Since 2019, ultraconservative Catholic leaders have fought against Pope Francis. That opposition got a lot more pointed in late November at the latest meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

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American hardliners in Catholic leadership are dragging their religion closer and closer to schism. They absolutely despise Pope Francis, and lately they’ve been ramping up their defiance of him. The hardliners’ defiance hit a fever pitch last month at a big conference, which makes schism even more of a possibility. Meanwhile, the rank-and-file Catholics in America who just wanna have their ‘hootenanny Masses‘ watch their leaders’ antics in complete bewilderment—and with more than a little annoyance.

Catholic hardliners enjoyed a brief few years of victory with Pope Benedict

One would think that one belief uniting Catholics would be reverence for the Pope. Indeed, in most of Catholicism, that’s definitely the case. But in America, Catholic leaders don’t seem to like the current pope, Francis, very much at all.

Those hardline Catholic leaders much preferred Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI. Nicknamed “God’s Rottweiler,” Benedict was known for his take-no-prisoners policies.

Among other shocking hot takes, he declared in 2006 that Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, had had only new religious ideas that were “evil and inhuman.” Whether one agrees or not, a lot of folks felt very upset about the Pope saying that. The incident led to international protests. Two weeks later, he had to eat his words.

In a lot of ways, Francis is his polar opposite. When Benedict retired in February 2013, it took less than a month and only two days of a papal enclave to elect Francis as the next pope.

But Benedict did not fade gracefully into retirement.

Two Catholic factions took shape after Benedict’s retirement

Instead, he hung around Rome—along with his court of hangers-on and sympathizers. The situation quickly devolved into rivalry. Benedict’s court particularly despised Francis and his court for his “soft” policies on their most-hated enemies. In 2018, Vanity Fair described a Benedict-allied monsignor complaining about it all:

Before long he’s bitching about Pope Francis: “He’s soft on the homosexuals, the lesbians, and the transsexuals. And how dare he criticize the Curia? . . . Accusing us of spiritual Alzheimer’s . . . just because his papacy is unraveling.” Sotto Voce is angry about the tongue-lashing Pope Francis gave the curial cardinals four years ago for the “serious disease” of gossip. The Pope had said, “Brothers, let us be on our guard against the terrorism of gossip.”

Vanity Fair, 2018

Back then, the power struggle between the two camps was only just heating up. The hardliners had no shortage of complaints about the new, much-more-cuddly Pope. Of course, few non-Catholics were entirely thrilled with him either. His handling of the ongoing Catholic child rape crisis was, to say the least, abysmal. In 2018, two Catholic sites, New Catholic Recorder (NCR) and LifeSite, openly called for Francis’ resignation because of allegations that he’d covered for a high-profile Catholic child rapist, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. (In 2019, Francis finally defrocked him.) Also, who could forget Francis’ 2014 estimate of 2% of Catholic clergy being pedophiles?

But I strongly suspect that it was his “soft” stances that completely enraged his enemies in Benedict’s court.

An eruption of Catholic proportions: Along comes Francis

From the beginning, Catholic hardliners felt that Francis’ rulership style effectively functioned as a sharp rebuke to how Benedict had run the papacy. Everything he did pissed off the many fans of The Former Guy. To a certain extent, Francis has become the “bitch eating crackers” to his enemies: inspiring hatred and criticism even if all he’s doing is sitting around eating crackers. Even if his worst offense is not being Benedict, those enemies have had many other offenses to keep them busy.

Mere months after his election to the papacy, Francis criticized hardline Catholics’ culture wars against abortion, contraception, and gay marriage. The next year, he attacked his highest-level leaders of “spiritual Alzheimer’s” and “existential schizophrenia” for their grouchy demeanors and inability to learn and grow. In 2015, he announced changes to how Catholic leaders handle annulment. It was all happening so quickly!

Then, in 2020, he expressed his support for same-sex civil unions. That move really torqued American hardliner bishops like Thomas Tobin. That outrage probably explains why Francis changed course on the topic in 2021.

But in 2021 as well, he completely enraged the hardliners by slapping down their use of the so-called “traditional Latin Mass” (TLM). Benedict had allowed priests to offer it in 2007, as long as their local bishop gave permission to do it. But here was Francis, coming along like he owns the place and telling them they can’t!

