Pope Francis Versus His Church’s American “Backwardists”


Pope Francis has a beef with those in the church he describes as “backwardists.”  The objects of his distress are not red hats from the Vatican Curia but conservative Catholics from the American side of the Pond – culture warrior Catholic bishops, wealthy plutocrats, and a television network that treated Donald Trump as a secular saint.

“The situation in the United States is not easy: There is a very strong reactionary attitude,” Francis told fellow Jesuits at a meeting in Lisbon. “It is organized and shapes the way people belong, even emotionally. I want to remind these people that backwardism is useless, and it is necessary to understand that there is a correct evolution in the understanding of questions of faith and morals.”

Francis has moved to revitalize the U.S. hierarchy, naming four cardinals. He plucked Bishop Blase Cupich out of Spokane and made him Cardinal-Archbishop of Chicago. Robert McElroy is San Diego’s first cardinal, a prelate who has written eloquently of the church’s mission to confront poverty and degradation of the earth.

The American Catholic hierarchy this week received a new, unwelcome reminder of its greatest scandal. A Massachusetts judge dismissed sexual assault charges against a former Cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, on grounds the 93-year-old was in no condition to aid in his defense.

The once-influential former Cardinal-Archbishop of Washington, D.C. stood accused of assaulting a friend’s 16–year-old son at a family wedding. McCarrick was defrocked and expelled from the church in 2019. The prelate had been tailed for years by allegations that he abused boys and seminarians.

The past blind eye toward clerical abuse has cost the church from the collection plate to the pews. Faced with multiple lawsuits, the Archdiocese of San Francisco this week became the latest to seek bankruptcy protection. It is the only California diocese that has refused to release a list of clergy charged with abuse.

The Diocese of Newark, across the Hudson River from the Manhattan domain of conservative Cardinal Timothy Dolan, is headed by Cardinal Joseph Tobin.  Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., is the first black prince of the American church. And notably, Francis refused to bestow a red hat on archbishops in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, dioceses traditionally headed by a cardinal.

At the same time, however, the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops last year elected an archconservative leadership slate of bishops mostly named by predecessor Pope Benedict XVI. The USCCB’s most prominent voices include San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, who punished then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for her pro-choice views by announcing that Pelosi could no longer receive communion in his diocese.

Two words describe having such bishops as the face of the church: Clerical error. The conservatives have defined Catholicism in terms of discipline and dogma, with the laity expected to stay docile. There has been emphasis on two issue, the “preeminent” issue of abortion – with condemnation of Catholics who are pro-choice — and opposition to LGBTQ civil rights and same-sex marriage.

The result, at times, has made bishops look like the MAGA movement at prayer.  When Joe Biden was inaugurated, our second Catholic president, USCCB’s then-president Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles issued a snarky statement, telling Biden he goes “against some fundamental values we hold dear as Catholics” and that he would “undermine our preeminent priority of the elimination of abortion.”

It is no surprise that Gomez is not a cardinal. The Pope had released a statement warmly welcoming Biden. Cardinal Cupich delivered a scathing putdown on Twitter, saying: “The USCCB issued an ill-considered statement on the day of President Biden’s inauguration. Aside from that there is seemingly no precedent for doing so, the statement critical of President Biden came as a surprise to many bishops, who received it just hours before it was released.”

The church has suffered under “backwardist” authoritarians. Fewer people are found in the pews. Surveys show Catholics’ views on abortion and gay rights mirror the rest of American society. The Archdiocese of Seattle, like many others, is closing and consolidating parishes. A group of prominent lay Catholics, called Heal Our Church, has warned Seattle Archbishop Paul Etienne that the church is hemorrhaging young people and women.

On same-sex marriage, the American hierarchy was inundated by a sea change in public attitude. Our state’s Catholic bishops campaigned against both civil unions (2009) and same-sex marriage (2012). Washington voters endorsed both, and Catholics for Marriage Equality put 500 demonstrators on the street outside St. James Cathedral. Crowds of scripture-quoting Catholic high school students have demonstrated outside the archdiocese chancery after removal of gay and lesbian teachers. Archbishops J. Peter Sartain and Paul Etienne have refused to meet with them.

At my alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, an alumni/friends organization calling itself the Sycamore Trust has committed itself to protecting the university’s “Catholic identity.” It proclaims that identity in pushback against the LGBTQ “agenda,” warnings against “Transmania,” and issues of reproductive freedom.

