It is neither unusual nor surprising to encounter discord and opposition in the Catholic Church. Such disagreement stretches back from the present day to the time of St. Paul, who stood up to Cephas in Antioch (Gal 2:14).
Opposition was manifest in the first ecumenical councils as well as the last two. At the First Vatican Council (1870), a group of bishops and theologians opposed the proposed definition of papal infallibility. Some did not accept the council and separated from Rome, giving rise to the so-called Old Catholic Church. Others did not leave the church but chose not to participate in or attend the last conciliar vote on infallibility—and some of these were so angry that they threw all the conciliar documents into the Tiber.
A century later (1970), the issue of infallibility arose once more, with theological disputes between the critical voice of Hans Küng and those of Karl Rahner, S.J., Walter Kasper and other more moderate German theologians. The controversy continued between historians critical of Vatican I, such as A. B. Hasler, a disciple of Küng, and more nuanced historians such as Yves Congar, O.P, Joseph Hoffmann and Kasper. Küng was stripped of his license to teach theology in 1979.
In 1950, during Pius XII’s pontificate, when the pope published the encyclical “Humani Generis” against the so-called nouvelle théologie, some Jesuit theologians from Fourvière-Lyon (such as Henri de Lubac, S.J., and Jean Daniélou, S.J.) and some Dominican theologians from Le Saulchoir-Paris (such as Yves Congar, O.P., and Marie-Dominique Chenu, O.P.) were removed from their chairs. A decade later, Pope John XXIII appointed all of them as theological experts at Vatican II.
It is neither unusual nor surprising to encounter discord and opposition in the Catholic Church. Such disagreement stretches back from the present day to the time of St. Paul, who stood up to Cephas in Antioch.
Strong opposition arose there, led by the French bishop Marcel Lefebvre, who rejected Vatican II as neo-modernist and neo-Protestant. When Bishop Lefebvre began to ordain bishops without Roman authorization for his Society of Saint Pius X in 1988, he was excommunicated by John Paul II.
After “Humanae Vitae,” his 1968 encyclical on birth control, Pope Paul VI was challenged respectfully by numerous episcopal conferences. Without denying the value of the encyclical’s contents, they called for greater elaboration and qualification of certain issues.
During the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, more than 100 theologians were questioned, reprimanded or silenced [by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith]. Some were dismissed from their academic positions, and one was even excommunicated.
The purpose of this historical preamble is to remove any surprise that today, in the face of the new image of the church proposed by Pope Francis, there are discordant voices and critics who are strongly opposed to his pontificate.
Viewing the shifting winds over the course of time, we can see that the type and orientation of opposition always reflect the historical moment. There are progressive and prophetic voices in periods when classical Christianity or neo-Christianity dominates, and reactionary, fundamentalist and conservative voices in moments of ecclesial reform and attempts to return to evangelical origins and the style of Jesus.
Criticisms of Pope Francis have two dimensions, one theological and the other more socio-political, although there are instances where these dimensions converge.
Criticisms of Francis
At present, there is a strong group opposing Francis’ church: laypeople, theologians, bishops and cardinals who would like him to resign or promptly disappear from the scene while they wait for a new conclave to change the current direction of the church.
I do not want to conduct a socio-historical inquiry here, nor a Western-style television program pitting good against bad, so I prefer not to cite the names of the opponents who are currently skinning Francis alive. Rather, I would like to discuss the theological background to this systematic opposition to Francis in order to understand what the controversy is about.
The criticisms of Francis have two dimensions, one theological and the other more socio-political, although (as we will see later) there are instances where these dimensions converge.
What really bothers the detractors of Pope Francis is that his theology stems from reality: from the reality of injustice, poverty and the destruction of nature, and from the reality of ecclesial clericalism.
The theological critique starts from the conviction that Francis is not a theologian but comes from the Global South, from the end of the world; and that this lack of theological professionalism—in stark contrast to the academic acumen of St. John Paul II and obviously of Pope Benedict XVI—explains what they consider his inaccuracies and even his doctrinal errors.