Then, earlier this year, the two factions duked it out over Nancy Pelosi’s communion ban. Her home archbishop in California had set that ban upon her for rejecting anti-abortion legislation. Francis’ camp supported her, while the hardliners insisted that Francis condemn her and uphold the ban.

Catholic observers began to speculate about schisms around then.

The latest uproar at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops

Twice every year, members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) meet in a General Assembly. There, they set policies, elect leaders, and discuss important world developments. This year, the meeting took place on November 14-17 in Baltimore.

They definitely had a lot to talk about, too: from the overturning of Roe v Wade to the war in Ukraine, from general changes to liturgy (meaning ritualized worship) to developing an extra-super-duper ritualized ceremony around the Eucharist, or communion.

If you’re wondering why anybody in Catholic leadership GAFF about Eucharist rituals when they’ve got a child rape crisis still looming over their heads, it’s because its proponents think that “our world is hurting” and “we all need healing,” and this is how they propose to deliver magical Jesus healing to everyone.

Yes, really. Those are quotes come right from the initiative’s information website. Because that’s what we all need, right? More and more-intense Catholic rituals. Yes, because that will totally and absolutely 100-and-ten-thousand-% help the world heal. (From Catholic leaders’ abuse and cover-ups? Just you wonder.)

This is a hardliner initiative, for the most part. More reform-minded Catholic leaders have a lot of questions about it, starting with its USD$28M cost and its proponents’ promises about its effect on Mass attendance. In particular, critics push back against the notion that “confusion” over the Eucharist has anything to do with Catholics’ abysmal rates of church attendance.

And yet Catholic ultra-hardliners absolutely hate the initiative too—because many of the people who support it allow what they call “fake Catholics” to receive communion.

Despite the opposition they faced from Francis’ camp, the hardliners won this year’s bishops’ conference. They won grandly, hardly losing any of their fights.

Signs of the times to come at the Bishops’ Conerence

In the elections, the hardliners’ candidates generally dominated them. The new president of the group is a dedicated hardliner, Archbishop Timothy Broglio. He blames homosexuality for the child rape crisis, wants religious exemptions for the COVID vaccine, and strangely refuses to post a “synod synthesis,” which is a transparent record of what his archbishopric has been doing and deciding.

He also stands very solidly and vocally against Pope Francis. As NCR reveals:

It is difficult to overstate what a repudiation of Pope Francis the selection of Broglio to lead the conference is. He is the one bishop in the United States with long-standing tensions with the pope, tensions that goes back to Broglio’s work with [Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo] Sodano, who famously tried to shut down the Latin American bishops’ conference CELAM and who protected the monstrous pedophile Fr. Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ.

NCR, November 15

As well, the conference barely spoke at all about the actual stuff they believe Jesus told Christians to do. Instead, it seemed to center largely on politics—as the hardliners in the organization prefer. NCR has been roundly criticizing the conference:

Meanwhile, Mass attendance is down at parishes and large numbers of young people are still heading for the exits. Despite Pope Francis’ attempts to be a more welcoming church, the U.S. bishops seem to be stuck in the same old way of doing things. [November 17]

Until seminaries put human formation at the top of the list, they will continue to produce clerics–not all of them, but many of them–who preach politics rather than the Gospel and who are lawgivers rather than agents of mercy. That is why Catholics and others are left wondering what the USCCB is all about. That is why so many Catholics have simply left. [November 28]

And now, the new publisher of NCR thinks that Catholics find themselves at “a crossroads.”

‘Hootenanny Masses’ vs liturgical culture warriors

On December 1st, Joe Ferullo reminisced about growing up Catholic. He grew up in “a working-class Irish-Italian-Latino parish in the Bronx.” It made Catholicism seem more like a hands-on folk religion that permeated every aspect of life and intensely involved children in its many rituals:

We had “hootenanny Masses,” which inspired me to learn guitar and play “Here We Are” constantly around the house. Sister Maryann, my sixth grade teacher, sometimes taught us Joni Mitchell songs instead of long division. Nuns removed their old-style habits; religion classes became dialogues rather than rote recitation of the Baltimore Catechism.

NCR, December 1, 2022

He credits these experiences with his decision to remain Catholic in adulthood, and I can understand why.