Francis has displayed a far more open attitude, witness his famous “Who am I to judge?” question posed to journalists on a flight back to Rome from South America. In Portugal, a Jesuit who works with university students asked Francis if his welcome applies to gay students active in the church but not living the celibate life. “The door is open to everyone, everyone has their own space in the church,” the Pope replied. “How will such people live it? We help people live so they can occupy that place with maturity and this applies to all kinds of people.”

The pontiff then had a direct message for those who define “Catholic identity” in exclusionary terms. “What I don’t like at all, in general, is that we look at the so-called ‘sins of the flesh’ with such a magnifying glass. If you exploited workers, if you lied or cheated, it didn’t matter and instead relevant were the ‘sins below the waist’ . .  . To accompany people spiritually and pastorally takes a lot of sensitivity and creativity.”

The loudest defense of Archbishop Gomez’ broadside, and most consistent attacks on Biden’s faith, have come from an Alabama-based Catholic media empire, the EWTN TV network and National Catholic Register newspaper. On EWTN’s “The World Over,” host Raymond Arroyo welcomes a succession of critics, including a renegade former papal nuncio who has called on Francis to resign. When the Trump Administration separated immigrant and refugee children from their parents, Arroyo likened treatment of the kids to summer camp.

Francis doesn’t like it. At another meeting with Jesuits, this time in Bratislava, he said: “There is, for example, a large Catholic television channel that has no hesitation in continually speaking ill of the Pope. I personally deserve attacks and insults because I am a sinner, but the church does not deserve them. They are the work of the devil. I have also said this to some of them.”

Francis has stressed social teachings of the Catholic Church. He is the first pontiff to write an encyclical on climate change, decrying unfettered capitalism, trickle-down economics, and exploitation of the earth. Global warming has, in Francis’ view, intensified poverty and triggered the refugee crisis to tragic consequences.

Church teaching has evolved, had to evolve, the first Jesuit pope told Jesuits in Portugal. “Today it is a sin to possess atomic bombs, the death penalty is a sin and was not so before,” he said. “As for slavery, some pontiffs before me have tolerated it, but things are different today.”

Such stands evoke discomfort on the right. A Catholic attorney general, William Barr, reinstated the federal death penalty in 2019 and pushed through multiple executions. Archbishop Cordileone has lionized early Spanish missionaries in California, despite compelling evidence that Indians were pressed into slavery to build missions. Such Catholic groups as the Napa Institute, and Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, have sought to affirm that “democratic capitalism” is the preferred path out of poverty.

Cofounded by wealthy California businessman Timothy Busch and a Jesuit, ex-Gonzaga University President Fr. Robert Spitzer, the Napa Institute welcomes an array of prominent conservatives and outspoken Francis critics to a resort complex each July. The 800 attendees paid $2,800 this year (not including lodging) to hear such figures as Archbishop Cordileone and ex-Vice President Mike Pence. Barr was a keynoter last year.

The Napa Institute is a kind of bling wing of the Catholic Church. Its conferences feature gourmet meals, wine tastings, cigar bars, and multiple Latin masses. Speakers come from such groups as the Heritage Foundation and Alliance Defending Freedom, legal arm of the religious right. As well, there are prelates who’ve championed the weaponizing of communion, such as Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City. and Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, who staged an exorcism rite when Illinois approved same-sex marriage.

Francis has patience with sinners, but not with those who take an insular view of “Catholic identity.” As he told Jesuits in Lisbon, “If you don’t change upward, you go backward, and then you take on criteria for change different from those that the faith itself gives you to grow and change. And the effects on morality can be devastating.

“Those American groups of which you speak, so closed, are isolating themselves and instead of living by doctrine, by the true doctrine that always develops and bears fruit, they live by ideology. But when you abandon doctrine in life to replace it with an ideology, you have lost, you have lost as in war.”

The 86-year-old Francis is waging a kind of war of attrition. As bishops reach the mandatory retirement age of 75, the pope has an opportunity to recast the American hierarchy and reverse the anti-Francis leadership of the USCCB.  If he lives long enough.

What criteria does Francis use is bestowing purple and red hats? “Everyone, everyone, everyone are called to live in the church,” he told Jesuits in Lisbon. “Never forget that.”

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and SeattlePI.com from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.


