You might think that progressives would be rejoicing under the current pontificate. Instead, they are fretting about the future

Even as Pope Francis wins the applause of the world for giving Catholicism a friendlier face, critics have started to grumble. On social media and in opinion columns, they have drawn up a list of grievances. While they approve of his pastoral outreach, they are concerned that he is leaving the Church unprepared to face the challenges of our age. They admire many of the men he has promoted, but fret that he has also empowered bishops who want to lead the Church on a dangerous, radical course – and may well do so once he departs.

No, these critics aren’t the conservatives whose complaints have become a familiar feature of the pontificate, but liberal Catholics whose initial enthusiasm is now curdling into concern, even alarm. Three years after his election, The Tablet has decided that Pope Francis’s reform programme is “rapidly becoming overdue”. Robert Mickens, the veteran Vatican correspondent, writes in the National Catholic Reporter that “many reform-minded Catholics have again become quite worried about the future direction of their Church”.

Vito Mancuso, a former priest and protégé of the liberal Italian lion Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, shares their fears. “Two diametrically opposed forces are intensifying within the Catholic Church,” he warns us in a recent interview in La Repubblica. Opposed to the innovators like himself are those who “want to return to the ‘sound tradition,’ something especially prevalent among young priests”.

Mancuso believes that if Francis does not act more decisively, and soon, he risks being no more than “a shooting star”. After his death or retirement, the College of Cardinals could elect a pope who would end Francis’s flexible pastoral approach and begin making straightforward affirmations and condemnations. They particularly fear the election of Cardinal Robert Sarah, a man who does not seem much interested in flattering the sensibilities of educated Westerners. He appears in their nightmares with the name Pius XIII.

Such a reversal has happened before. In 1973, at the unusually young age of 36, Francis – still known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio – was named head of the troubled Jesuit province of Argentina. His charismatic personality and popular touch drew young men to the order but alienated the Jesuits clustered around the Centre for Social Research and Action. They desired a more structural approach to Argentina’s political problems and a more intellectual perspective on the Catholic faith.

Francis ignored their grumbling as he instituted a programme of reform, but his achievement proved more fragile than anyone expected. When he stepped down, he was succeeded by an ally who supported him in his new role as rector of the school of Jesuit formation. Yet Francis’s opponents soon convinced Peter Hans Kolvenbach, the superior general of the Society of Jesus, to install one of their own as head of the Argentine Jesuits.

Then they moved against Francis. The future pope was exiled to Germany, ostensibly to do doctoral work on the German philosopher Romano Guardini, but really to avoid stirring up trouble at home. When he returned, his opponents found another way to isolate him. In 1990, he was sent to the mountain town of Córdoba. In 1992, he was asked to stop living in Jesuit residences.

At that point, his failure was complete. In only a few years, and despite immense popularity during his tenure, Francis had been repudiated by the institution he had once led. Because he had failed to entrench his reforms or secure the cooperation of indispensable allies, all his work was undone.

Might it happen again? When I asked Peter Steinfels, the longstanding religion columnist for the New York Times, if he was worried, he cautioned against the “uncritical liberal ultramontanism” that has set some up for disappointment. The fate of the Church does not hang on the actions of a single pope. Rather, “the future of the faith in modern, post-Enlightenment societies will depend on what occurs in all the intermediate layers of Catholic life and leadership.”

Matthew Boudway, an editor at Commonweal, echoed his point. “The Church’s more serious problems cannot be solved by a pope,” he told me. The most serious problem Boudway sees is “the incompatibility of the culture of late capitalism with the Christian form of life”. While a pope can alert us to this problem, as both Francis and Benedict have done, he cannot save us from it.

Yet narrow concerns about the leadership of Pope Francis conceal deeper anxiety. Though it is a faith committed to shaking off the past and embracing tomorrow, liberal Catholicism has an increasingly uncertain future.

The first problem is demographic. There are not enough highly committed young liberal Catholics to replace the older generation. Last September, the posh Town and Country Club in St Paul, Minnesota, hosted to a conference with the title “Can Francis change the Church’s approach to sexuality?” Barbara Frey, a human rights lawyer, and Massimo Faggioli, an advocate for the theological education of newspaper columnists, addressed a crowd of 125 attendees. Notwithstanding the spicy topic, the National Catholic Reporter noted that crowd members were “mostly in their 60s, 70s and 80s”.

Though many self-identified Catholics count as liberals, broad trends away from religious attachment and observance have left fewer than ever willing to spend time and energy trying to change the Church. Phyllis Zagano, a professor at Hofstra University and advocate for women deacons, worries that “older Church professionals who adjusted to vernacular liturgies and who incorporate mercy into their understandings of justice are retiring daily” only to be replaced by young conservatives.

Though liberals control various media outlets and theology faculties, they have not been as successful as traditional Catholics in drawing people into the sacramental life of the Church. Liberals who have accepted calls to the priesthood or religious life, who attend Mass daily, who volunteer on parish councils are getting older every year. For young dogmatists who feel bound to respect their elders, polemic against liberal Catholics has never been harder.

