Pope Francis is drawing rock star raves for softening the Vatican's image on such issues as homosexuality, capitalism and divorce, but his celebrated tolerance doesn't seem to extend to dissenters within the church, whose conservative revolt came to a halt when the pontiff exiled their de facto leader to obscurity.
A recent meeting of bishops unleashed what one Vatican watcher called “a tsunami of conservative backlash" against the pope when it followed an agenda that sought to revisit long-held doctrine on controversial social issues. The most vocal critic was American Cardinal Raymond Burke, who described the Church under Francis as like “a ship without a rudder.” But as conservative bishops and lower-level clergy in the U.S. began to signal their agreement, Burke quickly found himself demoted from his powerful Vatican post to a purely ceremonial role.
The move sent a chill through the ranks of American conservative bishops, nearly two dozen of whom declined comment when contacted by FoxNews.com, despite many having previously expressed strong doubts about the church's leftward swerve under Francis, who assumed the papacy in 2013.
But conservatives at the grassroots level remain alienated by Francis' liberal turn, and are not likely to be cowed, John Allen, associate editor of Crux and the Boston Globe and author of a forthcoming book on Pope Francis, told FoxNews.com.
“There is growing ambivalence to Pope Francis in conservative Catholic circles, especially in the States,” Allen said, noting a number of reasons that make some U.S. Catholics more likely to oppose Francis.
“One [reason] is that being pro-life is the litmus test for Catholic orthodoxy that is stronger than any other place in the world, because debates over gay marriage and abortion are live here, while they have been settled elsewhere,” Allen said. “The perception is that the Pope is soft on these issues -- true or not, the perception is out there.”
Outside the Church, Francis is riding a wave of popularity. His attempt to give the Catholic Church a kinder, gentler face has earned him Person of Year awards from Time, and LGBT magazine The Advocate, as well as approval from people traditionally hostile to the Church, such as singer and gay rights activist Elton John -- who recently called him “my hero.”
Polls show the sentiment is generally widespread among the public, with most polls giving the Argentine high approval ratings. A Pew research poll published in March found that, although there was no discernible rise in either Mass attendance or in Americans who identify as Catholic, approximately two-thirds of the public view Pope Francis favorably.
It's within the church hierarchy that Francis faces opposition, the silence of conservative bishops notwithstanding. There have been voices of protest by some conservatives since Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected in 2013, with conservative blog “Rorate Caeli” posting an article about the new pope on the day he was elected called “The Horror!” Concern and even anger at what conservatives in the Church perceive to be growing confusion and lack of clarity in regards to Church doctrine continued to grow, culminating in the near mutiny following the October meeting, known as an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.
The Synod was called by Francis to discuss the topic of the family, and Francis encouraged bishops to speak openly about controversial topics. But when he assigned German Cardinal Walter Kasper -- the de facto leader of the progressive wing of the Church and long-time antagonist of Pope Benedict XVI -- the job of setting the agenda, conservative anger ignited.
A working document for the session, released in early October, expressed views that represented a radical shift from traditional Catholic teaching. The document opened up the possibility of admitting divorced and remarried couples to Holy Communion and instructed pastors to avoid “any language or behavior which might be construed as discrimination,” while also calling for greater acceptance of gays.
The language on the latter was in stark contrast to previous expressions by the Church that, while condemning “unjust discrimination,” described homosexuality in a 1986 document as a ”tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus...must be seen as an objective disorder.”
The synod document elicited what Allen called “a tsunami of conservative backlash” with Voices of the Family, a coalition of pro-life groups, slamming the document as a betrayal, “one of the worst official documents drafted in Church history.”
Although the apparent change in tone was praised by many media outlets, conservative bishops and cardinals across the globe condemned the document and the pope’s handling of the Synod, yet it was in America in particular where fingers were pointed directly at the pope.
“You might say that the Synod was a turning point for conservatives, the end of the honeymoon,” The Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, a leading conservative American blogger and an influential voice in the U.S. church, told FoxNews.com.
In the aftermath, now-silent American bishops had plenty to say.
“Pope Francis is fond of creating a mess," Bishop Thomas Tobin of the Diocese of Providence, wrote in a blog post. "Mission accomplished.”
Said Archbishop Charles Chaput, a leading conservative bishop: “Confusion is of the devil.”
But both Tobin and Chaput declined comment, following the stunning demotion of Burke, who blasted Francis for allowing Kasper to exercise such powerful influence over the Church's direction.
“The Pope named Cardinal Kasper to the Synod and has let the debate go along this track,” Burke said in an interview with Il Foglio. Meanwhile, in another interview, for Catholic World Report, Burke said that a statement from the pope affirming Catholic teaching was “long overdue."
Burke was toughest on Francis for the Kasper connection, noting in an interview with Buzzfeed that Kasper’s implicit claim to be speaking for the pope has not been corrected by the pontiff and “the lack of clarity about the matter has certainly done a lot of harm.”
Burke, who was prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura -- the highest court in the Vatican and a position of considerable power -- when he spoke out, was shifted to the largely ceremonial role of patron to the sovereign military order of Malta. Burke, whose demotion is without precedent in recent Church history, has since denied that he is attacking Francis, yet many remain unconvinced.
“The only plausible face-value interpretation [from Burke’s remarks] is that the pope owes the world an apology,” Allen told FoxNews.com. “It is impossible to read that as anything other than a criticism of the pope.”
One conservative bishop who did comment, Bishop Edward Slattery of the Diocese of Tulsa, defended Francis.
“He is as conservative as anyone else in the hierarchy," Slattery insisted. “He is trying to evangelize the world, and so his style is a new kind of openness and a spontaneity. In his heart he is as Catholic as any other pope or bishop.”