  1. Thanks, Joel, for another thoughtful article. This one hit home. As a life-long practicing Catholic, I’ve come to separate my faith from my Church. The Church’s hardline against reproductive rights, LGBTQ Catholics, Married again Catholics and, the last straw…all the support for Trump! Catholics for Trump! (Church backed) Thomas Malone Society’s support of the phony ‘Stop the Steal’…Arrgg. The Seattle Archdiocese closure of 100+ year old St. Patrick Church is a fine example of the Church pushing Catholics like me away…St. Pat’s was financially stable, had a dedicated community of 200+ families, always contributed more to the archdiocese annual appeal, was the only parish to offer a sign-language during Mass for deaf/deaf blind parishioners…Oh, and yes had a vibrant LGBTQ community…welcomed the ‘unchurched’…married agains — and St. Pat’s attracted Catholics who followed the teachings of Vatican II that advanced lay leadership. Nuff said.

    • I wondered what had happened with St. Patrick Church, such a beautiful, historic and welcoming place up there at the foot of Capitol Hill. I was very, very sorry to see it close. This reply explains a lot.
      Excellent, excellent piece, Joel Connelly.

  2. “backwardism is useless, and it is necessary to understand that there is a correct evolution in the understanding of questions of faith and morals.”
    — Pope Francis

    translation: ‘resistance is futile’

    Mixing ideology and theology is inappropriate. Granted, contemporary mores are certainly at odds with traditional Christian teachings and the Left cannot have that! However, will the Jacobins really exact another ‘Reign of Terror,’ if they perceive that their cultural primacy is under challenge?

    It seems uncertain that the God of Francis is the same deity as the God of Benedict (and many of the Catholic Church’s faithful). Render to Francis the things that are Francis’, and to God the things that are God’s.” Let the schism begin!

  3. It seems as though this Pope wants to rewrite the Catechism of the church. To go against Christian truths and take the world view. He is the heretic. Miss John Paul 2.

  4. “Resistance is futile” … Indeed, I find it ironic that the pontiff who has publicly castigated “unfettered capitalism” appears to be conducting the campaign on behalf of his policies in much the same way that a CEO/Chair of the Board would address dissidents among employees and shareholders.

    On the other hand, the disagreement between Pope Francis and reactionary American Catholics seems to have much in common with the disagreement between the Founder of Pope Francis’s faith and the Sadducees and Pharisees of (maybe) the Founder’s own time, who placed dogmatic, ideological roadblocks in the path of authentic community building. (I write ‘maybe’ because, I read, the Pharisees mostly arose after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE; the biblical arguments with the Pharisees are thus consistent with the founding of Christianity in the late 1st century, but would not have involved the long-dead historical Jesus of Nazareth).

    Of course, reactionary clerics, Catholic or otherwise, are nothing new in the USA. In 1863, Archbishop John Hughes – of New York – wrote “We Catholics, and a vast majority of our brave troops in the field, have not the slightest idea of carrying on a war that costs so much blood and treasure just to gratify a clique of Abolitionists.” (McPherson, “Battle Cry of Freedom”).

    As I am convinced of the principle of “Deus Creatus”, I am unsurprised that the God of Francis is not the same as the God of Benedict. Humans, I argue, erect godheads to embody a particular tribe and its worldview, and it can be no shock that most of the world’s human-sponsored carnage has resulted from irreconcilable differences among the godheads.

    I am also convinced of the principle, “Those who govern do so only by consent of the governed.” Indeed, in a 1943 report, psychiatrist Dr. Henry A. Murray wrote, “[Adolf] Hitler’s unprecedented appeal, the elevation of this man to the status of a demi-god, can be explained only on the hypothesis that he and his ideology have almost exactly met the needs, longings, and sentiments of the majority of Germans”. It seems that few of us are comfortable with the expansive definition of “neighbor” that the Founder of Christianity promoted, and which the current pontiff appears to have adopted, at considerable expense to his own peace of mind and that of his church.

    It is good that, in some small ways, there have been consequences for those who hold extremist views. I argue, though, that so long as such extremist views (polarity inconsequential) exist at all, none of us is absolved.

