On the first Saturday in February, the people of Rome awoke to find the city covered in peculiar posters depicting a scowling Pope Francis. Underneath were written the words:
Ah, Francis, you have intervened in Congregations, removed priests, decapitated the Order of Malta and the Franciscans of the Immaculate, ignored Cardinals… but where is your mercy?
The reference to mercy was a jibe that any Catholic could understand. Francis had just concluded his ‘Year of Mercy’, during which the church was instructed to reach out to sinners in a spirit of radical forgiveness. But it was also a year in which the Argentinian pontiff continued his policy of squashing his critics with theatrical contempt.
Before the Year of Mercy, he had removed (or ‘decapitated’) the leaders of the Franciscans of the Immaculate, apparently for their traditionalist sympathies. During it, he froze out senior churchmen who questioned his plans to allow divorced-and-remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion. As the year finished, the papal axe fell on the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, Fra’ Matthew Festing, who during an internal row over the alleged distribution of condoms by its charitable arm had robustly asserted the crusader order’s 800-year sovereignty. Francis seized control of the knights. They are sovereign no longer.
Damian Thompson and Dan Hitchens discuss the plot against Pope Francis:
So the sarcasm of asking the Pope about his ‘mercy’ is pretty obvious. But Italians noticed something else. ‘A France’… ma n’do sta la tua misericordia?’ is local dialect — the Romanesco slang in which citizens taunted corrupt or tyrannical popes before the fall of the Papal States in 1870.
Although the stunt made headlines around the world, it is unlikely to have unnerved the Pope. There is a touch of the Peronist street-fighter about Jorge Bergoglio. As his fellow Argentinian Jesuits know only too well, he is relaxed about making enemies so long as he is confident that he has the upper hand. The posters convey impotent rage: they are unlikely to carry the fingerprints of senior churchmen.
In any case, it is not anonymous mockery that should worry the Pope: it is the public silence of cardinals and bishops who, in the early days of his pontificate, missed no opportunity to cheer him on.
The silence is ominous because it comes amid suspicion that influential cardinals are plotting against Francis — motivated not by partisan malice, but by fear that the integrity and authority of the papacy is at stake.
Antonio Socci, a leading conservative Vatican-watcher, says that cardinals once loyal to Francis are so concerned about a schism that they are planning to appeal to him to step down. He predicts that the rebellion will be led by about a dozen moderate cardinals who work in the curia.
Their favoured candidate is understood to be Cardinal Pietro Parolin, a veteran diplomat who serves as the Pope’s secretary of state, a post that combines the duties of prime minister and foreign secretary. Parolin is unusually powerful because the Pope indulges him. Power has drained from other Vatican departments towards the secretariat of state. It is Parolin who is pushing the church towards an accommodation with Beijing that, critics say, would betray faithful Chinese Catholics; it was also Parolin who moved against the leadership of the Order of Malta, which had sacked one of his well-connected friends.
The argument for replacing Francis with Parolin rests on the latter’s administrative skills: unlike the current Pope, he is not given to wildly impulsive decisions which he then reverses without bothering to tell anyone.
But even if a group of cardinals are determined to elevate Parolin, what chance do they have of succeeding? It’s true that when Pope Benedict resigned, he created an extraordinary precedent: that popes can choose to stand down. But to nudge an unwilling pope over the edge would be a tall order, even by the standards of today’s Vatican skulduggery.
If, however, we remove the fanciful speculation, we are left with a real story. It is no secret in Rome that certain cardinals who voted for Francis are now worried that he is leading the church towards schism, and that he must therefore be stopped. There are many more than a dozen of them and, though they may not yet be ready to act upon their concerns, they would like this pontificate to end sooner rather than later.
The stakes are so high because the discontent is not fundamentally about personality: it arises from an argument about the central tenets of the faith.
In the end, it all boils down to the question of giving communion to people who are either divorced and remarried or married to a divorced person.
Non-Catholics, and indeed many Catholics, find it hard to understand why this is such a big deal. Put simply, the Catholic church is the only worldwide Christian denomination that takes literally the parts of the Bible (Luke 16:8, Mark 10:11, Matthew 19:9) where Jesus says that divorced and remarried people are committing adultery. This isn’t to say that church authorities haven’t hypocritically (or compassionately) bent the rules down the centuries — but the teaching has remained unchanged.
