Pope Francis’s relationship with the conservative wing of the American Catholic church was already on shaky ground when reports surfaced this week of his plan to evict one of his most prominent critics from a Vatican-subsidized apartment in Rome.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, who led dioceses in St. Louis and Wisconsin before moving to Rome, is a lion of the faith among conservative Catholics who see him a defender of tradition and orthodoxy in a dangerously unmoored church.
The move comes just weeks after Francis fired another outspoken critic, Bishop Joseph Strickland, who was removed from his post in Tyler, Texas, following a Vatican investigation into his leadership.
Both decisions prompted a public outcry from conservative church leaders, making it clear that restoring unity in the divided American Church will take more than swatting down a few high-profile clerics. The pope’s increasingly open pushback against theological and liturgical conservatives in the church has nurtured a deep wariness of his leadership among conservatives in the church, who exist at all levels of Catholic life in America.
“The pattern of vindictiveness and punishment seems to fly in the face of what he says about being an instrument of mercy and accompaniment,” said Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote, a lay advocacy group based in Wisconsin that supported President Donald J. Trump’s re-election in 2020.
Mr. Burch listed the ways that Francis had offended conservative Catholics over the course of his papacy, citing his remark in 2015 that good Catholics need not breed “like rabbits,” which some large families obedient to the church’s teaching against contraception perceived as an affront. (Francis later apologized for the comment.) More recently, Francis lamented seeing young priests in Rome shopping for vestments adorned with lace, a style favored by traditionalists.
Catholics make up a little under 20 percent of the population in the U.S., and they are a politically diverse cohort, with roughly equal numbers identifying as Republicans and Democrats. It’s unclear if there is a larger shift toward conservatism among Catholics, but Catholics who attended Mass more often were more likely to vote for Mr. Trump in 2020 than those who attended less frequently, suggesting that those most committed to Catholic practices are also more conservative.
That signals deeper troubles ahead for the relationship between a more progressive Vatican and the American church, where a robust network of radio hosts, podcasters and journalists regularly skewer the pope’s missteps and question the direction in which he is steering the church. (Bishop Strickland, deposed from his perch in Texas, launched a YouTube channel this week.)
In September, Francis bemoaned a “very strong, organized, reactionary attitude” opposing him in the American church. “I would like to remind these people that backwardness is useless,” he told a group of his fellow Jesuits at a gathering of young Catholics in Lisbon.
The bishops’ conference in the United States is also dominated by conservatives. At its annual meeting in November, Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, its current president, pushed back on a suggestion by the pope’s representative to the United States that traditionalists in the American church are insular and have failed to reach out and evangelize. “Our churches are not empty yet,” Archbishop Broglio said wryly.
The ranks of Catholic priests in the United States have become steadily more conservative over time, portending deepening divisions under any future popes in the Francis model.
A recent analysis of a major survey of Catholic priests in the United States found that more than half the priests ordained since 2010 described themselves as “conservative/orthodox” or “very conservative/orthodox.” That represents a dramatic reversal from the late 1960s, when more than 60 percent said they were “progressive” or “very progressive.”
Strikingly, not a single surveyed priest ordained after 2020 described himself as “very progressive.” The survey of 3,500 priests was conducted by the Catholic Project at the Catholic University of America.
Around 82 percent of U.S. Catholics say they view Pope Francis favorably, according to a 2021 Pew survey though the percentage of Catholics who view him unfavorably has climbed in the last decade. That discontent can be felt in the pews.
“The pope likes to talk about how we need to serve the unity of the church,” said Allison Accardo, director of religious education at a parish in the Archdiocese of Detroit. “That sounds really rich coming from him.”
She cited the pope’s discouragement of the Traditional Latin Mass, an older form favored by traditionalists, which Cardinal Burke has championed.
“We feel so ostracized, like we’re always being scolded and we don’t have anyone who can bind up our wounds,” said Lisa Bergman, a conservative Catholic who runs a small Catholic publishing company in Chicago.
For Ms. Bergman and other “traditional-minded” Catholics, Cardinal Burke’s punishment is another sign that the current leadership in the Vatican views them as a problem rather than as fellow travelers.
“I can honestly say I love Pope Francis,” she said, “but it’s a deep profound wound that I don’t think he would ever say the same thing about me.”