The New Oxford Review published this salient piece last month…
A Pontificate of Mercy — or a Merciless Pontificate?
For the past four-plus years, faithful Catholics have bent over backwards to give Pope Francis the benefit of the doubt, telling themselves that the Argentine Jesuit means well, that he is a faithful son of the Church, that he — like his immediate predecessors — has an enduring love of Catholicism and Western civilization, even if at times he comes across as ambiguous, contradictory, and intellectually deficient. The NOR, more than most Catholic-oriented journals, has published critical assessments of Francis’s confusing statements, pontifical missteps, muddled theological writings, and misguided initiatives (we have an entire online dossier devoted to this pontificate: http://www.newoxfordreview.org/dossier.jsp?did=dossier-francis). Nevertheless, we have always approached the subject with an eye toward giving Francis the benefit of the doubt. We respect the Petrine ministry and we respect the office, but that presupposes the man elected to that office respects the ministry too. The time has come to offer an unvarnished look at the fruits of this papacy and to suggest that we move beyond giving Francis the so-called benefit of the doubt. Frankly, doubt is no longer an issue. Four-and-a-half years of evidence shows that Francis has fomented division, preached politics over the Gospel, and conducted himself more like a South American strongman than a vicar of Christ.
Leaving aside for now the theological hubbub and ensuing kerfuffle surrounding Francis’s controversial apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (see “Amoris Laetitia: What Is Pope Francis Up To?” by Anthony Giambrone, O.P., June), his accommodation and appeasement of Islam (see “Pope Francis’s Appeasement Plan: Securing a False Peace with Iran” by Timothy D. Lusch, June 2016), his enigmatic comments on shared communion (see “Francis & the Lutherans: Intercommunion Confusion” New Oxford Note, Jan.-Feb. 2016), his serial insults of orthodox Catholics (see “Pope Francis: Put-Down Artist?” New Oxford Note, April 2014), his equivocal statements regarding contraception (see “A Virus, a Crisis” by Monica Migliorino Miller, April 2016), and his willfully vague and confusing comments to reporters at 30,000 feet (see “The Poor Misunderstood Pope?” New Oxford Note, Nov. 2013, and “A Sign of Self-Contradiction,” New Oxford Note, Dec. 2016), let’s simply look at the current state of the Church vis-à-vis Pope Francis and the Bergoglio Vatican.
Longtime Francis watchers will know that, shortly after being elected, the Holy Father gave every indication that, as an outsider, he would “clean house” — ridding the Vatican of bureaucratic excesses, financial scandals, and the horrific sexual immorality among the Roman clergy, late lamented by Pope Benedict XVI. Although Francis has effected some much-needed streamlining of the Holy See’s offices, he has shown himself more intent on removing every last vestige of the St. John Paul II and Benedict eras, up to and including the Church’s commitment to life issues, defense of marriage, and support of believers who suffer persecution.
Add to that, in recent months, Pope Francis has championed Islam as a “religion of peace,” hammered Catholic Poland as a nation of xenophobes, supported the “fake” government-sponsored Catholic church in communist China, floated the idea of ordaining married priests and women deacons, and marginalized conservative prelates who question his pontifical trajectory or uncover inconvenient truths that might cast his ideological allies in an unflattering light.
Let’s look at personnel: Much has been made of the Pope’s ham-fisted treatment of Raymond Cardinal Burke, the U.S.’s premiere canon-law expert. After Burke publicly aired his “conservative” views on divorce and “remarriage” at the 2014 Synod on the Family, Francis summarily removed him as prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, where he served as the highest-ranking canon lawyer in the Church, and reassigned (read: demoted) him to the obscure position of patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. Earlier this year, Francis removed Burke even from this largely ceremonial post after Burke uncovered the order’s promotion of condom use in Africa. To make a long story short, Pope Francis came down on the side of the condom promoter, Grand Chancellor Albrecht von Boeselager, over the whistleblower, Cardinal Burke. Not to go unnoticed: Burke was one of the four cardinals who signed the dubia asking the Pope to clarify certain passages in Amoris Laetitia, which Francis has refused to do, either publicly or privately.
