Pope Francis greets the faithful as he arrives in St....

Pope Francis greets the faithful as he arrives in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican for his weekly audience on Dec. 4, 2013. Credit: Getty Images / Franco Origlia

For decades, through the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, conservative Catholics in the United States believed they had a strong ally in the Vatican.

Now they find themselves in the unusual -- and uncomfortable -- position of criticizing the leader of their church.

Across the country, 86 percent of Catholics look favorably on Pope Francis, a Pew Research Center survey in June found. But some conservative Catholics view a number of his positions and statements with growing alarm, according to a Gallup poll and interviews with experts.

After Francis issued his landmark encyclical "Laudato Si" in June, some conservative Catholics criticized the pope for wading into the arena of environmental and economic policies. They also cited what they call his failure to emphasize church teachings on issues such as abortion, homosexuality and the bar against divorced Catholics receiving Holy Communion.

Robert Royal, founder and president of the conservative think tank Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., said in a statement that he was "astonished by some of the things he's said about the public order. He's the pope least prepared to do public commentary in about 150 years, and yet he's waded in on Cuba, Scottish independence, Greece, Israel, international economics, etc., in which it's clear he knows very little."

A Gallup poll released last month showed Francis losing support among conservative Catholics. It found his favorable rating among them fell from 72 percent last year to 45 percent in July. His favorable rating among all Catholics dropped from 89 percent to 71 percent.

The decline among conservatives "may be attributable to the pope's denouncing of 'the idolatry of money' and linking climate change partially to human activity, along with his passionate focus on income inequality -- all issues that are at odds with many conservatives' beliefs," the Gallup poll analysis said.

For conservative Catholics, broadly defined by experts such as Fordham University theology professor James McCartin as people who attend Mass regularly and support the church's teachings on birth control, same-sex marriage and other issues, taking on the pope is not easy.

"It's a very uncomfortable position to be in for a faithful Catholic," said Elizabeth Yore, a Chicago-based advocate for children who attended a Vatican meeting in Rome last year about human trafficking. "In my lifetime I've never had a concern about the papacy, the direction of the papacy . . .

"There's a reluctance of faithful Catholics to criticize the pope because we've never done it before," said Yore, who was a teenager in the 1960s when the church went through its last major liberal reform. "It's a new situation for conservative Catholics."

For all the complaints, some prominent conservatives say they have an overall positive view of Francis.

William Donohue of the Manhattan-based Catholic League, a vocal conservative, praised the pope for imposing change on the Vatican's bureaucracy, though he said Francis sometimes sows confusion with off-the-cuff remarks and has made some questionable critiques of capitalism.

"I think he's been good on a lot of those central moral issues of our time," Donohue said. Some conservative Catholics "are just whining because they don't have Benedict, they don't have John Paul II," he said. "Well, they have to move on with the world. He's going to make some changes."

Francis -- pontiff since March 2013 -- is shaking up the Catholic Church in a way not seen since Pope John XXIII and the Vatican II reforms he launched in 1962, McCartin said.

Vatican II liberalized the church by allowing Mass to be said in local languages rather than Latin, having the priest face the congregation rather than the altar, giving a more prominent role to the laity and encouraging greater openness to other religions.

Francis, 78, a Jesuit from Argentina, is moving in a similar direction, McCartin said. He has overhauled the Vatican bureaucracy, encouraged open debate within the church, instituted a mechanism for removing bishops who covered up the priest sex-abuse scandal and adopted a simple lifestyle as pope, trying to emulate his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi.

He eschews the regal trappings of the papacy, living in a more modest apartment at the Vatican than past popes, washing the feet of prisoners and emphasizing his outreach to the poor and marginalized. His down-to-earth, open style has won him admirers worldwide.

A populist image

Some of the positions he has staked out on the environment and the economy are not that different from those of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, McCartin said. John Paul often criticized the excesses of capitalism -- along with communism -- while Benedict was known as "the green pope," partly for installing solar panels at the Vatican.

What makes Francis different is that he has a more populist image and tone than many other popes, McCartin said. He also is making the environment and the economy a major focus of his papacy, while -- unlike John Paul II and Benedict -- not placing as much emphasis on other issues such as abortion, homosexuality and the administering of Communion to divorced Catholics who remarry, he said.

Conservative Catholics, who in the past felt closely aligned with John Paul II and Benedict XVI, say that now they don't always sense they have the pontiff's support.

