Pope Francis and the Catholic Crisis

Why His Opponents in the U.S. Are Changing Their Narrative

Pope Francis appears before delivering his Easter message in the Urbi et Orbi (to the City and the World) address from the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, April 2018. Osservatore Romano / Handout via REUTERS

In diagnosing the recent divide within the Catholic Church, R. R. Reno (“The Populist Wave Hits the Catholic Church,” November 13) reveals a profound shift in the way the minority of U.S. Catholics who oppose Pope Francis portray him and his predecessors.

Responding to my recent Foreign Affairs article (“The Catholic Church’s Biggest Crisis Since the Reformation,” October 11), Reno casts the Francis pontificate as “deregulatory,” and in line with “a secular ruling establishment.” At the same time, he offers a somewhat skeptical reassessment of Pope John Paul II, who was until recently regarded as a hero among conservative Catholics, especially in the United States. Reno fails to make important conceptual distinctions, and he levels unfair accusations at Pope Francis and his allies. Nevertheless, his argument furnishes a valuable example of just how radicalized the conservative traditionalist movement within U.S. Catholicism has become.

Reno writes that the crisis in the church today stems from Pope Francis’ “abandonment” of Catholic “anti-modernism.” In explaining the relevant history, however, Reno does not clearly distinguish between theological modernism and modern Catholicism. The former was a movement in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth that sought to reinterpret traditional Catholic teaching using the historical-critical method, which led to conclusions outside the Catholic tradition and positions that denied the supernatural and its presence in history. Modernism was condemned by Pope Pius X in 1907, and what followed was one of the most severe purges against theologians in the entire history of the church. For decades, accusations of “theological modernism” were among the most dangerous that could be leveled against a Catholic cleric or theologian.

“Modern Catholicism” is something different. It refers to the church’s realization that it was necessary to engage with the modern world in light of the changes in science and culture in the twentieth century. The start of this engagement brought an end to the fiction that a return to the Middle Ages was possible,

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