A new type of Catholic emerges: the conservative dissenter

The tables have turned under Pope Francis. And a new type of Catholic has formed: the conservative dissenter.

In the past, conservatives prided themselves on loyalty to the pope and being in lockstep with all papal teachings, while progressives called for limits to papal power.

The devotees of tradition used to argue that liberals who complained about papal infallibility or centralization were backsliders who really needed to get with the program.

So while the John Paul II and Benedict XVI papacies had liberal theologians arguing that popes should govern more collaboratively, traditionalist critics of the current pope “have become reluctant to accept papal teaching (in its contents and forms) only with Francis,” said Villanova University theology professor Massimo Faggioli.

In the recently published book “To Change the Church,” Ross Douthat compares Francis to President Trump, arguing the pope is seeking to push through changes without thinking about the consequences.

“The story could end with Francis as its hero,” the New York Times columnist writes. “But to choose a path that might have only two destinations — hero or heretic — is an act of great and dangerous presumption, even for a pope. Especially for a pope.”

The desire for a pope to govern in an autocratic way as long as it suits one’s agenda points to a much bigger debate about how much authority Catholic teaching gives to the man known as the Successor of St. Peter.

“I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus tells Peter, who Catholics see as the first pope, in Matthew 16:19. “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

That gives the pope a pretty free rein.

At the same time, there are safeguards around papal power. Catholic tradition makes clear that pontiffs must govern the church with the bishops – a principle known as collegiality — while papal infallibility is strictly defined.

Constraining papal power has been on the mind of Cardinal Raymond Burke, a respected canon lawyer and leading light for traditional Catholics.

On April 7, he gave a long speech titled “The limits of papal authority in the doctrine of the Church” to a gathering in Rome largely made up of Francis critics.

The cardinal has threatened to publicly correct the pope over a footnote in his 2016 apostolic exhortation, “Amoris Laetitia,” that envisions a way for some divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion.

“Any expression of doctrine or practice that is not in conformity with divine revelation, contained in the sacred scriptures and in the tradition of the church, cannot be an authentic exercise of the apostolic or Petrine ministry and must be rejected by the faithful,” the cardinal said.

Quoting a church lawyer from the 12th century, the 69-year-old prelate said that while “no mortal being” should have the “audacity to reprimand a pope on account of his faults,” a pontiff must be called out if he has “deviated from the faith.”

There are even times, Burke added, citing a historian of the late medieval period, when a pope “must, as a duty, be disobeyed.”

Francis, on the other hand, has talked about the importance of receiving criticism. Four days after the cardinal’s speech, the 81-year-old Argentine pontiff offered one of the most dramatic “I’m sorry” statements ever seen by a pope, over his mishandling of the Chilean sexual abuse scandal. Continue reading

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