A counterpoint to enthusiasm: two years with Francis

A few days ago (13 March) marked the second anniversary of Pope Francis’ election to the papacy. In our reflection on this theme last year, we focused on three major themes emerging from Francis’ pontificate: Curial reform, the peripheries, and the erroneous public perception which we call “the Fantasy Francis“.

In the past two years, it seems that most of the distinguished vaticanisti, from Andrea Tornielli et al. at VaticanInsider, to Crux‘s John Allen, to Rocco Palmo (Whispers in the Loggia) have in large measure, to use Fr. Zuhlsdorf‘s words, “jettisoned objectivity” and begun cheerleading every little thing Pope Francis has done. Of those who have continued to produce quality analysis of Church matters, Sandro Magister (Chiesa), Andrea Gargliaducci (MondayVatican), and Ed Pentin (who heroically exposed Cardinal Kasper’s lie during the 2014 Synod) have remained unafraid to voice concerns about certain unsavory aspects of the current pontificate. After two years of the Francis Experience, enough time has passed for a more critical analysis of what Jorge Mario Bergoglio has done as successor of Peter, in line with the work of Magister/Gargliaducci/Pentin. As before, we will limit ourselves to three themes.

1.  Mercy (but for whom?)

Pope Francis has unmistakably made “mercy” a central theme of his pontificate, and to that end, he has recently convoked a Holy Year for 2016 on that same theme. Upon closer analysis, however, it seems that this “mercy” is reserved for some and not others.

First, let us list the intended recipients of this mercy. Francis calls them “the peripheries”– those on the margins of the larger society. Francis has certainly gone out of his way to visit poorer Roman parishes, to give to the poor (he recently donated hundreds of new sleeping bags for Rome’s barboni), and to comfort those in prison (cf. his Holy Thursday Missae in coena Domini). In his first trip outside Rome, he visited the troubled island of Lampedusa, a place emblematic of Italy’s immigration and security problems, in the waters where many migrants looking to escape Africa’s poverty have tragically drowned.

However, in the debates about mercy in the media (both secular and Catholic), the world has focused less on these truly afflicted people, far less on those persecuted by ISIS, and much more on two other groups: divorced-and-remarried Catholics and homosexuals. At Consistory 2014, Pope Francis gave the floor to Cardinal Kasper, and the Cardinal seized the opportunity to once more raise his flawed theory of mercy that both St. John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger shot down two decades ago. At the center of attempts to extend Holy Communion to divorced-and-remarried Catholics and practicing homosexuals lies a fundamental undermining of the very words of Christ, and whose desired endstate is not mercy in the true sense, but a license to continue sinning.

Meanwhile, bishops from the true peripheries of the Church– Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia– are among the most traditional on social matters and have voiced strenuous opposition to the Kasperite thesis and similar theories. The national bishops’ conferences of Poland and the Philippines, with the bishops of Africa as a whole, have reaffirmed the teachings of John Paul II’s magisterium against Communion for the divorced-and-remarried, against contraception, against abortion, and against homosexual unions.

At the beginning of the 2014 Synod, no African bishop was represented in the relatio committee which drafted the Synod documents; only after the incredible revolt of the bishops on the anniversary of John Paul II’s election was Pope Francis tacitly shamed into adding Cardinal Napier to the relatio committee. It is tragic that the Pope, along with the Synod Secretariat (run by the Kasperite Cardinal Baldisseri), had to be tacitly shamed into accepting a representative of the continent where the Church is experiencing not only its most rapid growth, but also where the family faces the gravest problems.

In the case of the Philippine bishops, who have bitterly opposed the pro-contraceptive “Reproductive Health Bill”, Francis’ silence is deafening. When the Philippine bishops were harshly criticized for their stance by Fr. Pierre de Charentenay, SJ, in the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica (a publication with the implicit placet of the Secretariat of State), Sandro Magister duly noted: il Papa non li difende— the Pope does not defend [the Philippine bishops]. Yes, Pope Francis has gone on record praising Paul VI’s Humanae vitae for its prophetic warning against “neo-Malthusianism,” but when it comes to correcting one of his Jesuit confreres on the matter, he is conspicuously absent.

