Liberal Love and Tolerance Come to the Vatican

Well, the ailing Pope Francis has struck again. This time, the 86-year-old pontiff decided to remove the man he described as “his enemy,” the conservative gadfly Cardinal Raymond Burke. To this end, he canceled the Cardinal’s Vatican stipend (said to be around 5,000 euros per month) and, worse, forced him to give up his 4,400-square-foot Vatican apartment.

Although this is technically within the Pope’s prerogative as an absolute monarch, this action is almost without precedent within living memory—that is, that a Pope removes the financial support of a cardinal merely for his criticism of the Pope. During the papacies of both St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict, there were critics aplenty within the Vatican and even among the ranks of the cardinals, but none was “punished” in so flamboyant and humiliating a fashion as Cardinal Burke.

In other words, liberal love and tolerance have come to the Vatican. The point, as always, is both to squelch dissent and threaten potential opponents: toe the party line and repeat “the narrative,” or you could be next.

This is merely the final triumph of the “National Catholic Reporter” wing of the Catholic Church that has been in ascendence since the election of Pope Francis in 2013. Such “progressive” Catholics push for everything Catholics have been told for generations is contrary to God’s will—the ordination of women priests, acceptance of gay marriage and remarriage of divorced Catholics, artificial birth control and, at least among the more honest, the Church changing its teaching that abortion is the killing of an innocent human life.

Those most sympathetic to some, if not all, of these positions among the hierarchy include Blase Cupich of Chicago and Robert McElroy of San Diego, both enthusiastic supporters of gay rights within the Church. This is despite the fact that the sexual abuse crisis of the 1990s and 2000s—hundreds of gay priests accused of molesting young boys—has almost bankrupted both dioceses.

Image: Pope Francis (edited). YouTube screen grab.

Given this history, another surprise was Pope Francis’s recent decision to appoint his fellow Argentine Jesuit Victor Manuel “Tucho” Fernández as head of the Church’s doctrinal office, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, and make him a cardinal. The controversial Jesuit has been accused of ignoring credible accounts of sexual abuse in Argentina and caused a stir by publishing a book in 1995 about romance for Catholics, Heal Me With Your Mouth: The Art of Kissing. (“There are people who prefer a more rigid, structured way of thinking at war with the world,” the new doctrinal chief wrote about the controversy over his appointment.)

All of this has ordinary Catholics in the pews a bit perplexed.

Since at least the First Vatican Council in 1870, it was Catholic progressives who denounced papal authority and insisted the church become more “collegial” and democratic, like Anglicanism. Yet when such collegiality leads some to question ancient Catholic teachings that go back to the earliest days of the Church—abortion was denounced in The Didache written just after the New Testament, and most scholars agree Jesus Christ himself opposed divorce in authentic marriages—conservatives are now coming forward and challenging Pope Francis for tolerating such speculations.

Thus, paradoxically, it is now the Church’s biggest liberals who are champions of a strong exercise of papal authority—that is, so long as the pope agrees with liberals. (It’s a little like American liberals, once famously opposed to war, now being the strongest supporters of the war in Ukraine.)

These same people denounced the use of papal authority when it was wielded by Pope John Paul II, and he declared that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

But now that the pope is an unabashed “progressive,” they’ve flipped 180 degrees and are thrilled with every new papal encyclical denouncing the supposed threat of climate change. Some, like the editors of the Jesuit Magazine America, pretend that Pope Francis is neither a liberal nor a conservative but simply the pope, guiding the Catholic Church amidst the ideological storms threatening to tear the world apart.

There is some truth to this. Pope Francis himself has spoken strongly against abortion and women priests, and no one expects him to contradict long-established Catholic doctrines.

The criticism among conservatives, however, is that Pope Francis is naïve, a willing pawn in the same cultural war being waged surreptitiously by progressive activists in secular society. While Pope Francis himself may not act to overturn long-established doctrine and practice, he is actively promoting those who want to do just that.

His overt encouragement of gay rights activists within the Church—such as his fellow Jesuit Fr. James Martin—is seen by some as laying the groundwork, at least, for future change. Only time will tell if Pope Francis’s recent attempts to squelch conservative criticism will end up uniting Catholics or, more likely, cause the very disunity and resentment he claims to oppose.

Robert J. Hutchinson writes regularly on the intersection of ideas and politics. He is the author of the classic travelogue about the Vatican, When in Rome: A Journal of Life in Vatican City.

If you experience technical problems, please write to