Not that long ago, the word often associated with “pope” was “infallible.” That was an attribute that was unique to his office.
That has changed with Pope Francis. The attribute he most often describes himself with is “sinner.” He is a sinner like everyone else, he repeatedly emphasizes. This emphasizes his humanity, as well as his humility.
It’s not that he denies the doctrine of infallibility, proclaimed at the First Vatican Council. He chooses to emphasize a different part of the continuum that identifies the papal office-holder.
Since his election five years ago, on March 13, 2013, Pope Francis has emphasized other aspects of our faith than we are used to. His ground-breaking encyclical Laudato Si’, for example, focused on caring for the earth. Not a new teaching, but a different emphasis.
His emphasis on joy as a central aspect of our Christian witness is a welcome change. Instead of relying on encyclicals to proclaim his teachings — with their academic language that few people understand — he nourishes his followers with daily homilies that are rich in content and easy to understand. And he has initiated a more conversational approach to sharing his opinions through media interviews and articles.
He has made “go out,” “periphery,” “throwaway culture,” “mercy” and “smell of the sheep” standard phrases in the papal vocabulary. In “Evangelii Gaudium,” the apostolic exhortation laying out the vision for his pontificate, he wrote: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”
This change in emphasis has surprised people throughout the world. Pope Francis emphasizes that he is a loyal follower of the changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council. His approach is different from that of his two immediate predecessors. And he denies that he is in discontinuity with them, despite what his critics say.
And he has his critics. Commentators say his critics are mainly those who disagree with the direction of the Second Vatican Council and they represent a small but shrill segment of the Catholic world.
A January poll by the Pew Research Centre documents this divide among U.S. Catholics. It shows that opinions about Pope Francis five years into his ministry are polarized along political lines.
The data show that while Pope Francis’ approval rating remains robust among Catholics, conservative Catholics are less enthusiastic than they were three years ago. For example, 55 per cent of Republican and Republican-leaning Catholics say the pope is “too liberal” now, compared to only 23 per cent three years ago. The percentage of all U.S. Catholics who think Francis is a “major change for the better” has dropped from 69 per cent to 58 per cent. The decline is spiked by Republican-leaning Catholics, who dropped from 60 per cent approval in 2014 to 37 per cent in 2018.
Commenting on the data, Greg Smith, associate director at PEW, told Religion News Service: “Catholics who are Republican and Republican-leaning have become more negative to Pope Francis. I think this survey shows very clear evidence that Catholic attitudes about Pope Francis have become very polarized along partisan lines.”
Michael Sean Winters commented that, after years of calling liberal Catholics a variety of derogatory names, such as “cafeteria Catholics” or “Catholics in name only,” and insisting that they themselves were “Catholics first,” it turns out many Republicans are Republicans first and Catholics second, just like the liberals they formerly accused. Everybody seems to be in line at this cafeteria.
Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich once commented, “I don’t think people are scandalized by the pope. I think they are being told to be scandalized. I think there’s a difference.”
Winters comments, “When the nightly EWTN broadcasts and the pages of the National Catholic Register are filled with a relentless drumbeat of hostility to Pope Francis, should anyone be surprised that his poll numbers will begin to drop among the people who turn to such outlets?”
In his Rome Report in LaCroix International, Robert Mickens broadens the source of resistance to Pope Francis’ style. He writes: “Among the obstructionists there are even influential bishops and priests, both in Rome and elsewhere, who misuse their position of authority to sow confusion among the baptized faithful entrusted to their pastoral care about the legitimacy of certain of the pope’s actions and priorities. There are also a small number of ‘journalists’ and commentators — predominantly in the English-speaking part of the church — who continue to hijack social media in zealot-like fury to drive home some bogus narrative that it is Pope Francis, not they or the obstructionist clergy, who is causing all this so-called consternation among the people.”
Five years into his papal ministry, Pope Francis has changed the air within the church. He has brought new energy and a new direction to a two-thousand-year old institution. Jesus once complained that you can’t pour new wine into old wineskins. Pope Francis likely feels that he is facing the same challenge — at least among a minority of his followers. And as the polls show, it is a minority, albeit a vociferous minority, that doesn’t like the taste of the new wine.