Someone brought a dog to mass at my parish this weekend. It lay smack in the middle of the main aisle, forcing parishioners to edge around it. No one said anything, but the symbolism was not lost on some in attendance: dogs may be going to church, but the universal Roman Catholic Church is going to the dogs.
Under Pope Francis, the church has abandoned many of its bedrock positions on issues like divorce and homosexuality in favor of a “why not?” attitude. Francis has scolded people for being rich, sided with illegal immigrants, and suggested the church should be a refuge for the poor.
He has sidelined conservative cardinals, installed like-minded allies in key jobs, taken personal control of the Knights of Malta for defying him, and generally sent the signal that behind his amiable smile and humble talk lurks a radically liberal agenda.
The latest example of the pope’s blueprint for the future is contained in an article penned by two of his closest confidantes. They believe that conservative Catholics in the United States have formed a coalition with Evangelical Protestants to push Donald Trump’s agenda, which the authors call a “Manichean vision.” The article, in the Jesuit publication La Civiltà Cattolica, could not have been printed without Francis’s knowledge and approval.
The pope left little doubt about his feelings toward Trump when the president and first lady visited the Vatican earlier this year. In their joint photo, Francis frowns as if he smelled something bad in the room.
In addition to rejecting Trump’s worldview, the article’s authors single out White House strategist Stephen Bannon as a “supporter of apocalyptic geopolitics.”
“The pope is expressing his displeasure at the election of Donald Trump as president and with the Catholics who voted for him,” says Deal Hudson, former Catholic Outreach director for the Republican National Committee. “It came as a huge surprise to the establishment of the church, who were pulling for Hillary Clinton.”
Now, says Hudson, the pope is wielding his power as CEO of the Church to tell American Catholics “we are bad Christians. This was his way of calling us a basket of deplorables without using that phrase.”
“This pope does not like the culture war,” says Robert Royal, president of the Faith and Reason Institute and a commentator on the Catholic network EWTN. “The real tragedy is they’re trying to discredit some types of religious action in the public square, while they are very active in advocating for the environment, immigrants and stopping human trafficking.”
Francis can run the church any way he wants. But demonizing conservative American Catholics is a risky business. They have deep pockets and long memories.
It is, in the end, a dog eat dog world – and church.