A publication of Sacred Heart University
The Taliban Within
The Quality of Mercy is Strained…in the Pews

Conservative Catholic Critics Foment Discord and Youth Exodus

Polarization and vitriolic, personal attacks have become so commonplace that we barely raise an eyebrow when someone launches a moralistic, questionably ethical or politically biased tirade against another, and it is amplified by mainstream, digital, social or conservative media. But every innuendo, attack or distorted truth has consequences and causes collateral damage. And when the Pope himself is the target – and fellow Catholics wield the hammer – it is time to take stock and consider how this self-inflicted discord is harming the Church.

Divisions within the Church, as in partisan politics, have given rise to noisy minority voices with large bullhorns and small scruples. Conservative Catholic media and leaders attack the Pope, defy his leadership and openly protest his efforts to preach the importance of being merciful, less judgmental and more open to dialogue.

That is not to say the Vatican is beyond reproach or that differing opinions do not matter. Pope Francis has signaled his willingness to listen and encourages discussion, questions and opportunities for discourse and disagreement. But, he also reminds us that established policy and doctrine must be respected and supported.

Yet many in the Catholic conservative movement prefer their own spin and platform, with axes to grind and self-righteous, biased agendas to share. One example is the U.S.-based Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), which has taken aim at Pope Francis for many of his views, including his belief that the Church should be making efforts to understand and welcome LGBTQ Catholics looking for spiritual guidance and support.

EWTN has been openly antagonistic of Pope Francis and church policy, inviting partisan Catholic leaders who differ with the Pope’s charge of inclusion to participate in broadcasts that often are hostile and insulting.

Contrary to that view, Sacred Heart University has joined a growing chorus of Catholic institutions in taking a stand against high-ranking church leaders attempting to marginalize and limit the civil and religious rights of LGBTQ people. We support the Pope’s view that discrimination of this nature disregards the Church’s commitment to social justice and more than a century of doctrine that encourages the human rights and dignity of all people, without exception.

Additionally, a cabal of U.S. bishops received negative press earlier this year when they said President Biden, a pious and dedicated Catholic, should not be offered the eucharist due to his openness to discussion on abortion laws. This politicizing of sacred traditions is an abomination.

The impudence demonstrated by these conservative critics is feeding a steady exodus from the Church. It is easy to understand why: having barely survived heinous revelations of long-term sexual improprieties and coverups, many believe Catholic leaders fail to listen to the needs of young parishioners and appropriately demonstrate concerns for those dealing with gender-identity challenges, divorce, birth control and abortion, women’s changing roles, diminishing spiritual values, the digital divide and many other relevant issues.

A Gallup Poll completed this past spring of 6,100 respondents revealed Church membership in 2020 dropping to 47% of those surveyed. It is the first time since 1937 that a minority of adults said they were members of a formal religious institution. Catholics belonging to a parish dropped from 76% in 2000 to 58% in 2020. Most alarming was the rapid decline among younger adults, particularly those born from 1981 to 1996 (Generation Y). The poll found that only 36% of that age group belong to a church.

These trends parallel similar drop-offs in clubs, organizations and professional associations. Change may be attributed to less trust in institutions, politics and business, but pointing fingers elsewhere disregards the truth that the Church is facing a fundamental crisis of image and doctrine, and internal political divisions are exacerbating flight.

The Pope has made clear his commitment to discussion and dialogue, to environmental stewardship and to being more empathetic and embracing toward all of God’s children. Here at Sacred Heart University, we welcome every voice, and believe strongly in the value of discussion, candor and inclusion. We will continue to host forums with speakers broaching controversial topics, and we want our students, faculty and the communities we serve to see our campus as a safe haven for learning, growing and exploring our differences.

As a proud institution steeped in the Catholic intellectual tradition, we stand in support of Pope Francis and against those who, through their actions and words, choose to bring dishonor and injury to the Church, its teachings and its devoted followers. We would hope that more American bishops would demonstrate their fidelity and leadership in support of Pope Francis. Their silence is deafening, but indicative of their spine.

John J. Petillo, Ph.D., is president of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT. 


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Liz Lerch

Thank you, Dr. Petillo, for having the courage to support what I have always believed to be true Christ-like values. You are an exemplary leader and role model for the young adults at Sacred Heart University. I am proud of the school’s continually open, inclusive and justice oriented profile.

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