"We always felt under John Paul II and Benedict XVI that at least the pope has got your back. That feeling . . . for the last couple of years has really begun to leave," said John-Henry Westen, 44, co-founder of Voice of the Family, a conservative international religious group that runs a website based in Front Royal, Virginia.

Francis himself acknowledged the criticism from U.S. quarters of his anticapitalism stance as he returned to Rome from a trip last month to South America. He told reporters aboard the papal plane that he hadn't had a chance to read up on the critiques, but would -- and then pursue a dialogue.

Robert Miller, 44, a Roman Catholic from Sayville who grew up in St. Aidan's parish in Williston Park and graduated from Chaminade High School in Mineola, said that "adopting a bunch of very, very controversial positions on the environment, on economics, on the causes of certain economic conditions in a papal encyclical, and lending the prestige of the Roman pontiff to this, in my opinion is a very dangerous idea . . .

"If the church starts talking about things that are beyond its competence, it's likely to get them wrong. And that brings the church into disrepute and causes people to think the church doesn't know what it's talking about on any matter whatsoever," said Miller, a law professor who splits his time between New York University and the University of Iowa. "It also causes dissension in the church when some Catholics mistakenly think they are required to agree with the opinions of the pope on matters unrelated to faith and morals."

The conservative Catholic critics of Francis fall into three general categories, said Stephen Pope, a theology professor at Boston College. He divides them into those solely focused on the church's rituals, those also concerned with economic issues and in favor of free enterprise and those also concerned with social issues such as abortion and homosexuality.

Their conflict with Francis stems largely from his world view, shaped by his life in Argentina before he was elected pontiff, Pope said.

"This pope is looking at Christianity not from the point of view of the tradition, but from the point of view of the poor," Pope said.

He doesn't emphasize the church's opposition to same-sex marriage as much as conservatives desire, Pope said. While he opposes abortion, Francis doesn't make that "the center focus," he said.

"He's not a culture warrior, and that's what they want," Pope said. "Their focus is on the West and on modern society. His focus is on the Southern Hemisphere and on poor people."

While some church experts say Francis' statements are partially designed to provide a more welcoming approach amid declining church attendance, some conservatives say they don't want a culture warrior but simply a pope who stands strong on basic church teachings. They think his approach won't benefit the church.

"The countries that have the lowest church attendance were the most progressive after the Second Vatican Council -- the Dutch, the Belgians and the Germans," said R.R. Reno, editor of the Manhattan-based conservative religious website First Things.

"Clarity of teaching is attractive to people," he said, adding, "The church is not in the marketing business, and I don't think the pope sees it that way either."

Catholic strongholds

When Francis comes to the United States -- with stops in Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia -- he will visit some of the nation's largest and historically most important areas for Catholics.

Maryland, where the Archdiocese of Washington began, was founded as a haven for Catholics. It was there, in 1634, that the Rev. Andrew White, a Jesuit, celebrated the first Mass held in the original 13 colonies.

The Archdiocese of New York, with 2.6 million Catholics, is the largest archdiocese in the country after Los Angeles. The Diocese of Brooklyn and the Diocese of Rockville Centre each have 1.5 million Catholics. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is home to 1.4 million Catholics.

Few people contend that Pope Francis is seeking to change church teachings on the hot-button issues. But conservatives say he is not placing enough emphasis on those, and that weakens the church's position.

Francis, in an interview published in America magazine in September 2013, said: "We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that.

"But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context," he said. "The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear, and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time."

Miller, the law professor from Sayville, said he found such statements worrying. "To be told that this is not very important, and we don't need to be talking about this quite as much as we have been, I think undermines a lot of what good Catholics are trying to do to remain Catholics in this society," he said.

"The children of Catholic parents can learn to respect the environment in a public school -- they don't need the pope for that," he said. "They do need him to emphasize the Catholic doctrines that are not popular in our society."

Conservatives have been concerned about episodes such as a synod on the family that Francis convened in Rome last fall, in which an initial document spoke favorably of gays and lesbians, and of allowing divorced Catholics who remarry to receive Communion.

This month, he called for a church of "open doors" that welcomes divorced Catholics, prompting speculation he was signaling support for easing the ban on Communion for couples who remarry without a church annulment.

Perhaps most famously, Francis uttered the question "Who am I to judge?" last summer when he was asked about gay priests at the Vatican.

Supporters of the pope, for their part, say Francis is without doubt immensely popular among most Catholics in the United States.

"Catholics across the political spectrum love Pope Francis," said Dennis Proust, a spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference, which represents bishops in the state. "He has spoken out on issues of concern to the right and the left."

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