There’s more: For four years running, Pope Francis has passed up awarding the red hat to either of the longtime leaders of the archdioceses of Los Angeles and Philadelphia, two of the largest sees in the U.S., both of which are traditionally home to cardinals. L.A.’s José Gómez and Philly’s Charles Chaput, appointed to their posts by Pope Benedict, are widely known as faithful, orthodox prelates. Some Vatican watchers have tried to explain this away by citing Francis’s desire for a more diversified College of Cardinals and admitting that — to put it bluntly — the Holy Father doesn’t like Americans.
That might explain why Francis has awarded cardinalates to prelates in obscure sees in far-flung parts of the world that have minuscule Catholic populations (relatively speaking), such as José Luis Lacunza Maestrojuán of the diocese of David in Panama, Philippe Ouédraogo of the diocese of Ouahigouya in Burkina Faso, Patrick D’Rozario of the diocese of Dhaka in Bangladesh, Sebastian Koto Khoarai of the diocese of Mohale’s Hoek in Lesotho, and Charles Bo of the diocese of Yangon in Myanmar, to name a few. But that doesn’t explain why Francis, after appointing Blase Cupich as archbishop of Chicago and Joseph Tobin as archbishop of Newark (New Jersey), immediately raised them to the College of Cardinals.
Francis appointed Cupich to his post in September 2014 and named him a cardinal less than two months later, one day after Cupich’s installation as Chicago’s new archbishop. Francis named Tobin a cardinal in November 2016, just 12 days after appointing him archbishop of Newark. For the record, Newark has never been home to a cardinal, perhaps because a cardinal has always lived eight miles away in Manhattan. According to The New York Times, Tobin “is considered a friend and ally of Pope Francis in a potentially important spot in the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the United States not far from New York City, where Cardinal Timothy F. Dolan has been the face of American Catholicism in the nation’s media capital” (Jan. 6). More recently, the Times contrasted him with Dolan, noting that “Cardinal Tobin is emerging as a champion of progressive, center-left Catholics” (July 16).
As for Cupich, not only is he an ardent Francis ally, the hyper-liberal National Catholic Reporter (NCR) said his appointment is symbolic of the Pope’s personal involvement in “reorienting the U.S. hierarchy after 35 years of seriously conservative, dogmatic appointments” (Sept. 25, 2014). Presumably, NCR, and Pope Francis, would lump Gómez and Chaput in the pile of “seriously conservative, dogmatic appointments” — in other words, orthodox in their views of the Church and her teachings. (By the way, it is just silly for NCR to speak of 35 years of conservative appointments, considering the extremely liberal cardinals Roger Mahony of Los Angeles and Joseph Bernardin of Chicago were appointed during that time and became the two primary kingpins in recommending U.S. bishop appointments. That said, after Bernardin died and Mahony retired, the appointments did get more “conservative.”)
Make no mistake: Francis is politically astute. His modus operandi is to marginalize Benedict’s “conservative, dogmatic” picks and promote his own like-minded ideologues. Francis knows that, if nothing else, his appointees to the College of Cardinals will be hand-picking the next pope, and maybe the one after that. Those whom Francis passes over — the Chaputs and Gómezes of the Church — will be locked out of the conclave. This is the surest way for Francis to promote his legacy for decades to come.
But Francis hasn’t stopped there. Oh no. He has extended his legacy-promoting plan by ridding the Vatican of other Benedict holdouts. In early July, Francis abruptly removed 69-year-old Gerhard Cardinal Müller as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Müller, whom Benedict appointed to the Church’s chief doctrinal post in 2012, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur that Pope Francis “did not give him a reason” for his dismissal, “just as he gave no reason for firing three highly competent members of the CDF a few months earlier” (July 19). Müller also told Allgemeine Zeitung that the Pope justified his dismissal by claiming that he “no longer intends to prolong roles in the Curia beyond five years,” and that Müller was the first one to whom this practice has been applied (July 10). It is instructive to note that Müller’s dismissal came on July 2, the exact expiration date of his five-year term, and that prior to that date, it had been customary for the head of the CDF to continue in his post until he resigned or reached the age of retirement, which is 75. Why the change for Cardinal Müller? Francis won’t say, but it bears mention that Müller, serving as the Vatican’s top doctrinal watchdog, has been critical of Amoris Laetitia, instead upholding the Church’s traditional teaching on Holy Communion and divorced-and-remarried Catholics. Further, he cannot have won brownie points with Francis by criticizing the Pope’s cult of personality and the accompanying “sanctimonious papolatry” he says is rampant within the Vatican. In a nutshell, it seems that Müller is too “dogmatic” for a Bergoglio Vatican. Francis prefers sycophants in his service.