Perhaps one of the most shameful aspects of the current papacy is the treatment of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate (FFI). Founded by Fr. Stefano Manelli in 1970, the order is marked by an austere and rigorous return to Franciscan spirituality. In the years following the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum which liberalized the celebration of the Extraordinary Form, the majority of the friars found in the old liturgy a source of true spiritual renewal, and as a result many parishes and houses run by the FFI celebrated both the Novus Ordo and Traditional Latin liturgy. By 2012, it was one of the fastest growing orders in the world, boasting flourishing vocations and expanding apostolates. Like any order, the FFI had some internal problems, and a minority of friars opposed the turn towards traditional liturgy. In all, five friars (out of over 300) brought severe accusations against Fr. Manelli and FFI leadership, prompting an investigation from Rome. A questionnaire was sent to all friars, and while a majority said that problems could be solved through an extraordinary general chapter, the statistics were manipulated and interpreted to justify the appointment of an Apostolic Commissioner.

In July 2013, the Capuchin Fr. Fidenzio Volpi, was appointed Apostolic Commissioner ad nutum Sanctae Sedis by Pope Francis with full power to run the FFI and its properties until the “problems” were solved. FFI founder Fr. Manelli was silenced and removed from leadership, and Fr. Volpi forbade all celebrations of the Traditional liturgy without his express permission. In the meantime, through Volpi, Pope Francis has closed many FFI houses, suspended a divinis certain friars who sought incardination into Tradition-friendly dioceses, and shut down the FFI seminary. All this has happened in response to unverified accusations by five disgruntled friars and, according to Volpi, a current of “crypto-Lefebvrianism” (a charge the Commissioner has never explained) in the order.

Perhaps most unsettling is the fact that Fr. Volpi has had to formally retract a libelous accusation against the family of Fr. Manelli in which he charged them of accepting the transfer of FFI properties before the Apostolic Commissioner could obtain control of them. An Italian court found him guilty of defamation, and forced him to post on all FFI publications and websites a statement of his wrongdoing; furthermore, he was required to return 20,000 euro worth of assets to the Manelli family.

Despite all this, Fr. Volpi continues his reign as Apostolic Commissioner, and there is no end in sight for this trial. The FFI’s ordeal has all the characteristics of a true persecution. The weak nature of the accusations, the arbitrary power grab by Volpi, and seeming lack of progress in investigating and verifying the accusations have engendered anger and despair not only within the FFI but among Traditional Catholics around the world.

All these stories compel us to ask: Francis preaches mercy, but for whom?

2.  Reform of the Curia

Reform has been slow, and painfully so. The great development of the past year has been the appointment of George Cardinal Pell, formerly Archbishop of Sydney, as Prefect of the new Secretariat of the Economy. In this role, he has the broad task of overseeing all Vatican finances, bringing it under tighter control and transparency. In concrete terms, Pell’s secretariat absorbed the functions of two bodies: the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See and the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA, from the Italian Amministrazione del patrimonio della Sede Apostolica). Pell, a hard-nosed, no-nonsense administrator, dove quickly into his task, uncovering many financial irregularities and hitherto-unknown funds in both APSA and in the Secretariat of State, drawing opposition from APSA President Domenico Cardinal Calcagno and Secretary of State Pietro Cardinal Parolin. Francesco Cardinal Coccopalmerio, President of the Pontifical Council for Interpretation of Legislative Texts (and who sits on the APSA board), suggested that Pell overstepped his mandate.

While Pell is strengthened by the fact that he reports to nobody but the Pope, difficulties arise because his new secretariat has, as of yet, no permanent statutes which delineate its authority. Although the statutes approved by Pope Francis on 22 February and enacted 1 March in fact strengthen Pell against his detractors (despite what the spinmasters at VaticanInsider might imply), the final word on delineation of competencies will only happen when Pastor Bonus is replaced by a new Apostolic Constitution.

In the meantime, the study of consolidation of several dicasteries is still underway, and the process has been painstaking. Many Cardinals have raised objections to various proposals. How much these objections are based on sincere criticisms of the proposals, or on the fact that certain dicastery heads (Coccopalmerio, Calcagno, Versaldi) are trying to protect their spheres of influence, is unclear; perhaps an interplay of both is at work. In any case, it seems that any definitive answer from Francis on Curial reform is slated for 2016– a long wait for a Pope elected with a mandate to streamline the bureaucracy.