According to this assessment, Francis’ deficit in theology would explain his dangerous positions on God’s mercy in [his 2015 papal bull] “Misericordiae Vultus,” his philo-communist tendency in support of the poor and popular movements, and his notion of popular piety as a theological locus in [his 2013 apostolic exhortation] “Evangelii Gaudium.” His shortfall in moral theology is displayed in his opening the door to the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist in some cases (after personal and ecclesial discernment) to separated Catholics who have remarried, according to [his 2016 post-synodal apostolic exhortation] “Amoris Laetitia.” His  encyclical “Laudato Si’,”on the care for our common home, shows a lack of scientific and ecological competence. And his excessive emphasis on divine mercy in “Misericordiae Vultus” is scandalous because it lessens the grace and cross of Jesus.
In the face of these accusations, I would like to recall a classic affirmation of St. Thomas Aquinas that distinguishes between the magisterial chair, proper to theologians and professors of universities, and the pastoral chair assigned to bishops and pastors of the church. Cardinal John Henry Newman returned to this tradition by affirming that although there may sometimes be tension between the two chairs, in the end there is convergence between them.
This distinction applies to Francis. Although he had studied and taught pastoral theology at San Miguel de Buenos Aires as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., now his pronouncements belong to the pastoral seat of the bishop of Rome. He does not aspire to fulfill this role as a theologian but as a pastor. As has been said of him with a certain touch of humor, it is necessary to move on from the Bergoglio of history to the Francis of faith.
What really bothers his detractors is that his theology stems from reality: from the reality of injustice, poverty and the destruction of nature, and from the reality of ecclesial clericalism.
It bothers many that Pope Francis canonized St. Óscar Romero, the martyred Salvadoran archbishop, branded by many as a communist and a useful dupe of the left; his cause had been blocked for years.
It is all right for him to hug children and the sick, but it is definitely upsetting when he visits Lampedusa, and refugee and migrant camps like the one on Lesbos. It bothers people when he says that we should not build walls against refugees but bridges of dialogue and hospitality. He is annoying when, following in the footsteps of Pope John XXIII, he says that the church has to be poor and exist for the poor, that the shepherds have to smell like sheep, that it has to be an outgoing church that reaches out to the peripheries and that the poor are a theological locus, topic or source.
He bothers people when he says that clericalism is the leprosy of the church and when he lists the 14 temptations of the Vatican Curia, which range from the feeling of being indispensable and necessary to the craving for riches to living a double life and suffering from spiritual Alzheimer’s. And he augments the irritation when he adds that these are also the temptations of dioceses, parishes and religious communities. It is annoying to hear that the church should be conceived of as an inverted pyramid, with the laity above and the pope and the bishops below, just as it is annoying to hear him say that the church is polyhedral and above all synodal. This means that we all need to travel the same path together, that we have to listen and dialogue with each other. It is annoying that in [his 2018 apostolic constitution] “Episcopalis Communio,” Francis speaks of the synodal church and of the need to listen to each other.
It bothers some groups that Francis has thanked Gustavo Gutiérrez, O.P., Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrino, S.J., and José María Castillo, S.J., for their theological contributions and annulled the suspensions a divinis of Miguel d’Escoto, M.M., and Father Ernesto Cardenal; they are bewildered that when Hans Küng wrote to him about the need to rethink infallibility, Francis answered by calling Küng “dear companion” (lieber Mitbruder), saying that he would take Küng’s observations into account and was willing to enter into a dialogue about infallibility. And it bothers many that Francis canonized St. Óscar Romero, the martyred Salvadoran archbishop, branded by many as a communist and a useful dupe of the left; his cause had been blocked for years.
It is annoying that he says “Who am I to judge?” It is annoying that he says the church is feminine and that if women are not listened to, the church will be impoverished and biased.
Francis’ invocation of mercy, a mercy that is at the center of biblical revelation, does not prevent him from speaking of zero tolerance toward the abuse of minors and women by important members of the church, a monstrous crime for which one must ask forgiveness from God and the victims, recognize the complicit and guilty silence of the hierarchy, seek reparations, protect young people and children, and avoid a repetition of the abuse. And his hand does not tremble when he demotes and removes the guilty from their positions, whether they are a cardinal, nuncio, bishop or priest.
