, and those who hold tight to their comforts and privileges and are by nature risk-averse are frightened by that.