In U.S. Catholics, Pope faces a church divided like no other

Though Pope Francis will no doubt be welcomed by large crowds on his trip to the U.S. this week, American Catholicism has long been splintered. And his "fresh air" papacy hasn't helped.

Something about the dualistic nature of America's rhetoric makes beliefs become intransigent

Papal visit: Challenging times for church

7 years ago
Duration 7:54
Father Sam Sawyer talks about pontiff's first visit to U.S.

Pope Francis threw chum into the Catholic culture war waters just before his trip to the U.S.

His recent changes to the rules on annulments have his critics within the church churning. And while the Pope will no doubt be welcomed by large Catholic crowds waving tiny Vatican flags, deep divisions over sexual morality and "family values" will keep others firmly at home.

From the outside, it's easy to think of Catholics as homogenous adherents to a set of beliefs. But inside the church, Catholics splinter into numerous loosely aligned communities. There's a broad spectrum of belief and values — everything from leotard-clad liturgical dancing down the aisles, to folks who spend their evenings brushing up on canon law in the original Latin. 

American Catholicism has long been splintered. And Francis's "fresh air" papacy hasn't helped.

By the numbers

In a recent Pew Research report on Catholicism, 20 per cent of Americans described themselves as Catholic. And getting 70 million people to agree on anything is, well, difficult.

Pope Francis, pictured in a partially completed mural on the wall of a Manhattan building, arrives on Tuesday in the U.S. There, he'll find a Catholic community that's deeply divided on some of the biggest issues of the day, David Perlich writes. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty)

Take the 2012 presidential election. The Catholic vote was deeply divided:  50 per cent for Obama, 48 per cent for Romney. Republican House Speaker John Boehner is Catholic, but so is Democratic Vice-President Joe Biden. The House of Representatives has 69 Catholic Republicans and 68 Catholic Democrats. There are six Catholic justices on the U.S. Supreme court, who seldom agree in their rulings.

In addition to the 20 per cent of self-described Catholics, the Pew report says another 25 per cent of Americans report being "connected" to the church through a spouse, parent or "culture." And within this group, there are profound disagreements over what constitutes acceptable moral behaviour, no matter what church doctrine says.

Embodying the divide among U.S. Catholics are Democratic Vice-President Joe Biden, left, and Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, right. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Again, according to Pew, 39 per cent of Catholics (and those with Catholic ties) say it's not a sin to "engage in homosexual behaviour." Forty-four per cent think it is. But 43 per cent think a gay or lesbian couple raising a child is as acceptable as any other arrangement; 27 per cent say it's not. Two-thirds say it's not a sin to use birth control; 17 per cent say it is. Half say it's not a sin to remarry after a divorce without a church annulment; 35 per cent say it is.

All this said, Pope Francis is still hugely popular among American Catholics: 86 per cent have a favourable opinion. But it's that other 14 per cent — a vocal minority sometimes called "traditionalist" — that Francis also has to contend with.

Blogging dissent

The rise of the Catholic blogosphere over the last 10 years or so has helped to reinforce the divisions within American Catholicism and to give voice to this minority's dissent. Just like in the mainstream media, where MSNBC and FOX News preach to their own faithful and thus entrench certain values, so does a lot of Catholic writing. Get out your computer, and get your angry on.

'In every religion there will be a small group of fundamentalists whose work is to destroy for the sake of an idea,' Pope Francis said in a recent interview. (Cheryl Ravelo/Reuters)

And so we now see headlines like, "Ten tips on how to survive a calamitous Pope and remain Catholic," or, "Is the Pope a socialist?"

Since he first stepped out on the St. Peter's balcony, Pope Francis has not only fostered, but insisted on internal church debate over some of the most contentious issues in our society. The deficits of capitalism. Environmentalism. Homosexuality. The concept of marriage. While many welcome this new open debate, for others it's threatening to their core beliefs.

It's this aura of dramatic change surrounding Francis that has U.S. traditionalist and conservative branches of the church riled up. As Dale Ahlquist puts in it Catholic World Report, "We have not only disobeyed the rules, now we are trying to change the rules so that they align with our disobedience."

Even some American cardinals such as Raymond Burke have entered the fray, becoming rallying points of internal dissent. "At this very critical moment," Burke said in an interview, "there is a strong sense that the church is like a ship without a rudder."

This has led to an ironic situation where some conservative American Catholics have to defend the Pope from even more conservative Catholics. 

"Far too many people are arguing that the church is 'doomed,' she's filled with heretics (what's new?!), and major changes are coming to the church," writes Catholic journalist Constance T. Hull in the Epic Pew blog. "It is frequently claimed that we are witnessing the worst period in the church's history. I'm afraid reality doesn't support that assertion."

Intransigent disagreements

It's like this: Rules are comforting. Fuzzy them up like some Catholics think Pope Francis has, and people get nervous.

"Pope Francis presents a great puzzlement to many of the faithful," writes Rev. C. John McCloskey on

"Particularly those Catholics who are accustomed to the clarity of pope emeritus Benedict and his holy predecessor St. John Paul. As a result, those Catholics who are faithful to the teachings of the church have a difficult time penetrating the meaning behind the current Pope's rhetoric."

This may be part of the key to the nastiness in the internal U.S. Catholic debate. A particularly American style of framing rhetorical debate as a duality: good/bad, right/wrong, liberal/conservative — in which beliefs all too easily become intransigent.

American priest and moral philosophy professor Robert Gahl told the National Catholic Register that during Francis's trip to the U.S., people would "err to interpret the Pope's words through the lens of partisan politics or false alternatives like right vs. left or capitalism vs. communism."

As he heads to the U.S., Pope Francis has a message for intransigent critics.

In a recent interview with Argentine radio he said, "In every religion there will be a small group of fundamentalists whose work is to destroy for the sake of an idea, and not reality. And reality is superior to ideas." 

With fundamentalism says Francis, "you can't have friendship between peoples."


He has produced television, radio and online programming in Calgary since 1992 — including CBC's 2015 Alberta election special. He worked for Al-Jazeera in Washington, D.C., was the managing editor of the Belgian newspaper De Morgen and also reported as CBC's Vatican analyst in the 2005 and 2012 conclaves. He was born in Calgary, grew up on a farm, and now calls this city home.


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