His scattershot reforms and wild statements make him look out of control to ordinary conservative Catholics.
By Damian Thompson (7 november 2015)
Last Sunday, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica carried an article by Eugenio Scalfari, one of the country’s most celebrated journalists, in which he claimed that Pope Francis had just told him that ‘at the end of faster or slower paths, all the divorced who ask [to receive Holy Communion] will be admitted’.
Catholic opinion was stunned. The Pope had just presided over a three-week synod of bishops at the Vatican that was sharply divided over whether to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacrament. In the end, it voted to say nothing much.
On Monday, the Pope’s spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said Scalfari’s report was ‘in no way reliable’ and ‘cannot be considered the Pope’s thinking’.
Fair enough, you may think. Scalfari is 91 years old. Also, he doesn’t take notes during his interviews or use a tape recorder. Of course he’s not ‘reliable’.
But that didn’t satisfy the media. They pointed out that the Pope knew exactly what he was letting himself in for. This is the fourth time he has chosen to give an interview to a man who relies on his nonagenarian memory. In their last encounter, Scalfari quoted the Pope as saying that two per cent of Catholic priests were paedophiles, including bishops and cardinals. Poor Lombardi had to clean up after that one, too. Last time round, Catholics gave Francis the benefit of the doubt. This time many of them are saying: never mind Scalfari, how can you trust what the Pope says?
We’re two and a half years into this pontificate. But it’s only in the past month that ordinary conservative Catholics, as opposed to hardline traditionalists, have started saying that Pope Francis is out of control.
Out of control, note. Not ‘losing control’, which isn’t such a big deal. No pontiff in living memory has awakened the specific fear now spreading around the church: that the magisterium, the teaching authority vested in Peter by Jesus, is not safe in his hands.
The non-Catholic media have yet to grasp the deadly nature of the crisis facing the Argentinian Pope. They can see that his public style is relaxed and adventurous; they conclude from his off-the-cuff remarks that he is liberal (by papal standards) on sensitive issues of sexual morality, and regards hard-hearted conservative bishops as hypocrites.
All of which is true. But journalists — and the Pope’s millions of secular fans — get one thing badly wrong. They assume, from his approachable manner and preference for the modest title ‘Bishop of Rome’, that Jorge Bergoglio wears the office of Supreme Pontiff lightly.
As anyone who works in the Vatican will tell you, this is not the case. Francis exercises power with a self-confidence worthy of St John Paul II, the Polish pope whose holy war against communism ended in the collapse of the Soviet bloc.
But that’s where the similarities end. John Paul never hid the nature of his mission. He was determined to clarify and consolidate the teachings of the church. Francis, by contrast, wants to move towards a more compassionate, less rule-bound church. But he refuses to say how far he is prepared to go. At times he resembles a motorist driving at full speed without a map or a rear-view mirror. And when the car stalls, as it did at the October synod on the family, he does a Basil Fawlty and thrashes the bonnet with a stick.
Non-Catholics were far more interested in Francis’s ‘historic’ pronouncements on climate change than they were in the synod, which was dominated by wrangling over the eligibility of divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion.
That gets things the wrong way round. The Pope’s encyclical Laudato Si’ gave a temporary boost to climate activists. It was the conference on the family that was historic, but not in a good way. During the synod, ordinary devout Catholics began to wonder if Francis’s judgment had deserted him — or whether he’d always been a far stranger man than his carefree public image suggested.
In church circles the worries began in October last year, when the Pope staged an ‘extraordinary’ preparatory synod that fell apart in front of his eyes. Halfway through the gathering, the organisers — hand-picked by Francis — announced that it favoured lifting the communion ban and wanted to recognise the positive aspects of gay relationships.
Cue media rejoicing, until it emerged that the organisers were talking rubbish. The synod bishops, who included senior cardinals, didn’t favour either course. Cardinal George Pell, the Australian conservative who serves as the Pope’s chancellor of the exchequer, hit the roof — and when Pell is angry you really know about it. The final vote ditched both proposals. Francis, however, demanded that this year’s synod should revisit the question of communion for the divorced.