Are we really supposed to believe that the Pope is going to oust every Vatican prelate at the end of his five-year term? The ever-reliable Vatican watcher Sandro Magister of Italy’s L’Espresso has noted (July 10) that Francis has kept in place other curial officials whose terms have expired. Msgr. Pio Pinto, for example, despite being 76 years old (one year past the mandatory retirement age) and at the end of his five-year term as dean of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, remains in his position. Pinto, charged by the Pope to revise the annulment process in the Church, is a well-known Francis supporter. And then there’s Argentine cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation of Oriental Churches, whose second five-year term has expired. He’s still there. Is he a big Francis supporter? Yep, you bet.
The list goes on! Most notably, February 15 of this year brought the end of the second five-year term of one of the Pope’s closest collaborators, 79-year-old Francesco Cardinal Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts. Coccopalmerio published a book earlier this year defending Amoris Laetitia and promoting unmarried, cohabiting couples receiving Holy Communion. (Cardinal Cupich wrote the foreword to the English-language edition of the book, by the way.) Of course, Coccopalmerio is still in his position, despite his age, despite his double-term expiration, and despite a bizarre drug-sex scandal involving his secretary, Luigi Capozzi. Msgr. Capozzi, a 49-year-old canonist, was arrested by Vatican police this spring after they caught him hosting a cocaine-fueled homosexual orgy in the former Palace of the Holy Office — a mere 500 yards away from Francis’s Santa Marta residence. Lord have mercy! Accounts by Italian news service Il Fato Quotidiano, which broke the story months after the fact, reported that Capozzi, whom it described as an “ardent supporter of Pope Francis,” was so high on cocaine when arrested that he had to be hospitalized for detoxification (June 28). Interestingly, Capozzi’s arrest came on the verge of his appointment as a bishop — on the recommendation of Cardinal Coccopalmerio, who, incidentally, made news in 2014 by emphasizing, in an interview with the Italian Catholic website Rossoporpora, the “positive realities” of homosexual relationships. No, the cardinal hasn’t yet shared his thoughts on the possible “positive realities” of cocaine use.
As of this writing, Capozzi remains Coccopalmerio’s secretary. Further, in follow-up accounts of the coked-up gay orgy, a senior member of the Curia told veteran Vatican correspondent Edward Pentin that homosexual activity among the clergy in Rome has “never been worse” (National Catholic Register, July 8). According to the NOR’s boots-on-the-ground sources in Rome, the Vatican is filled with an active gay subculture that is flourishing under Pope Francis. Why? It just so happens that those who are members of this subculture are the Pope’s most ardent ideological supporters, in a certain sense “friends of Francis.” No wonder he tends to look the other way. (Il Fato Quotidiano reported that Francis knew all about Capozzi’s orgy and arrest, months before the story broke in the news, but has remained silent about it.)
Francis is also hard at work undoing the great pro-life work begun by John Paul II. This May, Francis dismantled and reconstituted the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life. He dismissed those, appointed by John Paul and Benedict, who believe abortion is an intrinsic evil, in favor of new members who aren’t so sure. In at least one case, the Pope appointed a pro-abortion theologian who has expressed support for euthanasia in certain circumstances. Francis began his initiative last November when he released new statutes for the academy that summarily ended the terms of 116 of its 139 members (23 of them were re-appointed). The revised statutes no longer require Francis’s new appointees to sign a declaration that they uphold the Church’s pro-life teachings. Among the new appointees who won’t be signing that declaration is Nigel Biggar, a professor of moral and pastoral theology at the University of Oxford. Biggar has supported legal abortion up to 18 weeks and has expressed qualified support for euthanasia. And this man now represents the Vatican on life issues!
Founded by John Paul II in 1994, the academy is dedicated to promoting the Church’s consistent life ethic and carries out research in bioethics and Catholic moral theology. It has promoted and developed the Church’s teaching on medical ethics, including in-vitro fertilization, gene therapy, euthanasia, and abortion. Francis has now expanded the academy’s mandate to include a focus on the environment and street violence, giving Cardinal Bernardin’s “seamless garment” concept a further watering down.
