Pope Francis’ ‘older son’ problem

If a Las Vegas casino had opened a betting line eight months ago on the likelihood that within a year the most popular figure on the planet would be the pope, one has to imagine the odds would have been awfully long.

Yet that’s basically today’s situation, as Francis continues to garner acclaim and admiration from almost every quarter, most recently for a moving Oct. 4 visit to Assisi and for confirming his desire to reach out to divorced and remarried Catholics by announcing a Synod of Bishops in October 2014 dedicated to the family and marriage.

The “almost” in that sentence, however, is important because while Francis remains a smash hit overall, he’s also got a budding “older son” problem.

The reference is to the parable of the prodigal son, a template many observers are now applying to Catholic reaction to the new pope. Over his first eight months, Francis basically has killed the fatted calf for the prodigal sons and daughters of the post-modern world, reaching out to gays, women, nonbelievers, and virtually every other constituency inside and outside the church that has felt alienated.

There are an awful lot of such prodigals, of course, which helps explain the pope’s massive appeal.

Yet there are also a few Catholics today who feel a bit like the story’s older son, wondering if what they’ve always understood as their loyalty to the church, and to the papacy, is being under-valued.

One can spot at least three such groups:

  • Some Vatican personnel who have tried to do their best over the years in service to the successor of Peter and who may feel a bit demoralized hearing the pope describe their work environment as infested with careerism, “Vatican-centrism,” and the “leprosy” of a royal court.
  • Some pro-life Catholics who feel like they’ve carried water for the church on controversial and sometimes unpopular issues such as abortion and gay marriage and who now get the sense the pope regards some of their efforts as misplaced or over the top.
  • Some evangelical Catholics, both clergy and laity, who’ve tried to reassert a strong sense of Catholic identity against forces they believe want to play it down, who now feel the pope may be pulling the rug out from under them. Some leaders in the reborn genre of Catholic apologetics, for instance, weren’t thrilled recently to hear Francis call proselytism “solemn nonsense.” Continue reading


John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent.

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