This first synod wasn’t just humiliating for the Pope; it was also weird. Why did Francis let his lieutenants, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri and Archbishop Bruno Forte, arrange a briefing that basically told lies?
Any other pontiff would have sent Baldisseri and Forte to parishes in Antarctica after screwing up so badly. Instead, to general amazement, the Pope invited them to take charge of the main synod last month. Also invited back was Cardinal Walter Kasper, an 82-year-old ultra-liberal German theologian who wants to sweep away all obstacles to remarried divorcees receiving communion.
To cut a long story short, Francis made it clear that he agreed with Kasper. Yet he also knew that most bishops at this year’s synod wanted to uphold the communion ban. So why did he insist that they debate the subject, given that they were never going to vote his way?
Senior cardinals were baffled — and angry that a synod on the worldwide crisis in family life would be dominated by squabbling on this one issue. A week before it started, 13 cardinals led by Pell wrote a letter to the Pope asking him not to let this happen — and also voicing their suspicion that the synod proceedings had been rigged in order to give maximum prominence to the minority Kasperite view.
As expected, the synod quickly threw Kasper’s scheme into the wastepaper basket — but that still left open the possibility of some change, because in the months before the synod started Francis had altered its balance by inviting extra bishops who shared his liberal views.
This brings us to a disturbing detail that has seriously undermined confidence in Francis. Among these personal invitees was the very liberal Belgian cardinal Godfried Danneels, who five years ago retired in disgrace when he was tape-recorded telling a man to keep quiet about being abused by a bishop until the latter had retired.
The bishop was the victim’s uncle. In other words, Danneels tried to cover up sex abuse within a family. Pope Francis knew this — but still decided to give him a place of honour at a synod on family life.
Why, for God’s sake? ‘To thank him for votes in the conclave,’ said conservatives — a smear, perhaps, but it didn’t help that Danneels had just been boasting that he’d helped get Bergoglio elected.
The synod ended messily, with a document that may or may not allow the lifting of the communion ban in special circumstances. Both sides thought they’d won — and then the Pope, in the words of one observer, ‘basically threw a strop’.
In his final address, Francis raged against ‘closed hearts that hide behind the church’s teachings’ and ‘blinkered viewpoints’, adding that ‘the true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter but its spirit’.
The implication was clear. Clergy who wholeheartedly supported the communion ban were Pharisees to Francis’s Jesus. The Pope was sending coded insults to at least half the world’s bishops — and also, it seemed, giving priests permission to question teaching on communion and divorce.
One priest close to the Vatican was appalled but not surprised. ‘You’re seeing the real Francis,’ he said. ‘He’s a scold. He can’t hide his contempt for his own Curia. Also, unlike Benedict, this guy rewards his mates and punishes his enemies.’
Clergy don’t normally refer to the Holy Father as ‘this guy’, even if they dislike his theology. But right now that’s one of the milder conservative descriptions of Francis; others aren’t printable in a family magazine.
Never before has the Catholic church looked so much like the Anglican Communion — which broke up because orthodox believers, especially in Africa, believed that their bishops had abandoned the teachings of Jesus.
In the case of Catholicism, the looming crisis is on a vastly bigger scale. For millions of Catholics, the great strength of the church is its certainty, coherence and immutability. They look to the Vicar of Christ on earth to preserve that stability. If successive popes come across as lofty and distant figures, that’s because they need to, in order to ward off schism in a global church that has roots in so many different cultures.
Now, suddenly, the successor of Peter is acting like a politician, picking fights with opponents, tantalising the public with soundbites and ringing up journalists with startling quotes that his press officer can safely retract. He is even hinting that he disagrees with the teachings of his own church.
A pope cannot behave like this without changing the very nature of that church. Perhaps that is what Francis intended; we can only guess, because he has yet to articulate a coherent programme of change and it’s not clear that he is intellectually equipped to do so.
Loyal Catholics believe that the office of Peter will survive irrespective of who holds it; Jesus promised as much. But after the chaos of the last month, their faith is being tested to breaking point. It’s beginning to look as if Jorge Bergoglio is the man who inherited the papacy and then broke it.