For those wondering (1) why the Pope has summarily dismissed longtime, faithful, intelligent, and effective pro-life leaders around the world, and (2) why he wants to “refocus” the efforts of the Pontifical Academy for Life, the newly appointed head of the academy provides some insight. In an interview with Cruxnow.com (July 19), Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia — a close collaborator and ally of Pope Francis? but of course! — explained that the academy “now aims to be missionary in outlook…in collaboration with believers of other churches and faiths as well as non-believers.” The Pope’s new appointments include two Jews, a Muslim, an Anglican, and a number of those “non-believers.” Paglia went on to criticize the current Catholic pro-life movement, calling it ineffectual. “If I may say so,” he told Cruxnow.com, “there is a certain way of defending life that doesn’t defend it.”
And so, Francis is entrusting the pro-life mission to Archbishop Paglia, who presumes to know more about promoting the pro-life ethic (as redefined by Francis) than those dismissed from the academy, including philosopher Robert Spaemann of Germany, Maria Mercedes Arzú de Wilson of Guatemala, Christine de Marcellus Vollmer of Venezuela, Andrzej Szostek of Poland, Mieczyslaw Grzegocki of Ukraine, Jaroslav Sturma of the Czech Republic, and Etienne Kaboré of Burkina Faso, whom Sandro Magister describes as “perfectly in line with the positions of the African Church on marriage, family, and sexuality, seen at work during the last two synods” (L’Espresso, March 13). These are just some of the dismissed members, but the list illustrates how geographically diversified the former members of the academy were. What all the dismissed members have in common is that they ardently believe in the teachings of the Church on critical life issues. What many of the dismissed members have in common, according to Magister, is that “they have distinguished themselves in publicly criticizing the new moral and practical paradigms that have entered into vogue with the pontificate of Francis.”
Have you noticed a pattern yet?
Interesting, isn’t it? Pope Francis has consistently removed those who dare to try to “dialogue” with him or who publicly criticize his initiatives, his offhand utterances, his publications, or his “moral and practical paradigms.” If you’re tempted to draw parallels between Francis’s managerial playbook and that of your run-of-the-mill 20th-century communist dictator, you wouldn’t be alone. Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Kazakhstan made the same comparison, likening the Bergoglio Vatican to the Soviet “regime” under which he was born, where those who didn’t “follow the line of the party” weren’t allowed a voice (LifeSiteNews.com, Dec. 6, 2016).
Certainly, in any institution, a case can be made for removing those in positions of authority who seek to undermine that institution through public words and actions. But it is important to note that, by and large, those who are being “silenced” in the Church of Francis are those who have consistently upheld and defended what the Church has always taught, not those liberal Catholics who have made a career of undermining those teachings in a very public manner.
One last point about personnel, and this one is arguably the most troubling of Pope Francis’s pontifical trajectories. One would think that, given the Pope’s penchant for naming cardinals throughout the world — even in traditionally non-Christian countries — he would readily accept the advice of Joseph Cardinal Zen when it comes to the Church in China. Zen was China’s first cardinal and a key adviser to Pope Benedict regarding China-Vatican détente. But now it seems that Francis is ignoring the longtime advocate of religious liberty in communist China. Back in 2014 Cardinal Zen warned Francis not to visit China, cautioning that he would be manipulated by the government, which controls the “officially recognized” church on the mainland and persecutes the Chinese Catholics who make up the Vatican-aligned “underground” Church. The government-sanctioned church includes illegitimate bishops, three of whom have been excommunicated by the real Church. Nevertheless, Pope Francis disregarded Cardinal Zen’s warning. In an interview with Spanish daily El País, the Pope stated in a very dramatic manner that he would like to go to China, and that he awaits his invitation. “In China, the churches are packed,” he said. “In China they can worship freely” (Jan. 24).
Cardinal Zen knows there’s no truth to the Pope’s statement. The Catholic Church in China — the real Church — remains small and persecuted. In 2016 alone, five “underground” bishops from mainland China who had served time in prison or labor camps died either in prison or from health complications arising from their confinement. In 2016 the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom recommended that China be designated a “country of particular concern,” meaning it is one of the world’s worst violators when it comes to respecting the right to religious liberty. Are we to believe that Francis, the alleged Pope of the peripheries, is unaware of the realities in China, given the advice from Cardinal Zen and the widely available reports issued by international agencies?
