Pope Francis’ critics are dividing the church and families—including mine.

Pope Francis is seen silhouette as he arrives to meet New Zealand's Governor-General Jerry Mateparae during a private audience at the Vatican May 15. (CNS photo/Gabriel Bouys, pool via Reuters) 

“Pope Francis has damaged my faith,” she told me. I held my tongue, remembering my futile past attempts to respond to her antipathy toward our pope.

“I told Father today, and he says Pope Francis has hurt his faith, too,” she added. A final dig.

Last December, my mom was only a few days from the end of her final illness. Our pastor had seen her that morning and heard her confession. It was the last time we ever discussed faith or religion.

There was nothing more important to my mother than her faith. She often reminded us that her vocation and mission was to pass the faith down to her four children and to get us into heaven. With the same talents that made her a gifted schoolteacher, she instructed us in the church’s teachings. She shared the faith with us in a way that was attractive, rich, interesting and true—supplementing and far surpassing the standard parochial school catechesis we received.

“Pope Francis has damaged my faith,” she told me. I held my tongue, remembering my futile past attempts to respond to my mother’s antipathy toward our pope.

The faith she passed down to me and my siblings was influenced by her own Catholic school education in the 1950s and early ’60s. Her teenage faith was informed by her father, who was deeply angered, even traumatized by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. And he was vocal about it. As an adult, however, my mother’s views on religion became less recalcitrant. My dad converted to Catholicism months before they were married, and I think his faith—genuine but also practical and down-to-earth—tempered the reactionary impulses of her upbringing. Still, my mother’s religiosity was always the center of our childhood experience. 

[Don’t miss more stories like this one. Sign up for our newsletter.]

She taught us our prayers, the Scriptures and saints. Mom instructed us in moral doctrine, the four last things and the dignity of human life. Although I never heard her use the term Catholic social teaching, she opposed the death penalty, supported justice for immigrants, was strongly against racism and stood with the pope on matters of war and peace.

We had a picture of Pope John Paul II in our kitchen. I remember as a child looking at it and thinking how lucky we were to have such a great leader for our church. Although my grandfather often viewed the hierarchy with suspicion and contempt, my mother developed a love for the pope and trusted the church to teach the truth.

Certainly there were gaps in our religious formation, but this was not due to a lack of effort on her part. She passed everything she had on to her children. Our everyday conversations often revolved around our faith: big, deep, eternal questions. Catholicism became an integral part of who I was—who we were—and even during dark times in my life, even when God seemed distant, my prayers went unanswered and my future was uncertain, my faith never left me. 

We had a picture of Pope John Paul II in our kitchen. I remember as a child looking at it and thinking how lucky we were to have such a great leader for our church.

Even when my relationship with my mother became strained from time to time, I was grateful to her for the faith she passed on to me.

That is why our division over Pope Francis was so painful.

•••

Pope Francis’ election in 2013 coincided with a period of personal conversion and spiritual growth in my life. Not only had I thrown myself more deeply into practicing my faith, attending daily Mass and eucharistic adoration, but I had begun to understand my faith more deeply in terms of my relationship with God and encounter with Christ.

The faith that Mom shared with me, the faith that she helped nurture, finally became my own. Many people contributed to my education and formation in the faith. But there is no question that the person who first watered the seed of my faith was my mother.

When Francis became pope, everything seemed to come together. Most of us remember fondly those first months of his papacy: a whirlwind of powerful gestures, challenging words and unprecedented, surprising decisions. The worldwide good will generated by the beginning of his papacy created a “Catholic moment” in our culture. After years of media focus on church scandals and involvement in political culture wars, it was as if our new Argentine pontiff had single-handedly changed the narrative when he stepped onto the loggia, offered a modest wave and said the words “Buona sera.”

It was also clear to me that Pope Francis’ vision for the faith is precisely the cure for the embattled, embittered and polarized church in the United States.

While most of the world’s attention was focused on his public actions—paying his hotel bill, living in the simple Casa Santa Marta rather than the apostolic palace, washing the feet of young prisoners on Holy Thursday—I followed closely what he was saying. I was challenged when, days after his election, he exclaimed, “Oh, how I would like a church that is poor and for the poor.” I was moved when he articulated his view of the role of the papal authority in the homily at his installation Mass. “Let us never forget that authentic power is service,” he said, “and that the pope, too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the cross.”

What I and many other Catholics recognized in Pope Francis was how he put the principles of our faith—the Gospel of Jesus Christ—into action. This was reinforced by his words. In his homilies, addresses and interviews, he constantly admonished us to understand that without humility, repentance, conversion, transformation and a heart filled with tenderness and hope, our faith was hollow and self-referential. 

It was also clear to me that Pope Francis’ vision for the faith is precisely the cure for the embattled, embittered and polarized church in the United States.

•••

Unfortunately, not everyone in the U.S. church agrees.

Since the early days of this papacy, there has been a growing and concentrated effort to undercut Pope Francis’ message. Catholic media outlets and public figures once regarded as reliably orthodox and faithful to the magisterium began to question his words and teachings. Off-the-cuff statements were taken out of context and interpreted as “insults” to devout Catholics. His encyclical on care for creation, “Laudato Si’,” was met by critics who decried his reliance on “unsettled science” and his criticism of capitalism.

