Several independent reports out of Rome paint a troubling picture of the working situation at “headquarters.” Indications are that the Eternal City is on edge. And in the midst of the palpable sense of unease, anxiety, and, yes, even fear, one man looms large. That man is Pope Francis.
Much, though not all, of the distress radiates from a remarkable development: Four high-ranking prelates have publicly challenged the Pope over Amoris Laetitia, his murky and verbose apostolic exhortation in which he seems to suggest that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics can be admitted to Holy Communion. On November 14 cardinals Raymond Burke of the U.S., Carlo Caffarra of Italy, and Walter Brandmüller and Joachim Meisner of Germany made public a dubia, a set of five short yes-or-no questions addressed to Pope Francis about passages in Amoris Laetitia that, they say, have caused “uncertainty, confusion, and disorientation among many of the faithful.”
The cardinals decided to go public with the dubia after submitting it to Francis privately in September — and then waiting two months for a reply that never came. The dubia calls on the Pope, “with profound respect,” to “dispel ambiguity” and “resolve the uncertainties and bring clarity.”
So far, not only has Francis refused to respond privately to the cardinals’ request, he has also refused to respond publicly. In fact, he’s made only one public comment about the dubia. In an interview in Avvenire, an Italian Catholic magazine (Nov. 18), Francis referred obliquely to “a certain legalism” that wants to see everything as “black and white,” and he wondered aloud whether such criticism doesn’t come “from an evil spirit” or “the desire to hide one’s own dissatisfaction under armor.” Yes, you read that correctly: Francis actually suggested that the men who asked him to make specific some of his (intentionally?) ambiguous ramblings might be under the influence of demons!
While maintaining a certain aloofness about it in public, the Pope is apparently very agitated about the dubia. Edward Pentin, a respected Vatican correspondent, told Raymond Arroyo, host of EWTN’s The World Over (Nov. 18), that Francis is “boiling with rage.” Reportedly, the Holy Father has been working hard behind the scenes to vilify and isolate the four cardinals and their supporters.
Pentin offered further insight in an interview with Beverly Stevens, editor of Regina, an online Catholic magazine (Dec. 8). The Pope, he said, instead of addressing the cardinals’ concerns — either in public or private — is treating them as “adversaries.” He has even questioned the cardinals’ “mental state.” Observers are reading this as a manifestation of Francis’s “anger at having his agenda taken off course,” Pentin went on to say. And so, one hears the phrases “reign of terror” and “Vatican martial law” frequently bandied about in Rome these days.
Pentin’s report was echoed by Steve Jalsevic, managing director of the pro-life news service LifeSiteNews.com. Blogging from Rome during a recent visit, Jalsevic wrote that there is a “consistent pattern of widespread anxiety and very real fear among faithful Church servants,” the likes of which he’d never witnessed before in his ten years of making biannual trips there (Dec. 16). The tension gripping the Vatican is by no means limited to those embroiled in the dubia controversy. Many curial functionaries, Jalsevic said, are “afraid of being removed from their positions, fired from their jobs in Vatican agencies or of encountering severe public or private reprimands and personal accusations from those around the pope or even from Francis himself.”
That the Pope could be so vindictive would be startling if he hadn’t already given us glimpses of the man behind the magnanimous papal persona. “Severe reprimands” and “personal accusations” don’t seem all that out of character. As anyone who has paid even the slightest attention to this papacy knows, Francis rarely passes up an opportunity to deliver a tongue-lashing to Catholic prelates or laymen (see, for example, our New Oxford Note “Pope Francis: Put-Down Artist?” Apr. 2014) — especially to those whom he considers excessively orthodox (or “rigid,” as he likes to label them). It is odd — isn’t it? — that the alleged “Pope of mercy” would so readily indulge his mean streak.