Until now, anyway. In April last year, Pope Francis released Amoris Laetitia, (‘The Joy of Love’), a 200-page document in response to a synod of the world’s bishops that had rejected any change to the teaching that Catholics in irregular marriages should not receive communion.
To cut a long story short, Francis appeared to go along with the synod’s wishes. But a footnote in Amoris Laetitia hinted (and it was just a hint) that couples, in consultation with a priest, could decide for themselves whether to receive the sacrament.
A few progressive cardinals and bishops — most significantly in Germany, where Catholicism looks an awful lot like liberal Protestantism — seized on this footnote and declared that divorced-and-remarried couples could have communion if their consciences were clear.
Whereupon countless cardinals, bishops, priests and canon lawyers said, no they can’t. But Francis, without going on the record, let it be known that yes they can — in his opinion, anyway. And he’s the Pope. So please would bishops everywhere start falling into line and support a more liberal stance on communion for the remarried, even though he has never formally articulated it?
A split like this over the meaning of marriage threatens to do to the Catholic church what the issue of homosexuality has done to the Anglican communion: creating rifts between liberals and conservatives and dividing the church in the West against the church in the developing world.
To a great many in Rome, it looks as if the Pope is single-handedly ripping apart church teaching — in defiance of his own hierarchy. ‘It’s utterly bizarre. He’s actually been ringing round asking for support on this,’ says a priest in the Vatican. Like an American president lobbying senators? ‘Exactly. But he’s not getting the answers he wanted. Instead, there’s this silence that has not greeted any other papal exhortation I can think of.’
Why the silence? The answer is that the Pope has put cardinals and bishops in an impossible situation.
Consider the case of England and Wales. Cardinal Vincent Nichols, president of the bishops’ conference, could not issue a set of German-style ‘anything goes on divorce’ guidelines even if he wanted to (and no one knows what the inscrutable Nichols really wants, except perhaps to be Pope himself).
The conservative Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth has already said that there will be no change of pastoral practice in his diocese, full stop. Nichols couldn’t even sell relaxed guidelines to his own Westminster diocese: at least one of his bishops would rebel.
This dilemma is being replicated all over the world. Two thirds of diocesan bishops either believe that the Pope is monkeying with the fundamentals of Christian doctrine or, taking a more lenient view, think his misguided compassion has created pastoral chaos. And the chaos will persist for as long as this man is Pope.
Which is why — despite various efforts to cast Francis in the role of ‘great reformer’ squaring up to satin-clad dinosaurs — moderate cardinals are ready for a new pope who can kick this wretched issue into the long grass.
But how can this be achieved? The moderates aren’t keen to join forces with anti-Francis conservatives, who are already, as those posters showed, taking resistance to extraordinary lengths.
At the end of this month, the University of Paris-Sud is hosting a conference on ‘the canonical problem of the deposition of heretical popes’. The organisers are not openly suggesting that Francis falls into this category, but others may draw their own conclusions. Two of the professors giving papers have asked the Pope to rule against ‘heretical’ misunderstandings of Amoris Laetitia — which he refuses to do. So some of the theoretical discussions of deposing popes may be rather pointed.
But can Francis really be forced out of office by canon law? Moderate cardinals wouldn’t countenance it even if it were possible. That leaves what Socci calls ‘moral suasion’, otherwise known as arm-twisting. Several cardinals believe that this is what happened to Benedict XVI, though the pope emeritus insists that the decision to resign was his alone. Benedict, a theologian, grew to hate being pope. Francis, by contrast, loves it so much that he hasn’t taken a holiday since walking on to the balcony of St Peter’s. That doesn’t mean that no one will try to persuade Francis to step down, but God help them when they do.
This leaves the Catholic church in deadlock. To quote one Vatican employee, ‘Liberal or conservative, what most cardinals want is release from the endless fatigue created by Francis.’
The plotting will go on, of course: some clerical politicians can’t stop themselves. So will the papal lobbying, but it is unlikely to bear fruit. And the longer the deadlock lasts, the angrier and more outspoken Francis will become. Which leaves the Vatican in the worst possible situation: a plot against the Pope that is an open secret, but which has little chance of success.
The word ‘Catholic’ means universal — yet now local tension between the liberal and conservative strands of the faith is intensifying, and is being made worse by the Pope himself. Many priests have absolutely no intention of giving communion to couples in irregular marriages. So the couples are left wondering who is right: their priest or their Pope? The conditions for a schism are there, for those with an eye to see them.