Conservative Catholic voices push back on Pope Francis, but it may not signal a deep divide

Recent criticism by two senior American Roman Catholic officials of Pope Francis’ exhortation for church officials to be more inclusive and accepting has generated talk of a falling out between the pontiff and conservative leaders in the U.S.

While the pope has spent much of his first 1½ years preaching a new level of acceptance within the Church, but now conservative voices have begun pushing back.

“It’s nothing new that some Catholics who disagree with the pope feel that they’re marginalized in the church,” the Rev. Paul Sullins, a sociology professor at Catholic University in Washington D.C., told Fox News Latino.

“What’s new is that it’s the conservatives who feel that way now,” he added. “It used to be the progressives who felt that way under Benedict and John Paul.”

One of those conservatives is Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, the former Archbishop of St. Louis who now heads the group that oversees the Vatican’s justice system. He was quoted in a Spanish weekly saying that many people have expressed to him that “there is a strong sense that the Church is like a ship without a rudder.”

Another prominent American prelate, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Joseph Chaput recently said that an October gathering at the Vatican where Pope Francis spoke of the need to be more welcoming to homosexuals, people who had divorced and remarried and unmarried people who live together resulted in “confusion.”

And “confusion is of the devil,” Chaput noted.

But Sullins doesn’t believe that the disagreement between the Americans and Pope Francis – whom so many Catholics and non-Catholics alike have come to see as more “of the people” than past pontiffs – betrays a deeper divide.

“The media tend to enhance disagreements,” he said.

At a recent gathering of hundreds of bishops and cardinals in the Vatican to discuss the family, a preliminary report set off much teeth gnashing among conservatives who called it “near revolutionary.”

“In the U.S. and Europe and in parts of the rest of the world, there are very lively local debates among bishops about these pastoral matters, no question about that,” Paul Griffiths, professor of Catholic theology at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C., told the Christian Science Monitor. “But I think that Pope Francis’ leadership on this will push the world church to make some genuine pastoral moves.”

Sullins isn’t so certain.

At a recent meeting he had with conservative leaders, Sullins said, the pope faced tough questions about his views of the traditional family.

“In those remarks he strongly reaffirmed traditional family views,” Sullins said. “He said that these other forms of families aren’t real families at all. He was very much in line with the traditional orthodox Catholic Church view of marriage.”

The final document isn’t expected until next fall, and Sullins expects that to fall in line with traditional Church teachings.

“When the final words are spoken, the conservatives will not be disappointed with the final resolution of the synod,” he said.

Even if Francis doesn’t completely alter the way the Church operates, Sullins said that Pope Francis, has introduced a new energy and a new vitality to it.

“He has managed to generate a substantive dialogue in the Catholic Church about openness, about a new way of thinking of those who have felt shunned by it,” Sullins said.

“Francis is challenging us to be mindful of the poor, he’s been a model by his very life.”

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