When Pope Francis was asked last month how he was doing after surgery on his colon in July, he replied: ‘Still alive, even though some people wanted me to die. I know there were even meetings between prelates who thought the Pope’s condition was more serious than the official version. They were preparing for the conclave. Patience!’
It was such a ferocious outburst that few people realised that Francis was talking about two separate things. He’s 84, which is old even for a pope. The medical reports said that he didn’t have cancer, but he did stay in hospital longer than expected and Italian doctors don’t have a great track record of telling the truth about an elderly pontiff’s state of health.
There’s no obvious front-runner to succeed Francis, and his policy of creating cardinals from ‘the peripheries’ (e.g. Tonga, with just 16,000 Catholics) means that many of them are complete outsiders in Rome. So of course when the Pope went into surgery there were ‘meetings between prelates’ about the next papal conclave. It’s how Francis got elected in 2013: little groups of liberal cardinals had been plotting to install him for years. It’s not sinister.
But who would actually want the Pope to die? Surely that was just paranoia or black humour on Francis’s part. How many Catholics would have been happy, or at least not distressed, to see the Holy Father leave the Gemelli hospital in a coffin?
The answer is: more than the general public realises. Few of them put it into words, and most of those say something along the lines of ‘it might not be a bad thing if this Jesuit Pope were gathered to his heavenly reward’. But others let rip.I remember a recent lunch with two priests, one of whom used the ‘heavenly reward’ formula. The other said: ‘What makes you think it would be heavenly?’ This second priest belonged to the much smaller number of Catholics – interestingly, they are disproportionately clergy – who loathe the pope so passionately that they don’t much care how this pontificate ends so long as it happens soon. ‘I hope he drops dead tonight,’ added the priest, just in case we hadn’t got the message.
That’s shocking, isn’t it? I’m certainly not going to defend the remark, but let me at least put it in context (and note that ‘drink had been taken’, as they used to say in magistrates’ courts).
Since the second century AD, the Church has been likened to a ship, the ‘Barque of Peter’ that the Pope steers towards the port of salvation. This priest, in common with tens of thousands of conservative Catholics, including some cardinals, believes Francis is driving that ship towards the same rocks that have shipwrecked liberal Protestantism – and not through innocent naivety, but with a mad, self-destructive gleam in his eye.
This conspiracy theory is made more plausible by the erratic and sometimes vengeful behaviour of the Pope. From the moment he stepped on to the balcony of St Peter’s after his election, minus the traditional gold-embroidered papal stole, Jorge Mario Bergoglio has played the role of a self-effacing reformer, humble yet determined. But it isn’t always a believable act.
The world’s media, always suspicious of his predecessor Benedict XVI – who resigned after being crushed by the culture of corruption he inherited – gave him an ecstatic welcome. Few journalists paid attention to the puzzled reaction of Argentinian Catholics, who were familiar with the new pope’s strange leadership style.
They had seen little evidence of easy-going charm when Francis was Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires and, before that, provincial superior of the Jesuits in Argentina. Bergoglio’s manner is notoriously abrasive. In Buenos Aires he sent out confusing signals. One the one hand he increased the presence of the Church in the slums, had no appetite for luxury and cultivated his image as a man of the people by using salty language. On the other, he was often in a bad mood – in photographs of the time he appears frighteningly hatchet-faced – and had a reputation for travelling to Rome to undermine his episcopal rivals.
Given his reputation in his homeland, it’s perhaps no surprise that since becoming pope Francis has not set foot in Argentina. It’s a pointed insult, given that he’s visited almost every other Latin American country. Presumably it is directed against his old enemies in the church there.
We saw a glimpse of the edgier side of Francis’s personality last month, when he gave a typically garrulous and score-settling interview on the plane back from Slovakia. Francis has – rightly, in my opinion – urged all Catholics to get vaccinated against Covid. One who didn’t follow his advice was Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American arch-traditionalist sacked by the Pope with characteristic brutality from a senior post in the Curia.
