Features Australia

Playing with holy fire

5 January 2017

3:00 PM

5 January 2017

3:00 PM

In the nearly four years since he was elected, Pope Francis I has achieved the singular distinction of bringing the Roman Catholic Church within sight of Schism. Even if a formal split is still unlikely, the de facto division widens every day his papacy continues. Like Martin Luther, who turned northern Europe into a battleground of Protestants versus Catholics – and whom the Pope, in his uniquely perverse way, made such a point of admiring recently – Francis is causing a rift between those who support him and those who put up with him, for now.

A Pope arousing the animosity of many of his flock is itself something of an achievement. Roman Catholics have a tradition of loyalty to the Pope, who as successor of St Peter is meant to be a focus of unity. Francis is making the papacy a focus of discord.

His elevation to the Chair of Peter was itself a display of this disunity. Liberal churchmen such as the late Cardinal Martini – a Jesuit like Francis – conspired to have this then little known Argentinian elected Pope when Pope John Paul II died, but the Holy Spirit, who supposedly guides these elections, chose Benedict XVI instead. There is evidence that Benedict’s papacy was undermined by liberals from the start, and when he resigned – worn down by the worldwide scandal of clerical child abuse – Jorge Bergoglio was elected, partly because he wasn’t European and partly because he was seen as a man who could relate the Church to the contemporary world. (Progressive Catholics are always trying to relate the Church to the world, but the world seems perennially indifferent to their efforts. Certainly, their last big attempt, the ‘updating’ of Catholicism by the Second Vatican Council, has been a washout, as shown by the statistics of decline everywhere.)

Once Pope, Francis set out to do two things. One was to project an air of bonhomie and promote himself as a ‘regular guy’. There was considerable virtue-signalling: much was made of his concern for ‘ordinary folk’ as exemplified in his finding the time to phone his news vendor in Buenos Aires to thank him and say that, well, shucks, he’d had this promotion to Rome so would no longer need the morning paper. The world next learned about his taste for ‘simple living’: not for Francis the grandeur of the papal apartments in the Vatican. No, in the spirit of the humble saint whose name he’d adopted he would live in a plainly furnished room in a Vatican guesthouse. (Tactfully no one mentioned the cost of the extra security.) His desire to dispense with the papacy’s trappings of state has been further illustrated by his turning his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo into a museum.

To dispense with the trappings, but not with the power. From the start Pope Francis has seen it as his function to lay down the law on anything that enters his head. This brings us to the second thing he has set out to do. He has made it clear that he disapproves of conservative Catholicism. ‘Conservative’ nowadays means the Catholicism that was universal before the Second Vatican Council; as in the secular world, Catholic progressives have managed to shift the centre of gravity leftwards so that what was once the norm can now be presented as reactionary. Francis, who sometimes seems to be a Catholic in the sense that Malcolm Turnbull is a Liberal, has criticised as ‘nostalgics’ those who attend the traditional Latin form of the Mass (and who constitute one of the few growth areas in modern Catholicism). He has suggested that ‘traditionalist’ seminarians should be watched, as they might have the sort of ‘rigid’ personalities that lead some people to join the police or the army. (Coming from Argentina, he’d know all about the police and army and what they’re capable of – though unsurprisingly there is a veil of silence over his dealings with the sinister exponents of Peronism. One wonders whether, as an authoritarian himself, he has a soft spot for dictatorships, having been ‘grieved’ at the death of the Church-persecuting, mass-murdering Fidel Castro.)

He has again thumbed his nose at conservatives by issuing an ‘apostolic exhortation’, Amoris laetitia (‘The joy of love’) in which it is suggested, if rather surreptitiously in a footnote, that Catholics who are divorced and remarried may be admitted to Holy Communion. Christ stated that those who remarry after divorce are ‘adulterers’ (Matthew 5:32) and it has been the continuous practice of the Church to treat such people as sinners and exclude them from the eucharist. To be fair, Amoris laetitia is probably a confused pastoral attempt to reconcile Catholic teaching with much contemporary matrimonial practice, but it is potentially the Sarajevo moment from which any schism would derive. The four (conservative) cardinals who have asked the Pope for clarification – effectively they have asked him if he is changing Catholic doctrine – have been conspicuously ignored, apart from a snarky aside from Francis against ‘legalism’. They have intimated that the Pope could be called to account for heresy. If conservative Catholics withdrew their recognition of Francis as Pope, the schism would have come about, and largely because Francis disdained to reply to a legitimate query. Why do this, unless to drive conservatives out of the Church?

Lately there are indications that Catholic progressives, too, are losing patience with Pope Francis. His ‘liberal’ utterances are mainly secular – pro-environmentalism, anti-Trump, etc. (he follows the progressive agenda in never directly criticising Muslim nations for the persecution of Christians) – but spiritually, despite alienating conservatives, he is remarkably traditional. He talks about sin and the Devil, topics progressives play down, and has done nothing that liberals really want – no married priests, no ordination of women; in fact he has affirmed these will not happen. Early in his papacy, during one of his ill-thought out in-flight press conferences, he was asked for his views on homosexuality. ‘Who am I to judge?’ was his much publicised, shoulder-shrugging answer. Well, he has just judged, by reiterating that gays are not to be ordained as Catholic priests.

So it mightn’t be only conservatives who’ll be happier when this papacy is over. That might be a while: at 80 Francis is healthy and energetic. And apparently he knows exactly what he is doing. Der Spiegel reports that just before Christmas he told his inner circle: ‘It is not to be excluded that I will enter history as the one who split the Catholic Church’. Pope Francis is playing with fire.

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