As this papacy has progressed, the reactions of several media organizations and periodicals popular with U.S. Catholics progressed from positive to wary to suspicious. When the pope’s apostolic exhortation on marriage and family, “Amoris Laetitia,” was released on April 8, 2016, many of those outlets became openly hostile.

Since the early days of this papacy, there has been a growing and concentrated effort to undercut Pope Francis’ message.

The opposition to Francis—bolstered by the publication of a document signed by four cardinals who insinuated that “Amoris Laetitia” violated immutable Catholic doctrines on marriage, adultery and objective truth—has become relentless. Well-known Catholic apologists who openly encourage opposition to Pope Francis and the bishops—including extreme voices like Michael Voris of Church Militant and the popular YouTube commentator Taylor Marshall—have wildly popular multimedia platforms and go largely unchallenged by church leaders.

This is not simply a social media phenomenon. Many Catholics across the country hear figures like Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò—the former Vatican nuncio to the United States who has repeatedly attacked Francis after calling for the pope to resign in 2018—praised from the pulpit. Articles disparaging the pope are shared among groups of Catholics and posted on parish websites. I have several friends who belong to Catholic book clubs where members will refuse to read anything by Pope Francis. 

Since I began writing and speaking publicly about this phenomenon, I have heard from hundreds of Catholics who have seen their families and communities divided over Pope Francis. In some parishes—and even some diocesan seminaries—negativity toward Francis has become so commonplace that those who support him feel compelled to keep their views to themselves. One priest told me that several seminarians referred to their seminaries as “Francis-free zones.”

One priest told me that several seminarians referred to their seminaries as “Francis-free zones.”

Francis’ less reactionary critics have done little to stem the rise of their much more vicious counterparts. Nor has this story received significant public attention from U.S. bishops or Catholics who support the pope. Quite often, they will actively discourage others from speaking out publicly against these reactionary leaders, arguing that to do so would give them the attention they crave. But as we have witnessed in the United States and international politics, the “establishment” can no longer afford to ignore these powerful populist movements. 

Whatever motivates those who have been leading this assault on Francis’ reputation—money, politics, ideology or, in the best case, deeply held convictions—the whole thing has become a grand distraction from Christ’s mandate to spread the Gospel to all creatures and to build the kingdom of God here on Earth. The focus has drifted very far from what Jesus implored us to do. And things are not improving.

•••

My mother, who never read anything Pope Francis actually wrote, became convinced he was a heretic by her friends at church, members of her Catholic book club and through watching “The World Over Live,” a weekly talk show on EWTN hosted by Raymond Arroyo, which often features outspoken papal critics

Early in Francis’ papacy, we argued about him frequently. Prior to each of the two sessions of the Synod on the Family, for example, she repeated the common claim among Francis’ critics that the synods were “rigged” and that they were little more than vehicles for predetermined changes to doctrine. Similarly, whenever a bishop she deemed to be moderate or progressive was appointed to lead a U.S. diocese, she would insist—relying on commentary she read in Catholic media—that these decisions were further proof that Pope Francis was deliberately trying to destroy the church. Any attempt I made to clarify or correct this narrative was immediately shut down.

At a certain point, I realized that I would never persuade her, and I tried to avoid the subject rather than create more division. When she became sick, I raised the subject a few more times, but it was clear that her views had become entrenched. She even had a coffee mug with the word “Viganò” written on it in capital letters. And every conversation we had about religion drifted into an argument about Pope Francis. Being unable to talk about God with the person who gave me my faith as she lay dying was agonizing.

My experience is not unique. This division in the church is a tragic situation that is harming families and communities of faith. It is totally opposed to the Gospel and to Pope Francis’ message. As the pope said in his homily on June 29, “There are always those who destroy unity and stifle prophecy.” I experienced this division in a very personal way. The impact of the public defiance against the pope is not theoretical; it is doing real damage to the body of Christ. Which leaders among us will respond to the urgent need for action to promote unity in the church?

Certainly, there are difficult disagreements to resolve, and not every division will be healed on this side of heaven. But we cannot lose sight of who we are as Catholic Christians. By our baptism, we are united as brothers and sisters with Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd. Jesus entrusted the care of his sheep to Peter and his successors. The church teaches that Pope Francis is the visible foundation of communion for all the faithful, and the healing of these wounds can only begin in unity with him.

[Read this next: Why do some Catholics oppose Pope Francis?]

The latest from america

Wilton Gregory said he hopes Pope Francis will find him to be “supportive, encouraging and trustworthy” in his role as a cardinal, but his primary ministry is still to be the archbishop of Washington.
Join America Media as we prepare for the coming of our Lord with special daily Advent reflections on The Word podcast.
America StaffNovember 27, 2020
St. Francis’ poverty was not cold and brutal but actually, in a way, worldly. It was a poverty that anyone today searching for what is real and authentic might relate to.
Jason M. BaxterNovember 27, 2020
The image displays five photos of the five members of the prayer service's organizing committee: Moira Egan, a white woman in her 50s with dark hair (top left); Kathleen Friel, a white woman with short hair wearing glasses (top middle); Ricardo da Silva, S.J., a white man who is bald with a brown beard, wearing glasses (top right); Father John Mulreany, S.J., wearing clerical carb that is black, and glasses (bottom left); Allison Connelly, white woman, light brown hair and glasses (bottom right)
An New York City parish organized a fully accessible prayer service for people with disabilities, who even in the church are often forgotten on the margins.
Erika RasmussenNovember 27, 2020