‘In the College of Cardinals, there are a few [vaccine] deniers,’ said Francis. ‘One of them, the poor man, contracted the virus.’ Was there a touch of gloating in the way he referred to Burke – who came within an inch of dying from Covid – as ‘the poor man’? Burke’s allies thought so, and pointed out that the cardinal was in any case a sceptic rather than a denier.
More than any other pope in modern times, Francis gives the impression of being a good hater. His hostility is reciprocated in spades. I’ll never forget the look of blazing contempt that swept across the features of a former curial cardinal when I mentioned his former boss.
This is not normal, even in the often backbiting atmosphere of the Vatican. The vacillating Paul VI, who banned the old Latin Mass after the Second Vatican Council, was undoubtedly despised by traditionalists. But respect for the papal office kept most of them from slagging him off as if he were just another bullying bishop. In contrast, it’s quite common to hear hardline conservatives refer to the current Pope as ‘Bergoglio’ or ‘Frankie’. Paul didn’t enjoy picking fights and didn’t have Francis’s reputation for twisting the knife after dismissing someone at short notice; nor were there reports of the air turning blue during papal rages.
All of which, coupled with Francis’s pursuit of a liberal policy agenda, means that debate about the crisis in the Catholic Church concentrates heavily on the record and personality of this pope. The other inescapable topic, of course, is the sex abuse crisis, which shows no signs of dying down as the spotlight moves from the English-speaking world to continental Europe. According to an independent report published in France last week, 330,000 children were abused by clergy and lay Church employees over 70 years. The Catholic Church in Germany is reeling from similar allegations. If the Church in Africa and Asia ever comes under proper scrutiny, we can expect some grotesque revelations. Pope Francis himself is heavily implicated in the protection of certain Latin American clergy, a big story that is being played down by a supine Vatican press corps.
The crimes against children were committed on such a vast scale, and countless prelates were so wickedly complicit in them, that one hesitates to say that the Catholic Church is facing an existential threat. But there is an even more fundamental problem which it would have had to confront anyway, though it has been made worse by sex abuse.
Put simply, the Barque of Peter was heading for the rocks long before Pope Francis got his hand on the tiller. It is being carried there by the same demographic wave that has caused Sunday attendance at Church of England services to fall from 740,000 to 690,000 between 2016 and 2019 – that is, before a Covid pandemic during which both Anglican and Catholic bishops were stupidly eager to ban even socially distanced services.
Sociologists of religion used to believe that the unique teachings, cultural identity and structure of the Catholic Church afforded it protection from secularisation. Secular culture has all but wiped out ‘mainline’ denominations such as the Episcopal Church in the United States. But as the American cultural critic Mary Eberstadt argued in her 2013 book How the West Really Lost God, Western Catholicism merely lags behind.
Most US Catholics commit what the Church teaches is the mortal sin of missing Mass on Sundays – and, in the past decade, they have flipped their views on gay marriage and abortion. She suggests that secularisation is ‘the phenomenon through which Protestants, generally speaking, go godless, and Catholics, generally speaking, go Protestant’ (that is, adopt roughly the positions occupied by liberal Anglicans and Lutherans 20 years ago).
Eberstadt was writing just before Benedict resigned. No one could have foreseen that, five years later, one could plausibly argue that the Pope himself had ‘gone Protestant’.
Francis may be pursuing a liberal policy agenda, but it’s also quirky and incoherent. That may be deliberate. He is Jesuitical in the pejorative sense of the term, constantly shifting his position in order to keep both his opponents and supporters on their toes. But his leadership has none of the positive attributes of his order: it has created an intellectual mess that appals tidy-minded Jesuits, including liberal ones.
Does his rambling 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia allow divorced-and-remarried Catholics to receive communion? No one knows, Francis won’t clarify it, and so the application of Church teaching varies widely from diocese to diocese. Has he surreptitiously recognised the validity of Anglican and Lutheran orders? Possibly, since he has on several occasions told Protestant clergy not to bother converting. This week I revealed that Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, former Bishop of Rochester, has joined the Catholic Ordinariate set up by Benedict XVI for ex-Anglicans. It has been reported that there were attempts to dissuade him ‘at the very highest level of the Vatican’.
