Catholic confusion over the troublesome Pope

Pope Francis waves to the faithful as he arrives for a Papal mass in Kenya's capital Nairobi, November 26, 2015. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
Pope Francis waves to the faithful as he arrives for a Papal mass in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, November 26, 2015. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
November 27, 2015

Pope Francis speaks at the United Nations headquarters in Kenya's capital Nairobi, November 26, 2015. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini
Pope Francis speaks at the United Nations headquarters in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, November 26, 2015. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

For faithful Catholics, the whole point of the Pope and the Vatican is that they should be pillars of certainty in a troubled and troubling world.

But as Argentinian Jesuit Jorge Mario Bergoglio approaches the end of his third year as Pope Francis, the relationships between the Pontif and his cardinals — the Princes of the Church – and the standing of the management of the Vatican – the Curio – are all beset by uncertainty and confusion.

The Catholic Church is being riven by a potent concoction of doctrinal rifts and highly venal financial scandals. It is unclear where the purely religious differences end and the crudely secular territorial skirmishes begin, leaving many lay Catholics as well as priests disoriented and unsure where to seek security and balance.

The church has been through many worse periods of turmoil in its 2,000-year history, and will doubtless survive this. But while to many non-Catholics, Pope Francis may sound like a modern man, attuned to if not quite in tune with western liberal views on such things as divorce, abortion, homosexuality and same-sex marriage, to many of his followers he is an object of perplexity.

It has become common for priests and Catholic commentators to describe Pope Francis as “out of control,” or variations on that theme. He is clearly a reformer and a liberalizer, but alarm is being voiced regularly by conservative cardinals and priests, especially in the United States and Africa, primarily because no one can see what his agenda is.

The Vatican has always been a place of intrigue that presents an inscrutable face to the world. This week it ran true to character when the trial began on Tuesday before a panel of three judges, of five people accused of the “unlawful disclosure of information and confidential documents. The five face up to eight years in prison over the leaking of the secret documents and tape recordings flowing from the investigation of a commission into Vatican corruption and uncontrolled spending set up by Pope Francis soon after his accession in 2013.

Among the five people charged are two authors who received the documents and used them as the basis for books published in the last few days. One is Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, whose book is called “Merchants at the Temple.” The other is called “Avarice” and is by another journalist, Emiliano Fittipaldi. Nuzzi has a track record on writing about Vatican scandals. It was Nuzzi who in 2012 received material from the butler of Pope Benedict XVI about infighting among the Church aristocracy and serious fraud in the running of the Vatican city state. The revelations are widely believed to have prompted Pope Benedict to resign and retire in 2013.

Pope Francis has publicly rebuked the five defendants for the latest leaks, which suggests the charges against them have his stamp of approval. He used the global platform of his Sunday blessing to crows in St. Peter’s Square to call the leaks “a grave illegal act” and “a deplorable crime.” So the five do not seem then, to be victims of a plot by opponents of the Pope.

Most surprising and confusing is that the kingpin of what Vatican officials have called “a brotherhood of crime,” is Monsignor Lucio Balda, a 54-year-old Spaniard who was appointed by Pope Francis as a key official in his campaign to reform the Vatican finances.

No one has yet come up with a satisfactory explanation for why Balda went from being one of Pope Francis’ most trust advisors on the reform project to the agent of betrayal and acute embarrassment.

Some of the embarrassing excesses of the Vatican documented in the reports for Pope Francis were familiar to English writer Geoffrey Chaucer nearly 700 years ago as he pilloried corrupt and avaricious Catholic clergy in his book The Canterbury Tales. The selling of Papal indulgences and other favours seems to have survived the Reformation. But prices have risen over the centuries. The leaked reports say it now costs from $1 million to $2 million for a successful campaign to get someone beatified and on the road to sainthood.

Then there was the equivalent of $400,000 diverted by a senior Vatican official from its intended destination – support for a children’s hospital – to the renovation of his personal apartment into a “mega-penthouse.”

And in 2013 the equivalent of about $1 million donated by congregations worldwide to help the poor disappeared into what is called “an off-the-book Vatican account.”

Pope Francis came to the Vatican as a revolutionary on at least two counts. He is the first Jesuit Pope and also the first from the Americas. He also came to Rome with a deep antipathy for the trappings of power and status. Francis made this clear by refusing to move into the Papal apartment in the Vatican. Instead he lives in Casa Santa Marta, which is a sort of hotel for visiting clergy and lay Catholics within the city state. In a letter to an old friend, Father Enrique Martinez, the publication of which is more in the realm of public relations rather than scurrilous leak, Pope Francis said living in the hotel makes him feel like “part of the family.”

“I’m visible to the people and I lead a normal life – a public Mass in the morning,” he wrote. “I eat in the refectory with everyone else, et cetera. All this is good for me and prevents me from being isolated.”

Part of the current air of confusion is that the Pope’s troubles with the Vatican’s Curia administration and the suspicion in which he is held by conservative cardinals do not interlock. For example, Pope Francis has appointed the formidable Australian Cardinal, George Pell, to head the Secretariat for the Economy, a new body designed to bring the Curia to heel. But Pell has been blunt in his criticism of Francis on matters of dogma and the authority of an individual Pope.

In a recent dismissal of Pope Francis’ appeal for global action to try to avert climate change, Cardinal Pell commented sardonically: “The church has got no mandate from the Lord to pronounce on scientific matters.”

What is making very many conservatives anxious and rebellious is that Francis has, or appears ready to pronounce on far too many areas of doctrine where they think the mandate is already fixed and clear.

In September, for example, Pope Francis expanded the authority of priests to forgive women who have had abortions, and thereby commit, in the eyes of Catholic teaching, a mortal sin.

In a similar vein, in October last year the Pope called a preparatory synod to discuss matters related to the family. In the middle of the gathering of bishops and cardinals, Francis’ organizers of the event announced it favoured lifting the ban on communion for divorcees and also to “recognize the positive aspects of gay relationships.”

Well, nothing could have been further from the truth. Cardinal Pell is said to have gone incandescent with rage. So before the synod on the worldwide crisis in family life began last month, 13 Cardinals, led by Pell, wrote to Pope Francis asking him to ensure the meeting was not dominated by these two issues. Francis appeared to comply, but did not. He ensured the agenda was dominated by clerics who share his views. The result was a messy and muddled final document of little value as guidance to Catholics.

Francis threw a snit. In his closing remarks to the gathering he castigated “closed hearts that hide behind the church’s teachings.” And he went on that “true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit.”

The issues arising from the synod have been taken up by Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, from Honduras, who heads Pope Francis’ closest council of nine cardinals. Rodriguez is quoted in the National Catholic Reporter newspaper as saying the Pope was not discouraged by the evident opposition to his reform efforts “because he is a man of prayer, he is a man of God. So he is never disappointed by these things. He’s not even afraid. He knows what he is doing. He’s not just acting without reflection, without prayer over steps he is taking.”

“It’s a revolution going on (in the Vatican). But a revolution of love and hope. And that’s the way it’s going,” said Rodriguez.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2015


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  • Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.


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