His account makes me look to my own upbringing in Baltimore’s almost-entirely-German Catholic enclave in Highlandtown and wonder what might have happened if I’d experienced that same immersion. Though Catholicism also permeated my life while I was there, it remained on an elusively-ethereal, very ritualistic level. I didn’t aspire to play guitar, but rather to one day dress up my very own Infant Jesus of Prague doll for the holidays. In fact, I had no idea that “hootenanny Masses” even existed until I read Ferullo’s editorial. My straitlaced, stoic, private Catholic grandparents would have never.

Ferullo’s happy childhood experiences became possible thanks to the reforms of Vatican II. Without them, he doubts he’d still be Catholic. So he views what these hardliners are doing to revive pre-Vatican II customs as a threat to Catholicism’s very future.

And he’s probably right, too, in a way

More properly called the Second Vatican Council, this 1959 meeting led to a whole lot of changes in how Catholics “do church,” as evangelicals say. Mainly, Vatican II stressed reconciliation: inter- and non-Christian cooperation, allowing Masses to be said in languages that the flocks actually understood, and reforms to education and other such ongoing Catholic concerns. It did a lot to make Catholicism a living—and livable—faith for the masses.

Because of that, hardliner Catholics haaaaaate Vatican II with the fires of ten thousand burning white-hot suns. The very qualities of his upbringing that Ferullo thinks kept him Catholic for life are the very ones that hardliners want to eliminate. They think that these reforms watered down Catholicism to the point that it doesn’t seem divine anymore. So they want to go back to how Catholics “did church” prior to 1959. They think that doing this will keep Catholicism holy and sacred to its members, and thus improve church attendance and evangelism numbers.

It’s hard to say that they’re completely wrong. I’m one of the only ex-Catholic members of my mom’s ultra-Catholic side of the family. I can name dozens of people in that connection who are in their 50s and 60s and yet still inexplicably fervently Catholic despite having missed out on “hootenanny Masses.” I’ve got a few who are actually in the clergy (including a much-loved elderly aunt) or who volunteer a lot in their churches. Somehow, a smells-and-bells-focused formal-Catholic upbringing kept them all Catholic just fine.

But they’re a more authoritarian bunch than Ferullo’s family sounded like. What works in one context doesn’t always work in all of them. To a hardliner, every nail looks like dangerous laxity that requires an authoritarian hammer to beat down on it.

As they push harder and harder against Francis’ attempted reforms, hardliners drag Catholics closer and closer to schism.

The rank and file of Catholic laity drift further and further away from hardliners

If the laity had anything to say about it, the majority would also back Francis’ reforms. My mom’s family notwithstanding, for years we’ve known that American Catholic laypeople tend to be vastly more liberal and progressive than their leaders. There exist many more Catholics in America who are like Joe Ferullo than those who prefer the style of Timothy Broglio. And that latter group’s members are getting angrier by the month with Pope Francis.

Ever since about 2019, the specter of schism has floated before Francis’ eyes. He’s acting serene in the face of this growing threat, but the winds of speculation just keep swirling and getting thicker. Other countries’ Catholic leaders, like those in Germany (what a surprise, given what I’ve said about my family, right?), are joining the ranks of Francis’ fiercest critics.

Within the past month or two, those criticisms are reaching levels of intensity that seem to point inexorably to schism. That intensity led Phyllis Zagano of Religion News Service to ask on October 19th if Francis could “survive the scheming of the ‘schismatics.'”

One of those schemers whom Zagano has dubbed “schismatics” is apparently Cardinal George Pell, who fought for years to overturn his Australian conviction for sexual abuse. He eventually won that fight. Nowadays, though, he’s retired—which gives him plenty of time to scheme and plot from the safety of his luxury apartment.

What these Catholic ‘schismatics’ hate most of all

Pell and his conspirators particularly despise Francis’ push for synodality, which means finding common ground with other leaders amid the reforms of Vatican II. Officially, synodality means a kind of vote cast in church doctrinal matters. Francis takes the idea a whole lot further, though.

And that’s what the hardliners ultimately hate the most.

Authoritarians don’t want common ground with their enemies. They don’t want consensus with those they view as wrong and inferior.

Rather, they want power and dominance. That’s why they sought power in the first place. The very last thing they will ever do is allow any of their power to be peeled away by the hoi polloi they view as far beneath their feet.

This is gonna be a very interesting next year or two, is what I’m saying. Pope Francis is racing against time and mortality itself to get his synodality legacy in place before he shuffles off his mortal coil.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...