But there is one respect in which Francis’s embrace of liberal Protestant ideas is consistent. He loves his pointless synods. This month he launched the first phase of the ludicrously named ‘synod on synodality’, a ‘planetary consultation’ on vague concepts such as communion, mission, structural change and ‘listening’. It has been greeted by yawns from local churches. The Vatican analyst Fr Raymond de Souza predicts that this consultation with the entire ‘holy people of God’ will end up as ‘a consultation with lay ecclesial bureaucrats in wealthy countries, augmented by various official councils at the parochial and diocesan level’.
That is an almost precise description of the route taken by mainline Protestant denominations as they headed towards their respective cliffs. Pope Francis is presiding over the Anglicanisation of the Catholic Church: the ever-increasing concentration of power in the hands of a bureaucracy that sucks the life out of already struggling parishes. Whether the Vatican has enough money to pay for this self-indulgent exercise remains to be seen. We shall learn more about the state of its finances in a few weeks when one of Francis’s former closest allies, Cardinal Angelo Becciu and nine others are tried in a Vatican court for a number of financial offences, including money-laundering, embezzlement, fraud and extortion.
Why is the Pope pushing the Church down this ‘synodal pathway’ with such enthusiasm? We don’t really know. My best guess is that he’s happy to empower church bureaucrats whose political outlook roughly matches his own. One of the hallmarks of this pontificate is that it subordinates theology, in which Francis takes only a passing interest, to politics, an area in which he nurtures some spectacular prejudices. His lifelong contempt for the United States, typically Argentinian, now extends to any people or ideas who might be considered right-wing. At the same time, he has abandoned his opposition to Marxism. His guiding principles appear to be ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’ and ‘No enemies to the left’.
Francis’s increasingly paranoid view of conservatives, traditionalists and free markets have informed the two most controversial, not to say disgraceful, decisions he has taken as pope.
The first is a pact with Beijing, signed in 2018, that grants the Chinese Communist Party the authority to nominate and ordain Catholic bishops whose legitimacy is then recognised by Rome. Although the division between ‘underground’ Catholics loyal to the Vatican and the CCP’s puppet Catholic Church had become confusingly blurred, Francis’s effective abolition of the underground church is a clear-cut betrayal of the underground faithful.
The second is the renewed suppression of the traditional Latin Mass in Traditionis Custodes, an apostolic letter promulgated by Francis in July. This document, remarkable for its cruelty and sweeping assertions, alleges on the basis of a secret survey that traditionalist Catholics are abusing the freedom granted to them by Benedict XVI by nurturing division. Therefore Francis is granting diocesan bishops the right to ban the Traditional Latin Mass, and some have already abolished beautiful services that were attracting disproportionate numbers of young people.
That brings us back to demography. The Catholic Church is too big to fall off a cliff, but it is shrinking very fast in the West. The only centres of growth and renewal are jargon-free oases of traditional worship. Something similar is happening in the Church of England and also Judaism. Francis is horrified by this, lazily identifying the new traditionalists with the obsessively ‘rigid’ conservatives of his youth. And so, in the same year that he launched a ‘planetary consultation’ with ‘all the people of God’, he is using authoritarian means to persecute Catholics young enough to be his grandchildren.
Some of those new traditionalists, and their orthodox Catholic friends who prefer to worship in English, are having a hard time reconciling their loyalty to the ‘Holy Father’ with his meanness of spirit: their love of the ancient liturgy, he said recently, ‘hides something, insecurity or something else’. Others look at the Pope and the other wounded dinosaurs surrounding him and think: this, too, shall pass. Or as one of them put it on Twitter: ‘The thing we younger Catholics have going for us is that we can stay weird and insecurely attached to the older rites a lot longer than these guys can stay alive.’