  5. I’m sorry but this is a very pompous and deceiving representational description of Francis and his liberal friends in the Church. Their depraved desire to ignore the Teachings of Our Blessed Savior and every instruction from God Our Father is deplorable. Since when do we ignore all holiness and sacred teachings to “welcome” the new teachings of Holy Mother Church inviting all defiant and deviant open sinners without their willingness to repent and reject the evil they desire in their lives??? Jesus said”Go and sin no more” but you have decided i-that is unworthy of todays modern and sinful community. They campaign against morality and modesty and all directives from Heaven, so we ignore the true Teachings of Our God to welcome them as they are, lest they criticize and rage against against the “unwelcoming” Church. Outrageous that educated and representatives of God’s sacred Faith are so sacrilegious and prideful to assume that they are above the God that gave them life. Since when did pride become a positive, arrogant welcoming initiative attitude? Since when do we submit the the Will of demonic forces? Of course, this attitude is the new ‘welcoming” acceptance of sin as an acceptable way of life. And Catholics now bow to immorality or we are “backwards”. Well we may not be :forward”enough for those of you who have succumbed to acceptance of the demonic faith but let me assure you I personally will never follow anyone who is foolish enough to sell their souls rather than live to protect them from all evil as God wishes. A pope should be the first to implement the Will of God, not his. personal preferences. And as for those Cardinals you mentioned, I noticed you did not address the fact that they are actively and extremely pro-LBGTQ and support gay issues pro-actively. Why is it that they are not monitored for avoiding their real duties , which is, I remind, to Teach the Faith, , Help the Poor; the abused, the misused and all in need. To oversee your subordinates obligations; and to Serve The Will of God. I don’t believe that includes violating your sacred obligations. Sadly, Francis rewards
    these anti-Catholic behaviors and grants promotions, select duties; and pure favoritism to those who promote violating their sworn duties to God. And he punishes those who remain loyal and true. Sorry, but if this is the way of evil, not holiness. And as for blaming the fall of the Church; it’s empty pews and fewer funds
    on the “backwards: Catholics, I might remind you that prior to Vatican 2. Our churches were packed; our seminaries were full; our convents were full and Catholics loved practicing their faith. It was only after you “forward” thinking Catholics implemented your sacrilegious changes that the negative changes destroyed every aspect of our Sacred Faith. People stay away because you have convinced them they do not need to follow Gods Holy Will for them. They blame everyone else except themselves for their sins and failures, and they avoid the truths of the faith because they are encouraged to do so by the very ones God chose to guide them. They give in to temptation instead and the ones who are really looking for guidance go to other churches. The Catholic Church has failed the followers of Christ and devoted itself to the followers of Satan, himself. God would never advise
    anyone to accept mortal sin in favor of true faith.. That demon is preserved for the prideful and arrogant who believe they are smarter, of higher intelligence, and more “Forward Thinking” than the God who made them and gave them all they have and are! Our Catholic family want guidance, strict rule, and sacred devotions. They do want not to give up the divine for the demonic. They want to serve their God as He wishes to be served. They want to know they have fulfilled their sacred devotions; that they have made a difference in the lives of the needy and suffering souls who seek them out for guidance, comfort, courage, and protection. They need to know they chose God and are serving Him well. But all those things are now denied to them because we have become forward thinking Heretics who gave up God’s design for us. Heresy is preferential as is succumbing to modernistic weaknesses. We are witnessing the attempted destruction of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church as God designed it for all eternity. Being done by shallow, arrogant and prideful sinners who will not admit they have sold their souls and abandoned their followers to find their own way back to their God. The shame is in the accusers, not the abused and attacked. And the primary one who has been the most savaged since Vatican 2 is the Greatest of All; Our Blessed Savior who has suffered the savage ignorance of the fallen. He has been placed aside and left to suffer for us in silence. We no longer offer Him the Love, Honor, and Respect He deserves for dying for our sins. In addition we subject Him to the indignities of insisting on welcoming in the very ones who caused Him to have to sacrifice for our souls. We do not even demand as He taught us, to welcome them in after they repent and offer their remorse. Because we do not require this from today’s sinners, instead we eliminate their sin and offer them an empty, worthless invitation to continue their evil with our admiration. No, this will never be acceptable and no pope, or any man can make it acceptable. We owe our God our all and those who choose to insult Him are no better than the sinners themselves.

    • Wow! Heavy. Are you sure about all of this?
      A church that enables abusers of children,
      and after about eighteen or more centuries declares the pope infallible on matters of faith and morals? Disdains the laity and empowers rich and powerful clergy? Hands out spiritual Get out of Hell Free cards from a “Sacrament of Confession “ that was thought up after the Reformation”? Carried on an extravagant and indulgent lifestyle financed by the illiterate poor for centuries? Splits South America down the middle and gives half to Spain and half to Portugal to exploit?

      You buy into this stuff? You lay it on some dead guy from Nazareth who looks pretty benign from most viewpoints but has been used and misused for two millennia?