“Widespread anxiety” in the workplace is perhaps all the more understandable when one’s boss commemorates the birth of the company’s Founder (if we may be so banal) by haranguing and insulting his underlings. Francis has made it his own peculiar Yuletide tradition to lambast his audience during his annual Christmas address to the Curia. He raised a lot of eyebrows in 2014 when he let loose with what was described as “scathing critique of the church’s highest-ranking officials” (The Guardian, Dec. 22, 2014). In that year’s Christmas address, Francis called the Curia “a sick body” and accused its members in attendance of having “spiritual Alzheimer’s,” “existential schizophrenia,” and a “funereal face,” of feeling “superior to everyone and everything” while at the same time being “victims of careerism and opportunism.” Most notably, Francis decried “the sickness of those who insatiably try to multiply their powers and to do so are capable of calumny, defamation and discrediting others, even in newspapers and magazines, naturally to show themselves as being more capable than others.”
Yup, it was a real barn-burner. The reaction among those in attendance was said to be stony silence.
In his 2016 Christmas address (Dec. 22), Francis sprinkled his seasonal greetings to the Curia with sharp denunciations of the different types of “resistance” his reform measures have encountered. He excoriated resistance that is “born of fearful or hardened hearts content with the empty rhetoric of ‘spiritual window-dressing’ typical of those who say they are ready for change, yet want everything to remain as it was before.” And he condemned resistance that “springs up in misguided minds and comes to the fore when the devil inspires ill intentions (often cloaked in sheep’s clothing).” This “malicious resistance,” he continued, “hides behind words of self-justification and often accusation; it takes refuge in traditions, appearances, formalities, in the familiar, or else in a desire to make everything personal, failing to distinguish between the act, the actor, and the action.”
Yes, Francis doubled down on his earlier accusation of demonic influence over those who aren’t onboard with his program — those with “hardened hearts” who use “words” to “justify” their resistance. Could this be a veiled attack on the dubiapresenters and their supporters? It doesn’t stretch the imagination to think so.
As usual, Francis’s words leave a lot of room for interpretation. But what seems clear is that he wants to rid the Vatican of a certain mindset — one that clings to “traditions” and resists “change” of the type Francis favors. Rather, he seems to want a Vatican made up of likeminded minions — with minds like unto his own.
Indeed, a fondness for tradition is something Francis simply can’t seem to comprehend. This November a book of his homilies and speeches from his time in Buenos Aires was released. Titled In Your Eyes Are My Word, the book includes a new interview with Fr. Anthony Spadaro, S.J., editor of the Rome-based publication La Civiltà Cattolica. In it the Pope sets his acid tongue against young people who attend the Traditional Latin Mass. “Why so much rigidity?” he says of them. “Dig, dig, this rigidity always hides something, insecurity or even something else. Rigidity is defensive. True love is not rigid.” One would guess, then, that the Holy Father thinks that people who prefer the Latin Mass lack true love. How he came to that conclusion is unclear. But it won’t do any good to ask him because, according to Spadaro, “The pope doesn’t give binary answers to abstract questions.”
If the Pope’s words are not clear, his actions speak volumes. This November (it was an eventful month!) Francis gutted the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments — not the first dicastery that comes to mind when one thinks of necessary curial reform. In the process, he expelled Raymond Burke and George Pell, two cardinals who are on public record as supporting the Latin Mass and who have even celebrated it themselves. Not to go unnoticed: Burke was also one of the signatories of the dubia.
One of Francis’s new appointees in the Congregation for Divine Worship is the reliably liberal Rainer Cardinal Woelki of Germany. How liberal is he? A Reuters report (Jul. 11, 2014) quoted Woelki as saying, “If two homosexuals take responsibility for each other, if they are loyal to each other over the long term, then one should see this in the same way as heterosexual relations.” This sense of false equivalence evidently informs much of his thinking. “Someone who lets people drown in the Mediterranean also drowns God — every day, thousands of times,” Woelki said during his homily at last year’s Corpus Christi Mass, reprimanding Europeans who are hesitant to accommodate a mass influx of Middle Eastern migrants. The German cardinal turned that entire Mass into a political statement: He used an overturned refugee boat as an altar. The altar of sacrifice as a prop! Talk about a Francis clone: Woelki could have easily ended his soliloquy on homosexual relations with, “Who am I to judge?” And Francis is, of course, one of the world’s most vocal proponents of European resettlement of Muslim migrants from the Middle East — despite the almost daily acts of horror they have been committing against their host nations (see, for example, our New Oxford Notes “Barbarians at the Gates of Civilization,” Jul.-Aug. 2015; “Barbarians Inside the Gates,” Mar. 2016; and “Barbarians Inside the Temple,” Sept. 2016).
