The Pew Research Center reports this week that, as allegations and investigations of sex abuse in the Catholic Church continue to become more widespread, U.S. Catholic confidence in how Pope Francis is handling the cr isis has plummeted. Only three-in-ten Catholic adults say Francis is doing an "excellent" or a "good" job. This is down 24 points since 2015 and 14 points down from when the Pew Research Center last asked the question in January of this year.
The declining confidence in Pope Francis is broad-based, occurring across a wide variety of subgroups of U.S. Catholics. Since 2015, for instance, the share who gave the pope "excellent" or "good" ratings for his handling of the sex abuse issue has declined by 24 points among Catholic men and 23 points among Catholic women. Similarly, both younger and older Catholics have become increasingly critical of the pope's handling of the still growing problem.
Even among Catholics who say they attend Mass regularly, the share who give Francis high marks for his handling of the sex abuse crisis has been cut in half since 2015. Just 34% in this group now give him "excellent" or "good" ratings. In 2015, 67% gave him a positive evaluation.
Meanwhile, within the American Catholic Church, the culture war is about to get even stronger and much more problematic.
A group of wealthy American Catholics, called "The Better Church Governance Group," have banded together to fund what they describe as a public investigation into every member of the church's College of Cardinals. They want to prevent a repeat of the 2013 conclave which elected Pope Francis.
As the Catholic news site CRUX reported on Monday, October 1st, the group has assembled almost 100 academics, investigators, journalists, and former FBI agents to produce what it's calling the "Red Hat Report." This Catholic watchdog group plans to spend more than $1 million in its first year, with the goal of naming "those credibly accused in scandal, abuse, or cover-ups." They will also check what they consider the orthodoxy of the world's cardinals. A contemporary Catholic witch hunt?
The goal of the new Better Church Governance Group, as the CRUX story makes clear, is to influence the election of the next pope, who will be chosen by a subset of current cardinals. "What if we would have had someone else in 2013 who would have been more proactive in protecting the innocent and the young?" the group's operations director, Jacob Imam, asked attendees at the group's inaugural event at the Catholic University of America. In other words: What if we could have prevented the 2013 selection of Pope Francis?
The wealthy Americans behind Better Church Governance are crusading not just against Pope Francis' leadership, but against cardinals who do not adhere to "traditional values"- particularly against homosexuality in the church.
There are two Francis issues here and people are not making distinctions: (1) the clerical sex abuse issue and (2) an issue of moving beyond a rigid nineteenth century Catholic theological ethos. One can ask serious questions about the leadership of Pope Francis; but I see people, without critical reflection, using Francis as the scapegoat for both problems. The situation is much more complex. Too many people today would rather not think and just react according to their feelings. Frankly, I think Pope Francis has indeed opened some important doors. I also see Francis as an older fellow who is stuck in the theology of his years-ago seminary formation. If one looks at his administrative actions -- and not just his airplane interviews and offhand remarks -- he is basically homophobic and sexist in an old-fashioned clerical way. (Yes, many of my friends get angry when I say these things; but I try to be objective.) Regardless, we need to look at issues in a calm, rational, and mutually respectful way. When I look at movements like the Better Church Governance Group, I see more signs of clandestine suspicions maneuvering than mutually respectful behavior.
Contemporary Catholic intrigue is indeed becoming curiouser and curiouser. The American arch-conservative Cardinal Raymond Burke is now collaborating closely with the arch-conservative, and former White House chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, to promote the agenda of the far right Dignitatis Humanae Institute.
Benjamin Harnwell, the founder and director of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, located in the ancient Abbey of Trisulti, 75 miles south-east of Rome, told Reuters that Bannon has been helping to build up the institute for about half of its eight-year life. Cardinal Raymond Burke, president of the Institute's board of advisers, said Bannon will hold a key position within the institute and his collaboration reinforces the Dignitatis Humanae Institute's intention to create a new Catholic leadership movement far from what Burke considers to be Pope Francis' questionably orthodox ideas: leaning towards an old style conservative and traditionalist establishment. Very Burkean for sure.
Cardinal Burke told Reuters he looked forward to working with Harnwell and Bannon "to promote a number of projects that should make a decisive contribution to the defense of what used to be called Christendom."
The third millennial Catholic game change is underway.....