3.  Secular liberals are turning

Francis still enjoys massive popularity around the world. This is due partially to his charm and pastoral warmth, and partially due to a false identification of his positions with certain doctrines of secular modernity. As more time passes, however, the veneer of the Fantasy Francis persona has slowly but surely chipped away, and little by little, liberals once galvanized by the early days of his pontificate are left despondent as the real Francis begins to affirm what John Paul II and Benedict XVI always taught.

For example, the Pope who made headlines with the famous “who am I to judge?” (when referring to gays who seek Christ), delivered a strong statement in favor of the traditional family during his trip to the Philippines. In his slow and painstaking English, he said in a homily:

Here I would like to say a special word to the young priests, religious and seminarians among us. I ask you to share the joy and enthusiasm of your love for Christ and the Church with everyone, but especially with your peers. Be present to young people who may be confused and despondent, yet continue to see the Church as their friend on the journey and a source of hope. Be present to those who, living in the midst of a society burdened by poverty and corruption, are broken in spirit, tempted to give up, to leave school and to live on the streets. Proclaim the beauty and truth of the Christian message to a society which is tempted by confusing presentations of sexuality, marriage and the family. As you know, these realities are increasingly under attack from powerful forces which threaten to disfigure God’s plan for creation and betray the very values which have inspired and shaped all that is best in your culture.

This, in addition to his homily at the wedding Mass of various Roman couples, constitute some of the strongest affirmations of the traditional family (and conversely, one of the strongest denunciations of homosexual unions) from the Church in recent years.

Among those who hailed his ascent was the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), a group of orders of American nuns which came under Roman investigation during Pope Benedict’s reign for their espousal of strange New Age-inspired doctrines, including theories that involve “evolving beyond Christ” and ordination of women. Pope Francis sorely disappointed these nuns by affirming the doctrinal assessment prepared by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Fr. Greg Reynolds, a former priest from Australia who founded a group called “Inclusive Catholics” (who boast of an inclusive attitude to everything but actual Catholic doctrine), was suspended from the clerical state back during Pope Benedict’s reign. Among his many offenses against the faith include vehemently supporting homosexual unions and women’s ordination, as well as serious liturgical abuses which fall under the category of delicta graviora. Perhaps the most unsettling episode includes a Mass in which a sacred Host was fed to a dog. In any case, when the CDF investigation of Reynolds was complete, Francis formally excommunicated the Australian, to the dismay and shock of heterodox Catholics throughout the world.

To get a sense of the crisis engendered among liberal Catholics by Francis’ decisions on the LCWR, Greg Reynolds, and on homosexual unions, one only need to read the National Catholic Reporter.

Conclusion: a lack of clarity

In Pope Benedict XVI, we were spoiled with a pope who spoke with unmistakable clarity, media bias notwithstanding (cf. the magisterial Regensburg lecture). Though Francis is known from deviating from prepared scripts and speaking a bit off the cuff, Benedict was always capable of spontaneously displaying the remarkable coherence of the faith. In many unprepared Q&A sessions with all types of people (from journalists to scholars to laypersons to children), he could expound ex tempore at length on any given question with such detail, such nuance, such richness, all in a manner consonant with the received tradition of the Church. This coherence spilled over into Benedict’s major policy decisions, which expressed a definitive plan for the renewal of the Church.

Francis, on the other hand, is far less clear. In his off-the-cuff remarks, he is often seen pausing, stuttering, searching for the right words to express his mind. The resulting words often turn into simple colloquialisms which are open to a wide spectrum of interpretation, compelling many Cardinals and the Holy See Press Office to issue clarifications after the fact. This lack of clarity is also seen in Francis’ decisions, which have disappointed both traditional Catholics as well as fringe liberals. While the Church has certainly benefited from the positive publicity generated by the Francis pontificate, we must remember that the Church is ultimately “not of this world” and that, at times, clearly confessing the truth of the Gospel leads to the rejection by the people.

The successor of Peter is called to be the “rock” of the Church (Matthew 16:18), the “peg in a sure spot” (Isaiah 22:23), and the firm pastor who strengthens all the brethren in the faith (Luke 22:32). Clarity should be the hallmark of any bishop, especially the Bishop of Rome. Let us pray that Francis will continue to more clearly profess the truth of Jesus Christ as he guides the barque of Peter in the coming year.

Rogavamus pro te, o Petre, ut non deficiat fides tua, et aliquando conversus, confirma fratres tuos.

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