Speculating on what these changes to the Congregation for Divine Worship mean for the liturgy, Pentin told Stevens that “most of the new members, though not all, are in favor of innovative approaches to the Novus Ordo.” It’s likely that this will be the “liturgical emphasis” coming out of the Vatican “in the months and years ahead.” Right, because that worked out so well the first time around. If this is Francis’s idea of curial reform, it’s no wonder he’s encountered resistance.
As for the larger picture, Pentin said that the upheaval at the congregation is “just a small part of an acceleration in changes being enacted by Francis who has privately voiced his wish for his legacy of radical change to continue after he is no longer Pope…. Some say it shows a revolution in full swing.”
A revolution? It sounds an awful lot like the same failed revolution of the 1970s that wrought so much damage to the Church — a revolution Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI spent so much time and energy turning back.
Whether or not Francis’s reform measures amount to a full-blown revolution, his vindictive style of Church governance has some observers comparing the mood in and around today’s Rome to that of post-revolutionary Bolshevik Russia. “Dialogue seems to be accepted only if you think like everyone else — that is practically like a regime,” observed Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Kazakhstan. And he would know: He grew up in the Soviet Union; Stalin sent his parents to the gulag. In Rome today, as in Soviet Russia, those who don’t “follow the line of the party” aren’t allowed a voice (LifeSiteNews.com, Dec. 6). “We live in a climate of threats and of denial of dialogue towards a specific group,” Bishop Schneider said in reference to Cardinal Burke and his dubia cosigners — and anyone else not in lockstep with Francis’s reform movement. “We need to be able to ask questions openly without being afraid of repressions.”
Not only that, but it would be helpful to receive straightforward, honest answers to important questions — those posed with respect but also with a sense of urgency. “The Holy Father has to bring clarity and support to his brothers in resolving doubts,” said Bishop Schneider. “Only clarity will bring unity. If there is to be an answer from the Pope, then it must be unambiguous. He must say what is the truth.”
An unambiguous answer? Let’s face it: That’s probably asking for too much from this Pope — especially if he reacts to requests for clarity with rage, reprimands, and threats of repression.
Welcome to Francis’s Vatican, where fury, fear, and fractionalization rule the day.
“Seeking Clarity: A Plea to Untie the Knots in Amoris Laetitia”: The Dubia*
1. It is asked whether, following the affirmations of Amoris Laetitia (nos. 300-305), it has now become possible to grant absolution in the Sacrament of Penance and thus to admit to Holy Communion a person who, while bound by a valid marital bond, lives together with a different person more uxorio [in a marital way] without fulfilling the conditions provided for by Familiaris Consortio (no. 84) and subsequently reaffirmed by Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (no. 34) and Sacramentum Caritatis (no. 29). Can the expression “in certain cases” found in note 351 (no. 305) of Amoris Laetitia be applied to divorced persons who are in a new union and who continue to live more uxorio?
2. After the publication of Amoris Laetitia (cf. no. 304), does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor (no. 79), based on Sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, on the existence of absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts and that are binding without exceptions?
3. After Amoris Laetitia (no. 301), is it still possible to affirm that a person who habitually lives in contradiction to a commandment of God’s law, as for instance the one that prohibits adultery (cf. Mt. 19:3-9), finds himself in an objective situation of grave habitual sin (cf. Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Declaration, June 24, 2000)?
4. After the affirmations of Amoris Laetitia (no. 302) on “circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility,” does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of Veritatis Splendor (no. 81), according to which “circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice”?
5. After Amoris Laetitia (no. 303), does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of Veritatis Splendor (no. 56) that excludes a creative interpretation of the role of conscience and that emphasizes that conscience can never be authorized to legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts by virtue of their object?
* The four cardinals’ plea to Pope Francis, “Seeking Clarity: A Plea to Untie the Knots in Amoris Laetitia,” contains four parts: a foreword, a personal letter to the Pope, the dubia (or questions) themselves, and an explanatory note. This is the official English translation of the dubia, slightly edited for brevity and clarity.
DOSSIER: Pope Francis