By and large, opinions about Francis are as predictable as they are militant. Theological and political liberals take a positive view of the Holy Father; conservatives, not so much. Those on the Church’s right wing have strongly supported the 2016 dubia (a request for clarification of the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia), and many defended the 2017 correctio filialis (filial correction) – though most stopped short of endorsing 2019’s “heresy letter”. This is the group dismissed by the LA Times as “cranky”, by Reuters as “extremists” and by Fr James Martin as the “Catholic alt-right”.
And yet not all theological conservatives and liturgical traditionalists oppose Pope Francis. A vanguard of well-known writers, academics and priests have stood against the tide of partisan opinion to defend the Supreme Pontiff.
For the Legionary priest and blogger Fr Matthew Schneider, defending Pope Francis is part and parcel of his priestly vocation. “To me, the call of the priest online is primarily part of the munus docendi – the power or duty of teaching – which is among the three munera [duties] we receive at ordination,” he tells me. “As such, we are called to defend, explain and promote the Catholic Church and her teaching primarily through words.”
Fr Schneider thinks the problem of anti-Francis conservatives is inherent in the word “conservative” itself – that is, applying partisan language to spiritual matters. “I am strongly orthodox and Catholic,” he says, “but I don’t identify with any political label.”
He’s also skeptical of drawing too sharp a line between Pope Francis and his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who remains a hero figure to orthodox Catholics. “Even though Pope Francis speaks in a different manner to the popes we remember, I don’t see major problems with what he says or his way of speaking,” he tells me. “We need to realise that Francis is more of a pastor, while Benedict … is more a theology professor, so the latter is more used to precise theological language.”