Is the pope a Catholic?

Saturday 17 October, 17.30 until 18.45, Conservatory, Barbican Contemporary Controversies

From the start of his tenure as God’s authority on Earth (at least for Roman Catholics), the media has praised Pope Francis for his apparently progressive views. His background as a politically engaged cardinal in Argentina augured well, and his very decision to take the name of Francis of Assisi implied a siding with the modest and, implicitly, against the rich and powerful. As a Jesuit, he has always led an ascetic lifestyle, and has continued this by shunning many of the luxuries that come with the papacy. 

Politically, too, Francis marked himself out early on from his predecessor Benedict XVI. While the latter described homosexuality in the clergy as one of the ‘miseries of the church’, Francis responded to a question about the same issue by asking, ‘Who am I to judge?’.  Meanwhile, Francis has gone further than any previous pope on environmental issues, publishing an encyclical this year explicitly aligning the church with the green movement.  Such opinions have made the pontiff an unlikely darling of liberal and secular commentators. As one put it, ‘Who doesn’t love Pope Francis? Hands up, if you dare. He opposes violence and war, supports the poor, focuses on the needs of the disabled, and talks about the need to suspend judgment of others.’

Among traditional Catholics, though, there have been grumblings. When Catholic liberals announced their wish to soften the Church’s stance on homosexuality and second marriages, an American cardinal, Raymond Burke, warned, ‘the church is like a ship without a rudder’. Cardinal George Pell from Australia even felt the need to remind his congregants that ‘Pope Francis is the 266th pope and history has seen 37 false or antipopes’. Unsurprisingly, this has led some to talk of a coming schism within the Roman Catholic Church. British Catholic journalist Damien Thompson has even warned of a ‘Catholic civil war’, while his American counterpart Ross Douthat wrote in the New York Times that a ‘real schism’ is a possibility.

Nevertheless, when the church leadership embraced certain reforms in 1962 with Vatican II, many predicted a major schism that failed to materialise. Traditional Catholics by their very nature are obliged to be loyal and obedient to the Holy See. And while Francis has castigated Catholics who put moral issues such as abortion, contraception and gay marriage above social justice, doctrinal teaching on these issues has not changed. So is talk of Catholic Armageddon overstated?

How progressive is Pope Francis? Can the custodian of centuries of tradition really just get with the (non-Catholic) programme and move with the times?  Is it a problem that Francis often seems more popular with those outside the church than within it? How plausible is an actual split or schism within Catholicism? And what place is there for traditionalists within today’s church?

Listen to the debate

Dr Piers Benn
philosopher; author, Commitment and Ethics; visiting lecturer in ethics, Heythrop College, London and Fordham University, New York

Jemima Thackray
journalist, Telegraph and Church Times; founder, UK’s first mums' chaplaincy service; soon-to-be trainee priest, Church of England

Brendan Walsh
literary editor, The Tablet

Peter D Williams
executive officer, Right To Life

Pauline Hadaway
writer and researcher

Produced by
Tom Bailey journalist; contributor, World Finance, European CEO, and The New Economy.
Recommended readings
Pope Francis preaching the green gospel

The pope's embrace of climate alarmism is anti-Catholic and anti-human.

Rob Lyons, spiked, January 2015

Pope Francis and ‘the Great Division’: the Catholic civil war draws closer

The media think in terms of Francis the reformer opposed by reactionaries. There’s some truth in this, but the reality is more complicated.

Damian Thompson, Spectator, 18 November 2014

A Catholic church schism under Pope Francis isn’t out of the question

The conservative backlash against the liberal pope’s authority has been fierce, and is gathering momentum

Andrew Brown, Guardian, 30 October 2014

Pope Francis’s healing, loving revolution is unstoppable

A minority of bishops clings to conservative ways but the Catholic church is slowly changing and will be holier for it.

Austen Ivereigh, Guardian, 19 October 2014

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