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21 May 2024

The myth of progressive Catholicism

Not even the will of God can keep the culture wars out of the Vatican.

By Finn McRedmond

When Pope Francis emerged on the balcony over St Peter’s Basilica for the first time in 2013, it was a symbolic victory for the liberal wing of a beleaguered church. The newly elected Holy Father would tidy up the scandal-ridden mess left in Benedict XVI’s wake and drag the papacy into the 21st century. In the decade since, Francis’s efforts have demarcated him from his far more staid predecessors: he has denounced laws that criminalise homosexuality; in 2015 he struck a revolutionary tone when he suggested forgiveness could be granted to women who had abortions; early in his tenure he declared that, yes, even atheists could go to heaven.  

The great Catholic reformer was in lockstep with the trajectory of the decade. In spite of the retreats made by the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit referendum (2016 was the annus horribilis for the liberal disposition) it seemed the progressive march forward was inevitable: gay marriage and abortion were legalised in Ireland by popular vote; the Women’s March and Me Too movement fought back against base misogyny; there was the great racial reckoning of America’s Black Lives Matter summer. This was the ambient temperature of the 2010s and early 2020s. An era when even the Pope was woke.  

But change at the top looms in the Vatican (not even the Pope is immortal). And when white smoke next appears over the Holy See one question will hang in the air: what will it mean for the fate of the so-called liberal Catholics? The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat – a longtime observer of the papacy – recently suggested that the liberalising energy Francis brought with him has all but dissipated. A conservative takeover has been fomenting. With it, the fear among the trenchant traditionalists that someone even more radical would come along has abated. Perhaps Francis and his allies will find that instead of rock, their revolution was built on sand.  

Not even the will of God can keep the culture wars out of the Vatican. On one side, the traditionalists – with Cardinal Raymond Burke as their spiritual leader – fear Francis is eroding the doctrine; disrespecting the strictures of the faith; and relentlessly pursuing a political agenda moonlighting as a divine one. Francis, meanwhile, in a 60 Minutes interview on 19 May, said his conservative detractors have a “suicidal attitude”; that they are locking themselves in a “dogmatic box”. Perhaps the liberal reformation will not die with him. But as the Holy See is tugged between these two poles, it begins to look like a microcosm, mimicking trends general to the Anglosphere: a decade of supremacy for woke ideology accompanied by the inevitable conservative backlash.  

If this is the death knell for liberal Catholicism, Francis’s own character will loom large in the history books on the revolution’s failure. He is often cast as a cosy liberaliser: he talks about praying for peace, has an informal manner, eschews the ornately gilded vestments traditionally associated with the papacy in favour of the modest and refined. But behind the doors of St Peter’s the view is rather different. Damian Thompson, the former editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald, has described a curia presided over by an autocrat who wrenches power from his ideological opponents and permits any number of sins from his ideological allies; one who is motivated more by resentment than theology.

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But to the outside world he remains hard to criticise: Francis is a Pope for Guardian readers, those who take the mores established in the 2010s as their gospel. But despite trading the papal finery for a humble cassock, as conservative momentum builds it seems now the Pope has no clothes.  

His liberal bent is defended as a survival mechanism for a church in decline, with a reputation so badly bruised by years of sex-abuse scandal that it will likely never recover. If this is the aim, the outcome is bleak: under Francis there has been no flurry of the lapsed re-embracing the church.  

But there is a far greater existential question for the papacy. Cardinal Burke issued an early warning in the Francis pontificate: “The pope does not have the power to change teaching [or] doctrine.” Indeed, Francis has realised that he cannot launder Catholicism of its inherent conservatism without entirely disrupting its nature. His tenure has revealed that liberal Catholicism is a theologically inconsistent proposition. The popularity of Francis among the progressive establishment can do very little to change that.  

Attempts have been made to adopt facets of Catholicism while divesting it of its baggage. Far from the Vatican, the ludicrous display of the 2018 Metropolitan Museum annual gala – where Rihanna dressed in a Mitre and Hollywood starlets wore haloes and images of the Sistine Chapel – was revelatory; there is no mode of Catholicism that can cohere with the liberal celebrity industrial complex that is anything more than a superficial aesthetic.  

In downtown Manhattan, Catholicism has emerged in the last five years as a scene for the It Girls – which is now slowly infiltrating Britain – accompanied by a fetishistic and coquettish style (crucifixes over bare chests, knee high socks, rosary beads). It’s a wry and cynical mode of mocking the “liberal pieties” of the 2010s, both politically reactionary and theologically insubstantial.  

Yet both the Catholic reformers and the young unserious adopters of the religion make a similar mistake. The young think they can engage with the style while subverting the dogma. And the reformers believe that everything can be forced into a liberal shape, no matter its inherent nature, logic be damned. Meanwhile, the conservatives are at the gates.  

[See more: Does the Archbishop of Canterbury matter politically?]

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This article appears in the 22 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Special 2024