This spring I attended the ordination and first Mass of a young priest. As the infant children of our friends cried in the pews, I watched him kneel before the altar and elevate the Host. After the liturgy ended, we gathered in the parish hall for a reception with sandwiches and soda. The newly minted Father entered the room dressed in a soutane. He is neither a traditionalist nor a controversialist, but his long garment would have struck a previous generation or priests as grossly retrograde. I asked if any of the older priests he knew would be offended by it. He said yes, but that they had by now resigned themselves to seeing such things among their younger colleagues.

Not everyone is willing to concede so quietly. A few years ago I attended a Mass at which the priest began to rage against Benedict XVI’s investigation of American nuns: “This is evil, evil, wicked and evil! It is a sin, and Benedict should beg for forgiveness!” At the end of Mass, I thanked the priest for his homily but told him that I didn’t think Mass the moment for such comments. He looked at me and said: “I meet so many young people like you, and it makes me terrified for the future of our Church.” Before I could respond, a champagne-coloured Lexus pulled up to where we stood, and its elderly driver extended a shaking fist: “You give it to ’em, Father!”

Yet such anecdotes tend to overstate liberal Catholicism’s weakness. It may not be able to propel people toward the centre of Church life, but it appeals to many who are falling away, or at least lingering near the exits. Newman once wrote, “there are but two alternatives, the way to Rome, and the way to Atheism: Anglicanism is the halfway house on the one side, and Liberalism is the halfway house on the other.” Liberal Catholicism may be a temporary home for many who are headed to unbelief, but some who stop there take the opportunity to turn back.

Liberal Catholicism is based on the admirable and eminently Catholic aspiration for a Church and society that work in concert. What distinguishes the liberal from your run-of-the-mill integralist is the liberal’s belief that the society must not only be brought around to the views of the Church, but that the Church must also, to some extent, and perhaps to a very large one, be brought around to the views of the society.

At one point, this seemed like an exciting possibility. Critics of the liturgical reforms that followed Vatican II have criticised most instances of the New Mass as lacking a “vertical element” that lifted man up toward transcendence. But the more horizontally oriented, communal masses did seem transcendent at the time – precisely because they offered a revolutionary break with the past. Oh, bliss in that dawn!

The revolutionary moment has passed, however, and with it the strength of liberal Catholic faith. Kierkegaard identified two periods of time: revolutionary and reflective ages. In the first, people are able to leap into unplumbed waters, to strike out across thin ice without calculation or fear. They take history in their hands and, without knowing the probabilities or risks, fashion something new. In other ages, action gives way to reflection. The aspiring revolutionary does not make a mad bid for bliss. Instead, he “leaves everything standing but empties it of significance”. Rather than deny old truths outright, he “makes the whole of life ambiguous”. A principle of gradualism is introduced, so that “the distinction between good and evil is enervated by a superficial, superior and theoretical knowledge of evil, by a supercilious cleverness which is aware that goodness is neither appreciated nor right in this world.” Rather than boast in the stark colour of the bonnet rouge, the revolutionary cloaks himself in shades of grey.

Francis does not challenge the teaching of his predecessors head-on. He insists that the norm still stands even after he includes every case in the exception. What was once simply an absolute principle is now discussed in relative terms, and the terms are so relative that it is possible even to insist that the rule remains absolute. The resulting “pastoral solutions” infuriate traditional Catholics, who sense the inconsistency, and fail to satisfy liberals, who want a more thoroughgoing revolution. Écrasez l’infâme!

Revolution may have seemed possible in the 1960s, but it no longer does today. The New Mass may have given our grandparents a delicious frisson, but it is comfortingly or depressingly familiar to younger Catholics. As it no longer has the power of revolution, liberal Catholicism has lost its last taste of transcendence. Those who want some share of excitement must look elsewhere.

Liberal Catholics are left with a delicate and tedious task. The doctrine of infallibility limits even those who would call it into question. Peter can wink, nod, nudge or fall silent, but he cannot contradict himself. Francis knows this well. When he was asked about the possibility intercommunion between Lutherans and Catholics, he gave an ambiguous response before finally concluding: “I dare not say more.” This is how one speaks in an age of reflection when one still cherishes hope for revolution.

Someone who advances by stealth can fall victim to sudden reversals, but he is also able to avoid detection and opposition. If liberal Catholicism hopes to direct the course of the Church, then, it will have to do so with caution and cunning. This makes it less heroic and and appealing than it once was, but no easier to avoid. As long as the Church continues to confront what Boudway calls late capitalism, there will be a liberal Catholicism seeking to make peace with it.

Meanwhile, the man in whom liberal Catholics have placed their hopes advances on the only possible path. He is hollowing out rather than overturning, undermining rather than uprooting, those things he perceives to be harmful. That some of those things are essential to the faith is the explosive claim of a group of Catholics who may, once again, undo all that Francis has done.

Matthew Schmitz is literary editor of First Things (firstthings.com).

This article first appeared in the July 22 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.