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, let alone desirable. After World War II, the Second Vatican Council signaled the inevitability of dialogue with, not the surrender to, modernity for a church that wants to be a sign and instrument of God’s presence in the world. Reno claims that the council, called by Pope John XXIII in 1959 and celebrated between 1962 and 1965, “suggested an opening up to the modern world,” and that this embrace “became active policy” in the years following. Yet he fails to mention that the theologians at Vatican II drew a sharp line between the council’s reforms and theological modernism. Yves Congar, the most important theologian at the council, wrote that “modernism, by breaking out of the framework of Catholicism, made clear the danger of any reflection on life that is not based upon a pre-existing, well-established theology treating the Church’s structure.”

Reno goes on to accuse Francis of jettisoning the Catholic anti-modernist project through a “general loosening of the older norms about sex, procreation, and family.” Yet Francis has done no such thing. Under this pope, there has been no substantial change in any of these norms, only a stronger emphasis on the way they should be interpreted in some particular cases. Adultery remains adultery, and the Catholic Church still does not recognize divorce and remarriage. Something has changed, not in church law or doctrine but in moral theology and the pastoral application of sacramental discipline. The shift is that the church does not necessarily exclude admitting remarried couples to the sacraments after a period of discernment. Reno’s excessive focus on legalism has never been in line with the Catholic tradition. Laws alone do not unify the church, but also customs and practices whose purpose is to further the spiritual well-being of souls.

Reno also argues that Francis acted in a “confusing” manner when he changed the Catechism of the Catholic Church to declare the death penalty “inadmissible.” In fact, Francis’ change was anything but confusing: it finally aligned the text of the Catechism—which had previously said that the death penalty was acceptable in “very rare, if not practically nonexistent” circumstances—with various statements that Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have issued about the death penalty over the last two decades.

More interesting, however, is Reno’s claim that the Francis papacy is a continuation of the church’s trajectory under John Paul II, sharing in a postwar consensus that the church must guard against “too-heavy reliance on authority, even the authority of church and family.” What makes this interpretation more than surprising is that for decades, neoconservatives—including Richard John Neuhaus, the founder of First Things magazine, which Reno now edits—dominated the Catholic right and celebrated John Paul II as the pope who had finally regained control of a church hijacked by liberal theologians. Now the historical narrative seems to have changed in light of the Francis pontificate. This is a stunning reversal.

Equally stunning has been how this subsection of Catholics has changed its view of Pope Francis’ role in the current crisis of globalization. In the first year of the Francis pontificate, Reno himself praised Pope Francis for his populist instincts, writing that he “largely intuits the ways in which globalization is dissolving old certainties, old social forms, old ways of being.” Now, however, Reno sees Francis as a neoliberal pope, “merging the Catholic Church into the cultural and political establishment in the West.” This is an interesting turn: where Reno once praised the pope’s criticism of unfettered capitalism, he now maintains that Francis at his core “endorses the ‘open world’ ideal integral to the ongoing expansion of markets.”

Reno is right when he says that the Catholic crisis is about more than left-right tensions within the church. But it is hard to deny that “conservative Catholic traditionalists with money and political power are fomenting division” and challenging the legitimacy of Pope Francis: they have been relatively transparent about their intentions. Consider, for example, former Breitbart News chair Steve Bannon’s attempt to influence conservative thinking in the church with a very clear anti-Francis agenda. Indeed, the clash between Pope Francis and these sectors of U.S. Catholicism was visible very early in his pontificate.

That narratives about Pope Francis, and the direction of the Catholic Church more broadly, have become inconsistent and unstable is confusing but not surprising. This is what happens when Catholicism becomes totally absorbed by a political ideology.