In response to the Pope’s inaccuracies, Cardinal Zen said he feared that the Vatican, in its desperation to make a deal with China, would sell out the long-persecuted underground Church, the only legitimate Catholic presence in the communist country. The situation regarding religious liberty in China, Zen has said, is worse today than ever.
And now Pope Francis’s Vatican has indeed made an agreement with the Chinese government. Although Benedict stated that China has no legitimate Catholic bishops’ conference, the Holy See under Francis has given the initiative of choosing bishops to the so-called Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. This agreement amounts to giving an atheistic government the power to choose bishops for its state-sponsored church.
Cardinal Zen has repeated Benedict’s insistence that no legitimate bishops’ conference exists in mainland China. “The whole thing is fake,” he explained in an interview with the Polish outlet Polonia Christiana (July 14). “I really cannot believe that the Holy See doesn’t know that there is no bishops’ conference! There is only a name. They never really have a discussion, meetings. They meet when they are called by the government. The government gives instructions. They obey.” Francis’s Vatican, continued Zen, is “too eager to dialogue, dialogue so they tell everybody not to make noise, to accommodate, to compromise, to obey the government. Now things are going down, down.”
Clearly, Francis has his own ideas, regardless of what Pope Benedict might have said and despite Cardinal Zen’s warnings and the reports of violations of human rights and religious liberty from the international community. Pope Francis will plow determinedly ahead, with his sycophants at his side, just as he has done vis-à-vis his detractors in the hierarchy, even while preaching mercy, mercy, mercy and dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. But where exactly is the mercy for those with whom he disagrees? Where is the dialogue?
To recap: Pope Francis is making deals with the state-sponsored church in communist China, diluting the Church’s pro-life ministry, sidelining his critics in the hierarchy, and looking the other way when it comes to homosexual activity that takes place right under his nose (when those involved happen to be his ardent supporters). He has consistently demonstrated that he rejects orthodox Catholicism, a Catholicism that recognizes and respects the legitimate structures and devotional life of the Church — e.g., the parish, the priesthood, religious life, the liturgy properly celebrated, traditional devotions and devotionals, a faith life built on prayer, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and so on.
A recent article in L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper and often considered a “mouthpiece” of the papacy, illustrates well Francis’s attitude. The article, penned by Giulio Cirignano, an Italian Scripture scholar, asserts that the “main obstacle” to implementing Pope Francis’s vision for the Church is “closure, if not hostility” from bishops and priests. Fr. Cirignano believes that the laity understands and supports Francis’s vision, but those pesky bishops and priests keep getting in the way. Fr. Cirignano charges that “seriously conservative” and “dogmatic” clergymen are unfit for a 21st-century Church. He says, for example, that they hold to an “antiquated image of the priesthood,” one that sees the priest as the “boss” or a “sort of solitary protagonist”; that they are relatively uneducated, their “theological and Biblical preparation is often scarce”; and — wait for it — these “seriously conservative” priests and bishops subscribe to a kind of counterreformation theology that is “lacking the resources of the Word,” is “without a soul,” and has “transformed the impassioned and mysterious adventure of believing into religion,” resulting in a “limpid faith.” Yow!
It’s actually reassuring, assuming Fr. Cirignano is correct, to know that bishops and priests present the greatest obstacle to the implementation of Pope Francis’s program. Further, Fr. Cirignano has unwittingly revealed that the Pope just might be the one who considers himself a “sort of solitary protagonist,” that he is unwilling or unable to be collaborative, to listen to other authentic voices in the Catholic Church.
But we’ll give Francis this: His perseverance in reversing so many of the great strides made during the pontificates of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI is impressive. For Francis, his pontificate has become about his geopolitical agenda, his scattershot efforts at “reform,” the installation of his comrades in high places, and the exercise of his own personal power. The aim of his pontificate seems to be to remake the Church in the idiosyncrasies of Jesuit-trained Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, son of an Italian communist. As Cardinal Zen said, “Now things are going down, down.” Perhaps that’s exactly Pope Francis’s intent. The question is: How much further will things descend?