Obviously, the problem is not that he is not a theologian but rather that his theology is pastoral. Francis passes from dogma to kerygma, from theoretical principles to pastoral discernment and mystagogy. And his theology is not colonialist but from the Global South, and this bothers the North.
Pope Francis passes from dogma to kerygma, from theoretical principles to pastoral discernment and mystagogy.
Confronting those who accuse Francis of being a third-worldist and a communist, we must affirm that his messages are in perfect continuity with the prophetic biblical tradition and the church’s social teachings. What hurts is his prophetic clairvoyance: He says no to an economy of exclusion and inequality, no to an economy that kills, no to an economy without a human face, no to an unjust social and economic system that locks us into unjust social structures, no to a globalization of indifference, no to the idolatry of money, no to money that governs rather than serves, no to an inequality that engenders violence, no to anyone who tries to hide behind God to justify violence, no to the social insensitivity that anesthetizes us in the face of the suffering of others, no to weapons and the war industry, no to human trafficking, no to any form of provoked death (as seen in “Evangelii Gaudium,” 52-75).
Francis does nothing but update the commandment “Thou shall not kill,” defends the value of human life from beginning to end and repeats in the present day the Lord’s question to Cain: “Where is your brother?”
Also disturbing is Francis’ criticism of the anthropocentric and technocratic paradigm that destroys nature, pollutes the environment, attacks biodiversity and excludes the poor and indigenous from a dignified human life (as seen in “Laudato Si’,” 20-52). It bothers the multinational corporations when he criticizes the timber, oil, hydroelectric and mining companies that destroy the environment, harm the indigenous people of those lands and threaten the future of our common home. Irksome, too, is his criticism of political leaders incapable of taking courageous decisions (“Laudato Si’,” 53-59).
The announcement of the upcoming synod on the Amazon in October 2019, which will amplify the need to protect the environment and save indigenous Amazonian groups from genocide, is already beginning to annoy. Some major church leaders have said that the instrumentumlaboris, or working document for the synod, is heretical and pantheistic and denies the need for salvation in Christ.
Other commentators have focused only on the suggestion of ordaining married indigenous men to celebrate the Eucharist in remote parts of the Amazon but have been totally silent about the prophetic denunciation that this synod working document makes against the extractivist destruction that is being perpetrated in the Amazon, the issue of poverty and exclusion of indigenous peoples who surely have never been as threatened as they are now.
The opposition to Pope Francis is opposition to the Second Vatican Council and to the evangelical reform of the church that Pope John XXIII wanted to promote.
Reforming the church
There is undoubtedly a convergence between theological and social criticisms of Francis, with reactionary ecclesial groups aligning themselves with powerful economic and political groups, especially in the North.
The opposition to Francis is opposition to the Second Vatican Council and to the evangelical reform of the church that Pope John XXIII wanted to promote. Francis belongs to the line of all the prophets who have wanted to reform the church, joining Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola, Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Jesus, Angelo Roncalli, Dom Hélder Câmara, Dorothy Stang, Pedro Arrupe, Ignacio Ellacuría and the nonagenarian Brazilian bishop emeritus Pedro Casaldáliga.
Francis still has many tasks to complete for an evangelical reform of the church. We do not know what his future trajectory will be, nor what will happen in the next conclave.
Popes come and go, but the Lord Jesus is ever present and animates the church until the end of time. It is the same Jesus who was seen as an eater and drinker, a friend of sinners and prostitutes, the possessed, crazy, seditious and blasphemous. And we believe that the Spirit of the Lord who descended upon the early church at Pentecost never abandons her and will not allow sin to triumph over holiness in the long run.
In the meantime, as Francis always asks, from his first appearance on the balcony of St. Peter’s as bishop of Rome to the present day, let us pray to the Lord for him. Let us pray that he not lose hope and that he may strengthen the faith of his brothers and sisters (see Luke 22:32). And if we cannot pray or we are not believers, let us at least send him our good thoughts and energy (in his words, “me mande buena onda”).
Editor's note, Sept. 13: This article, adapted from the Spainish, has been edited in keeping with America's style.