Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times reports today on conservative American Catholics who haven’t gotten aboard the Pope Francis train. Excerpt:

They were particularly alarmed when he told a prominent Italian atheist in an interview published in October, and translated into English, that “everyone has his own idea of good and evil” and that everyone should “follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them” — a remark that many conservatives interpreted as appearing to condone relativism. He called proselytizing “solemn nonsense.”

They were shocked when they saw that Francis said in the interview that “the most serious of the evils” today are “youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.” It compounded the chagrin after he said in an earlier interview that he had intentionally “not spoken much” about abortion, same-sex marriage or contraception because the church could not be “obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines.”

Steve Skojec, the vice president of a real estate firm in Virginia and a blogger who has written for several conservative Catholic websites, wrote of Francis’ statements: “Are they explicitly heretical? No. Are they dangerously close? Absolutely. What kind of a Christian tells an atheist he has no intention to convert him? That alone should disturb Catholics everywhere.”

In an interview on Friday, Mr. Skojec said he was overwhelmed by the positive response to his blog from people who said they were thinking the same things but had not wanted to say them in public. He said he had come to suspect that Francis is a “self-styled revolutionary” who wants to change the church fundamentally.

“There have been bad popes in the history of the church,” Mr. Skojec said. “Popes that murdered, popes that had mistresses. I’m not saying Pope Francis is terrible, but there’s no divine protection that keeps him from being the type of guy who with subtlety undermines the teachings of the church to bring about a different vision.”

A Catholic reader of this blog sent this Christian Science Monitor story in. Excerpt:

After months of false starts, the Illinois House of Representatives on Tuesday voted to legalize same-sex marriage, and reports suggest that Pope Francis’s recent comments about homosexuality may have played a small but significant role.

At least one Catholic lawmaker cited the pope’s statement as she explained her recent decision, and Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, also a Catholic, used the pope’s words to articulate his own reasons for supporting the bill. Previously, he had been criticized for not pushing hard enough to rally support within his congressional chamber.

Other factors played into the shift that made passage through the House possible Tuesday, including two US Supreme Court decisions this summer in favor of gay marriage, according to observers. But with polls showing public opinion moving toward greater acceptance of gay marriage, the events in Illinois raise questions about whether opposition among Catholic lawmakers could be waning.

The reader adds:

I’m a Catholic high school teacher and I can tell you first hand that the Pope’s words have emboldened those who reject the Church’s teaching on homosexuality to muddy the waters even further on this issue.

Relatedly, here’s a great follow-up from Father Dwight Longenecker on his earlier criticism of Francis-adviser Cardinal Maradiaga’s social-gospel speech. Excerpt:

The main point of the post about the Cardinal’s speech was to get first things first–to re-affirm that the primary point of the Christian religion is the salvation of souls, the transformation of the human person by being sanctified and that from this transformation emerges individuals who, because of their love of God, reach out to others in loving concern.

This, it seems to me, is not only fundamental to the Christian faith, but very easy to understand. Jesus Christ says in the gospel, “There are two commandments. The first is this: Love God. The second is like: Love your neighbor as yourself.” The first is the vertical relationship between us and God, and Our Lord says this comes first. The second is the horizontal–and the horizontal aspect which is our relationship to our neighbor–hangs on the first commandment as the horizontal beam of the cross hangs on the vertical. You cannot have the cross without having both.

The important thing to remember–and this is my grouse with many so called progressives–is that a truly Christian social ministry is completely dependent on the life changing salvation that comes through a sacramental relationship with Jesus Christ in his church. Of course good works can be done by human beings without a relationship with God or Jesus Christ and his church. The atheists are correct about that.

However, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner and so forth, can only have a supernatural and transformative dimension when it is driven by the Holy Spirit through individuals and communities who are first transformed by the Holy Spirit. I am sure that Cardinal Maradiaga and many progressive Catholics would agree with my assessment, but I have to be honest, in reading their literature, I don’t hear much about it.

UPDATE: John Zmirak has a new piece up this morning about Cardinal Maradiaga’s speech, and the rebirth of social-gospel Catholicism. Excerpt:

So democracies like ours are “neoliberal dictatorships,” which the Church will help reform through the “globalization of mercy and solidarity,” that is, by helping governments to seize wealth from some people, skim its own share off the top, and distribute that wealth to others. Those “others” will doubtless be grateful, as Hugo Chavez’s supporters were in Venezuela; indeed, they will form powerful voting blocs dependent on state redistribution of wealth, as directed by humble clergymen.

This shows no awareness of decades of research about the true causes of poverty: the lack of clear property rights, political corruption, crony capitalism, populist politics, and centralized bureaucracy. Such problems cannot be solved by foreigners, but by local action to build up a culture of enterprise and institutions that protect small business owners. But it’s much more convenient, comfortable, and conducive to grabbing power to blame everything on the Yanquis.

The good cardinal has already shown in the past his proclivity for shifting blame. In May 2002, the cardinal explained who was really to blame for the sex abuse scandal: Jews in the media.