Too Catholic to be Christian?

Jun 1, 2020 | 3 comments

Pope Francis in Malacanang in the Philippines, January 2015

Nothing could be more misleading than the attribution of the term  ‘traditionalist’ to the bitterest opponents of Pope Francis within the Church.

The earliest traditions of the church begin, obviously, with Jesus himself.  Asked to name the greatest of the commandments he responded:

‘This is the first: Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is the one, only Lord – and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You must love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.’ (Mark 12: 30,31)

That principle – the primacy of love – is again emphasised by St Paul in 1 Cor 13 1-13. ‘if I speak without love, I am no more than a gong booming or a cymbal clashing.’

No claim to a greater knowledge can supersede that obligation of love – for in the end, for St Paul, all knowledge too will be done away with – and only faith, hope and love will remain.

Yet “We can’t wait for him to die,” Andrew Brown was told by one of the pope’s bitterest English clerical opponents in 2017, as he researched an article for the Guardian.

‘Marxist’ is the most ridiculous charge, proving only that those who charge Francis with it know nothing of Karl Marx. The latter never foresaw that capitalism would be most seriously challenged not by class warfare but by looming climate catastrophe – a catastrophe that not even the most avaricious can escape if they fail to take heed. As he is obviously not into class warfare, but is nevertheless committed to the survival of the entire human family in a restored earthly home, why is Pope Francis accused of Marxism rather than of being simply a Christian?

Then, In failing to endorse the attribution of clerical child sex abuse to homosexuality, Francis is accused by some of covering up that connection and of protecting homosexual clergy – even though no reputable study agrees with that explanation of the clerical abuse issue, and the church’s own top experts on clerical abuse declare it to be nonsense.

So what explains the virulence of the Francis haters?

Four strands combine in this – and none of them is truly traditional:

  • The disappointment of careerist church bureaucrats such as Cardinal Raymond Burke and Archbishop Carlo Vigano.  The former is disappointed  that Pope Francis has restored the primacy of the law of love in treating of difficult situations in marriage that have distanced some families from the Eucharist. The latter is disappointed at his own non-promotion, despite his mismanagement of a papal visit to the USA when he was papal nuncio there. Such men have clearly reflected too little on the counter-evangelical effect of nit-picking sex-fixated legalism and of clerical careerism  within the church. They are stuck in a mindset of clerical privilege and control rather than of pastoring – that journey to the streets, the slums and the periphery that a missionary church must always prioritise.
  • The cultural panic of some Catholics in the West at what has been called ‘the collapse of Christendom’ – the loss of ecclesiastical power to a secularising process that no longer privileges Catholic teaching on issues of the family and sexual relationships. Pope Francis’s serenity in this situation – reflecting that of the earliest church in the face of the hostility of the Roman world – is way ahead of the panicked, who know too little history and don’t grasp the true meaning of ‘repentance’ as a willingness to ‘rethink’. His recognition that we are in a new era – the Christian era of post Christendom – cannot be grasped by those who still mistakenly hanker after the political power that corrupted the churches, scandalised the world and still empowers Anti-Christian secularism.
  • The social vertigo of some wealthy and accumulative Catholics who fear that Pope Francis’s perception of the shortcomings of capitalism and his embrace of the cause of the Earth environment presages a call to simplicity and non-accumulation – and their own loss of prestige and influence in the church.
  • The racist panic of eccentrics such as Steve Bannon, who seek to exploit Islamic extremism to engage the Catholic church in their preferred ‘clash of civilisations’ to restore the ‘primacy of the west’ – i.e. of ‘white Europeans’. That racist thread is present in the failure to recognise Pope Francis’s strong alignment with refugees as in the truest Catholic and Christian tradition of dignifying all nations and races equally. It is also reflected in the unaccountable support of  some US Catholics for Donald Trump, a promoter of racial conflict and abuse of the poor in the USA – when the second of these is the most effective cause of abortion there.

Taken together what lies lies at the root of this opposition to the present pope is the very opposite of Christian tradition. It is a continuing failure to embrace the social Gospel, originating  in the Beatitudes – as the only way forward for a Church centred on its founder. To the extent that Francis is hated, that hatred stems from a self-righteous Catholicism that is rooted in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and in white European privilege, rather than in the Gospel. It is a retro- or reactionary rather than a truly traditional Catholicism. It is bankrupt of vision, of historical grasp, of unselfishness, of courage – and, worst of all, of faith, hope and love.

Led by booming gongs and clashing cymbals, it is a frightened and doomed Catholicism – afraid to be truly Christian.

Sean O’Conaill, June 1st 2020


  1. Anthony

    Thank you Sean for this excellent examination of the campaign against Pope Francis. It is depressing to see the lack of support for Francis from church ‘leaders’, including our own bishops.

    • Ben Flood

      It is interesting to see that the so called Traditionalists are similar in their reaction to the wealthy Catholics and ,what now are being termed by some commentators as Christian Fascists in the USA. They probably fear loss of privilege and wealth. It is indeed “ Interesting Times” we live in. Will change happen in such a way that the Church will be able to negotiate the abortion issue and the social responsibility issues in a way that is Christian and prevents us from falling into the hands of greedy capitalism.

  2. Neil Bray

    “If I speak without love, I am no more than a gong booming or a cymbal clashing.’ Does the same apply to writing without love, in the manner of Sean above. It is one thing to call out what one may perceive as inappropriate behaviour, but is an act of judgement to claim to discern the motivation for same – plain and simple!


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