      I don’t think so. And remember what else they taught us: the burden of proof lies with the affirmative.

    • “They do want not to give up the divine for the demonic. ”

      It’s a pity that anyone would hurl such invective in the name of a loving God. I choose to believe that LGBTGQ+ and other “sinners” whom you scorn as demons are deserving of grace, acceptance, and above all, equal protection under the laws of the U.S.. You are free to think as you wish. But attempting to change U.S. laws to suit your narrow view of the teachings of Jesus Christ — yes, you’re going to find a lot of resistance. You can choose to dismiss it as the work of the devil if you wish. That resistance will go on, regardless.

  6. You’ve got to be taught
    To hate and fear,
    You’ve got to be taught
    From year to year,
    It’s got to be drummed
    In your dear little ear
    You’ve got to be carefully taught.

    You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
    Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
    And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
    You’ve got to be carefully taught.

    You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
    Before you are six or seven or eight,
    To hate all the people your relatives hate,
    You’ve got to be carefully taught!

    – Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, from “South Pacific”, 1949

    I read that Rodgers, Hammerstein, and Joshua Logan got hate mail for this song from Boston to Georgia. The playwrights defiantly left the song in, stating that it represented the fulcrum of the plot (which it is), and lost bookings in the Deep South as a result.

    It is interesting, and has been pointed out by others, that the line “Go and sin no more” occurs twice in the Gospel of John – and nowhere else. Given the complicated transmission history of John, it seems to me likely that both instances (John 5:14 and 8:11) represent later additions to the text. Both follow instances of radical forgiveness of the sort that is well documented throughout the gospels, and can perhaps be interpreted as “You erred. You’ve been given a second chance. Don’t be a dummy.” Compare the “who am I to judge?” of Paul in Romans (and Francis) with the condemning wrath of the same Paul in 2 Corinthians, in which he had been confronted with dummies, and the later “Paul” of the letters to Timothy, in which behavioral constraint was dictated by the imminent threat of Imperial Roman persecution. None of which represent the parroted automatic condemnation expressed in certain circles.

    I do not hold with Jordan Peterson’s “God is now dead” line. For a thing to cease to exist, it must first exist. And for the narrow prejudices to which we adhere by rote, for which any driving forces that may have existed in the past (for example, the diseases associated with promiscuity, when such diseases could wipe out the tribe) are no longer factors, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

  7. The Catholic church I was raised in was all about the interpersonal, helping people who needed a hand. It was there for a younger Joe Biden, when he lost his first wife and baby daughter in a car crash, and it was there for me when I was in dark places in my adolescence and college years.

    Now, that personal church has been shoved aside for the behavior-orientated church, similar to the evangelical Protestant churches; e.g. no sex until marriage, no homosexuality, and especially anti-abortion. I could accept American Catholicism changing from a socially and personally activist slant to a more doctrinaire one, if that was all there is to the story.

    It isn’t.

    I cannot accept the sickening fact that many Catholic clergy have molested young children, but instead of protecting the abused innocents, excommunicating the predators, and turning them over to the justice system, the church heirarchy instead just shuffles the abusers to other diocies and tries to sweep the horrors under the rug. And then they rally around Trump, a narcissistic brute and unrepentant adulterer, because he stated opposition to abortion in a cynical ploy to expand his base. Meanwhile, faithful and devout Catholics Biden and Nancy Pelosi are ostracized only because they’re pro-choice and therefore not “real” Catholics.

    Worse, Catholic power brokers worldwide are now using abortion as a “whataboutism” to deflect any discussion about this sexual molestation epidemic. Abortion may be ghastly, you’re welcome to that viewpoint, but in no universe does it come close to this abuse of trust as clerical molestation. (And abortion isn’t even considered a universal evil by all religions; Judaism, for example, preaches that the life of the pregnant woman takes precedence over the unborn fetus in case of a medical emergency.) Anyone who rails over abortion while ignoring predatory priests has absolutely no moral leg to stand on.

    I’m entirely with Pope Francis here. I’m very ashamed to tell people I’m Catholic, and I’ve broken off all activities with the church (unless I’m forced to because of a family wedding or funeral). Most importantly: I want U.S. church leadership to focus 100 percent of its energies on bringing those predators to the secular justice system, paying financial and spiritual pennance to its victims, and regaining what little trust it has left with its flock and the rest of the country. Abortion? Don’t say a single word about it, not one single word, until after.


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