If Wallace Stevens, the famed poet, were describing the recent buzz about the Roman Catholic Church, he might call it “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Pope.” Ever since Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis in March, his every utterance and gesture has been scrutinized for clues about where he wants to lead the church and its more than 1 billion followers. American conservatives have watched him with particular interest — and, at times, profound concern. This summer, when discussing homosexuality in the church, the pontiff famously said, “Who am I to judge?” And he has also chided the church’s “obsession” with social issues such as contraception and abortion.
No one knows precisely what’s on Francis’s mind. But even if he does not try to change church doctrine on issues such as the celibacy of priests or birth control, his new tone has caused unease among some conservatives, while others have adopted a nothing-to-see-here-folks-now-move-along stance. The implication for American politics is also profound. The signal 1980 election, with its confluence of Catholic Democrats and Protestant evangelicals supporting Ronald Reagan and Republican congressional candidates, demonstrated the two groups’ shared political interests. In recent years, evangelical Protestant and Catholic leaders forged an alliance that overcame old enmities and doctrinal differences. Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005, and Pope Benedict XVI, who retired earlier this year, encouraged the growing bond. This is a tableau that has fueled conservative political victories in the U.S.
For the most part, conservatives have insisted they’re unflustered by Francis. Rick Santorum, a traditional Catholic, said the pope’s comments don’t worry him. In Time magazine, Mary Eberstadt declared that Francis is no radical and is not throwing “Catholic traditionalists under the Popemobile.” George Weigel, her colleague at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, has echoed the sentiment. Their argument is that the pontiff has made no doctrinal shifts; he has just renewed proselytizing: “The 21st century will be more likely to pay attention to evangelists than to scolds,” Weigel writes. Damon Linker, author of The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege, doesn’t believe church doctrine “will change substantively.”
But for other conservatives, Francis’s comments are alarming. Steve Skojec, a Catholic writer, was blistering about abortion-rights groups praising him and scathingly critical toward the pontiff: “He’s the one who said we talk too much about abortion.” Mark Movsesian, director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University, is unsettled by Francis’s comment that “everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them.” Movsesian wrote acidly in the conservative religious journal First Things: “With respect, ‘Do what you think is right’ is not the Christian view of conscience. That sounds more like Anthony Kennedy than St. Paul.”
Archbishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., has said, “I’m a little bit disappointed in Pope Francis that he hasn’t, at least that I’m aware of, said much about unborn children, about abortion.” Rod Dreher, a prominent conservative American journalist, laments a “Hallmark card piety” that encourages self-esteem even during the self-denial season of Lent that helped contribute to his leaving the church. He fears a further watering down of doctrine. “You can change doctrine by changing the way you preach,” Dreher says.
The pope’s attention-grabbing words have implications for evangelicals, too. Back in 1994, a lengthy statement, “Catholics and Evangelicals Together,” helped cement the bonds between the two groups. Written by scholars in both camps, it dealt with any number of biblical issues and church practices but also professed a shared commitment to fight “the abortion industry and to enact the most protective laws and public policies that are politically possible, and to reduce dramatically the incidence of abortion.”
Now some evangelicals are nervous. Russell Moore, who heads the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in Nashville, Tenn., has written that Francis’s remarks are “a theological train wreck.” Moore asked, “If the church is right about the personhood of unborn children (and I think it is), then why would we not be ‘obsessed’ about speaking for them, and for the women and men whose consciences are tyrannized by their past sins?” Any fissures in the alliance are bound to be watched carefully. Santorum, for instance, dominated some Republican presidential primaries last year in the overwhelmingly Protestant Deep South, something that would have been inconceivable in an earlier time for a candidate who so proudly wore his Catholicism on his sleeve.
The conservative anxiety about the new pope may abate in coming months if Francis adopts more message discipline. One thing that seems less likely to change is the Holy See’s renewed emphasis on service to the poor. His washing the feet of a Muslim woman at a detention center in Rome didn’t go unnoticed by papal observers, any more than his decision to abandon the ornate vestments of his predecessors.
Helen Alvaré, a law professor at George Mason University, has been deeply involved in the church, having worked with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Vatican Mission to the U.N. She urged earlier popes to be “a fearless friend of the poor” and believes that Francis is that pope. Driving home to pack this week for a trip to Rome, where Francis will hold a meeting with women in the church, she declared, “I’m really psyched.” Conservatives may get there, but not yet.