Amid praise, Pope Francis faces criticism from left and right

Story highlights

  • Carol Costello: As Pope Francis visits the U.S., criticism has come from right and left
  • Pope's approval ratings have fallen but most Americans still find his message appealing

Carol Costello, who anchors the 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. ET edition of CNN's "Newsroom" each weekday, is writing a series of columns related to Pope Francis' visit to North America this month. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Pope Francis is no longer the undisputed homecoming king.

As he visits the United States for the first time, the Pope's approval ratings here, according to Gallup, have taken a tumble, from 76% in 2014 to 59% today.
Pity Pope Francis!
    He washes the feet of the poor, talks of forgiveness and stresses care of the planet. He even tries to lead by example, rejecting the Vatican's more opulent digs and fancy vestments. Yet Francis elicits a confusing mix of emotions. Love. Admiration. Scorn. And fear.
    Yes, fear.
    Carol Costello
    What other explanation can there be when an article actually exists with the headline: "Why so Many People Think Pope Francis is the Antichrist"? In case you're curious, that headline appeared on Charisma News.
    Reporter Jennifer LeClaire googled "pope antichrist," and came up with a motherlode of hits. None was more ridiculous than the online "Jim Bakker Show." A guest author named Tom Horn told the show's audience that 50 years ago, a Jesuit priest "predicted the resignation of Pope Benedict to the day," which means Pope Francis could be "demonically inspired," because, Horn said ominously, "demons know things about times."
    My head is about to explode, too. But now that I've dispensed with that bit of nonsense, I'll get down to brass tacks.
    Pope Francis' approval ratings have taken a tumble because he makes Americans squirm.
    "He's nudging me, as he is lots of us, to think about some uncomfortable things and how we might be better human beings in our world today," Sister Donna Markham, the president of Catholic Charities, told me. "And that's hard."
    The Pope recently called the unfettered pursuit of money "the dung of the devil." He said that profit tends, especially in capitalist countries like ours, to drive all decision-making, often at the expense of the poor.
    "It is not enough," the Pope said, "to let a few drops fall whenever the poor shake a cup which never runs over by itself."
    Those remarks left many conservatives cold, especially those who say Pope Francis is a Marxist who wants to "spread the wealth."
    R. Albert Mohler Jr., the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told me the Pope's words are dangerous. "It's a mixture of naivete and papal authority," he said. "The Gospel mandates we care for the poor. But there is a legitimate disagreement on how the poor are helped. He has split Roman Catholicism on that issue."
    And because Francis may criticize American capitalism before a joint session of Congress, his appearance makes Mohler positively seethe. "As an evangelical and American citizen, I'm deeply troubled by the fact that Congress is going to host the Pope. I know they'll say Pope is the head of state, but the Vatican is largely a diplomatic fiction and its size ... it can fit into a parking lot. He is there because he is the head of the Roman Catholic Church."
    If it makes conservatives feel any better, Francis makes progressives squirm, too -- in a pool full of confusion.
    On the one hand, Francis sounds like their hero, a holy version of President Obama or Bernie Sanders. He trashes greedy Wall Street types! He thinks climate change is in part caused by man! He's urged us to embrace undocumented immigrants! Awesome.
    On the other hand, while the Pope has talked in a more merciful way about moral issues, the church still opposes same-sex marriage, women priests, married priests, divorce, birth control and abortion.
    "I think that Francis doesn't intend to change any doctrine," the Rev. Thomas Bohlin, vicar of Opus Dei, told me. "He's been faithful to the church through thick and thin for many years. He does want to change the emphasis and the way people look at religion, not reducing it to left and right categories."
    Maybe that's really why Francis makes us squirm -- he's a man who cannot be categorized, who is, at times, difficult to read. In short, he's not always a people-pleaser. He wants us not just to feel, but also to think -- and not just about our personal stake or "take," but about our personal roles and responsibilities.
    As New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told me, "I don't think he (Pope Francis) thinks about his work in terms of favorability. I think he thinks about telling the truth. It's quite clear if you read his encyclical, he's saying the status quo is unsustainable and we have to get on a new path. And he's obviously just not speaking to the Catholics of the world. He's speaking to people well beyond the church. And it's interesting, a lot of people are moved by him, of all different backgrounds."
    Way to go, Pope Francis.