Amid avalanche, real questions about the papacy risk being obscured
- John L. Allen Jr.
September 25, 2017
In the last few days, Pope Francis has faced three remarkable accusations — one of suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, another of heresy, and a third of dropping the ball on financial reform of the Vatican. In trying to sort through it all, one towering problem is that in an environment defined by hysteria, separating legitimate criticism from the same-old, same-old is increasingly difficult.
ROME – In the last six days, Pope Francis has been subject to three extraordinary accusations, each coming from disparate sources and covering different ground. In a nutshell, here they are:
- On Sept. 17, a right-wing Italian blogger and writer named Maurizio Blondet, drawing on a report by an Argentine journalist, accused Francis of suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, which Blondet claims was manifest during the future pope’s time as a Jesuit provincial in the 1970s and which Blondet says has defined his career ever since, including in the papacy.
- On Saturday, a group of 62 theologians, other academics and clergy – though only one bishop, and that was Bishop Bernard Fellay of the breakaway traditionalist Society of St. Pius X – accused Francis of propagating heresy in his document Amoris Laetitia, and its cautious opening to Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
- Also on Saturday, the Vatican’s former Auditor General, Italian businessman Libero Milone, charged the pope with essentially giving up on financial reform, saying he “started with the best of intentions” but has been blocked by an old guard willing to use frame-jobs and character assassination to destroy anyone threatening their grip on power.
Here’s the main problem with such an avalanche of accusations: It becomes difficult to distinguish what genuinely merits closer examination from matters which are, in essence, either same-old, same-old, or dubious on the face of it.
Specifically, there’s a risk that the very serious suggestions being made by Milone about the state of Francis’s much-ballyhooed financial reform will be drowned out by the noise generated by everything else.
Before moving on, here’s a brief summary of each point.
Blondet’s assertion draws on the work of an Argentinian journalist named Alejandro Brittos, who published a reconstruction of the pope’s past in early July titled, “How the ‘humble’ Bergoglio prepared his climb to the top of the Church.”
Among other things, Brittos cites a letter from two former Jesuit novices under the future pope, who assert that he was self-promotional about his virtues of humility and simplicity, and that he sought complete submission and loyalty from his disciples – both indicators, according to Blondet, of a narcissistic personality. He goes on to cite clinical descriptions of the disorder, which he claims also characterize Francis’s leadership style as pope.
As for the charge of heresy, it comes from a group of thinkers, writers and clergy, many of whom are close to the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X founded by the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.
The 25-page letter accuses Francis of propagating seven heretical positions concerning marriage, the moral life and the sacraments with his 2016 document on the family Amoris Laetitia and subsequent “acts, words and omissions,” asserting that taken together, these errors create a “great and imminent danger of souls.” Signatories call on Francis to “publicly reject these propositions.”
Organizers of the letter, who believe Francis has succumbed to the errors of Modernism condemned by previous popes, claim this is the first time since 1333 that a pope has been formally and publicly “corrected” in such a fashion.
Finally, Milone, who resigned as the Vatican’s Auditor General in June without explanation, broke his three-month silence on Saturday to charge that he had been the victim of character assassination and a frame-job by old guard forces in the Vatican hostile to reform. He also suggested the pope has basically capitulated to forces hostile to change.
“I believe the pope is a great person, and he began with the best of intentions,” Milone said. “But I’m afraid he was blocked by the old guard that’s still entirely there, which felt threatened when it understood that I could tell the pope and Parolin what I’d seen with my own eyes in the accounts.”
(The reference there is to Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State and effectively the top aide to Pope Francis.)
So, what’s a reasonable person to think?
First, the suggestion that Francis has some sort of psychological disorder is not new. It’s been floating around in the traditionalist-deeply conservative Catholic world for a while, although it may have been given a new lease on life by a recent book-length conversation between the pontiff and French sociologist Dominique Wolton, in which Francis said that when he was 42 and a Jesuit provincial, he consulted a psychotherapist over an arc of six months “to clarify a few things.”
Second, the charge of heresy is also not really new, since it’s been in circulation ever since Amoris Laetitia appeared. The claim that such a correction hasn’t been issued for almost 700 years is also overblown, since this is hardly the first time since 1333 someone’s written to a pope to accuse him of betraying the faith.
Third, Milone is making a substantive charge that risks being obscured or minimized amid the frenzy about everything else.
His account is probably the least tainted by ideological motives, since Milone is basically a businessman and accountant, not a political or theological activist. If what he’s saying is true, Francis essentially has given up on financial reform and is content to allow business as usual in the Vatican to reassert itself while he pursues other objectives.
On the face of it, it does seem puzzling how an auditor whose position was designed to be accountable only to the pope could have been frozen out of contact with Francis for more than a year, and, when the time came to tell Milone he’d lost the pope’s confidence, the message was delivered by a subordinate backed by the threat of arrest rather than the pontiff himself.
Moreover, there’s sufficient independent evidence, including a Vatican trial for financial misappropriation going on right now in which the Italian cardinal at the heart of the affair has been carefully insulated from liability, to indicate it’s at least worth taking Milone’s suggestion of a rollback seriously.
In the present climate, the problem is that some of those most eager to jump on the idea that Francis has dropped the ball on financial reform have strong ideological incentives to do so, hoping to style it as an indictment of the pontificate tout court. Others who, under different circumstances, might be inclined to look at things objectively, likely will see any such suggestion as yet another element in a Machiavellian plot to destroy the pope.
If truth is the first casualty of war, in other words, then perhaps it could equally be said that perspective is the first casualty of hysteria. Those still able to maintain a level head, however, may want to pay special attention to the Milone story and how it plays out.