11/04/2014 09:47 am ET Updated Jan 04, 2015

Cardinals Attack 'People's Pope' With Familiar Wingnut Tactics

Photo by Gabriel Sozzi via Wikimedia Commons

As a fallen-away "cradle Catholic," one who used to love arguing with my religion teachers about things like reincarnation, or women priests ("But if only men can be priests because Jesus only picked male apostles, shouldn't priests have to be Jewish, too?"), I get a kick out of Pope Francis. He reminds me of that all-too-brief reign of Pope John XXIII, the last "people's Pope." He is a compassionate man who radiates the best qualities of the Church -- namely, a strong foundation in social justice and mercy.

He hasn't gone as far in liberalizing the Church as I'd like, but he shows signs that he's getting there.

But the same Catholic conservatives who were so eager to snuggle under the covers with the worst elements of the right wing have learned a thing or two from U.S. politics -- basically, how to undercut and erode the authority of a duly-elected leader. This is actually serious, and I'm only slightly kidding when I say I fervently hope this pope avoids small planes.

Matters came to a head last week when Pope Francis removed the extremely conservative U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke from his influential post as head of the church's highest court, the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. (Think of him as Tony Scalia, making distorted pronouncements about "original intent.") Burke proclaims his version of what the Pope can or can't do, and Pope Francis is supposed to fall into a worshipful crouch in front of Burke's embroidered slippers.

It's not working out that way. Pope Francis has his own ideas, and when a recent report indicated that an upcoming church synod might loosen church policies on divorce and gay marriage, conservatives led by Cardinal Burke went on the attack. German Cardinal Walter Kasper hit back:

In an interview this week, Kasper expressed confidence that bishops at the back-to-back synods would ultimately back some change, and he hit back at critics like Burke, saying they are engaged in political maneuverings. He said they are afraid that any changes would lead to a "domino effect."

"This is all linked to ideology, an ideological understanding of the gospel that the gospel is like a penal code," Kasper, who is retired from a curial job but lives in Rome, told America magazine.

Heh. See what I mean? Scalia!

Burke is, to me, the worst kind of Church prelate, known not only for his rigid views on abortion and gays and his willingness to aid the Republican right wing, but for his love of the kind of gaudier ceremonial frippery most cardinals had the taste to leave behind a half-century ago. (All for the greater glory of God, I'm sure.)

As an authoritarian, of course, he was not so quick to address the sexual abuse scandal. As the National Catholic Reporter noted last month:

Cardinal Burke would do us all a favor to examine the second component of the clergy sex abuse scandal, that component that deals with his episcopal colleagues. He might ask why canon law has not come to the aid of the children in a forthright and active manner. He might ask how church law has allowed his fellow bishops to cover up the scandal rather than bringing to public. He might examine how church law has played a role in driving many Catholics, disaffected by the scandal, from the church.

And since he got demoted, he's doing his best to damn Francis with faint praise:

American Cardinal Raymond Burke, the feisty former archbishop of St. Louis who has emerged as the face of the opposition to Pope Francis' reformist agenda, likened the Roman Catholic Church to "a ship without a rudder" in a fresh attack on the pope's leadership.

In an interview with the Spanish Catholic weekly Vida Nueva, published Thursday (Oct. 30), Burke insisted he was not speaking out against the pope personally but raising concern about his leadership.

"Many have expressed their concerns to me. At this very critical moment, there is a strong sense that the church is like a ship without a rudder," Burke said.

Hey, we've seen "The Borgias," Cardinal Burke. We know what you're doing! (We've also seen Mitch McConnell, Karl Rove, and Fox News in action.)

Conservatives have privately labeled Francis "the anti-Christ" and illegitimate, just as Obama was "the Kenyan" who couldn't legally be president. In the National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters calls them "Tea Party Catholics" and writes:

Regrettably, I suspect those who disapprove of Pope Francis constitute a larger share of the clergy and the episcopate than the laity. When bishops temporize in public, as we have seen for example in Bishop Robert Morlino's ill-advised interviews, or in comments from Cardinal Raymond Burke, you can bet that those same prelates, in private, are hearing, or saying, the kinds of things Fr. Longenecker records in this remarkable piece. And, before he got booted off the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Burke was able to place many like-minded prelates in some prominent sees.

Longenecker writes:

Some have given up on Pope Francis. Others say he is "the false prophet" who will accompany the anti Christ in the end times. Others don't like his dress sense, grumble about his media gaffes and some think they are all intentional and that he is a very shrewd Jesuit who wants to undermine the Catholic faith.

Clearly, Father is not speaking to the same Catholics I speak with, although I did hear a bishop speculate on the fact that "we can't dismiss the possibility that there could be another anti-pope." I like the way Fr. Longenecker, following a model set forth previously by Archbishop Chaput, and by the Wizard of Oz before that, places these concerns in the mouths of others, nonetheless giving them oxygen by reporting them. The idea that Pope Francis "is a very shrewd Jesuit who wants to undermine the Catholic faith" really did not need to be reported in order to continue with the article, did it? And, the observation reads like something you would find in an early eighteenth century Jansenist tract, an analogy that bears further reflection because of the Jansenist tendencies of the anti-Francis brigade.

It sounds so familiar, doesn't it? The sly words, the implication of weakness, the veiled accusations of undermining the very foundations of the institution?

I remember enough of my twelve years of Bible study to know that Jesus, asked about the greatest commandment, reportedly replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

I could be wrong, but I think Pope Francis comes a lot closer to that spirit than Cardinal Burke. Your mileage, of course, may vary.