Why Pope Francis must always watch his back

His stated intention to decentralise the Catholic Church’s power and reform its central bureaucracy, the Curia, has not endeared Francis to traditionalists, says TP O’Mahony

Why Pope Francis must always watch his back

His stated intention to decentralise the Catholic Church’s power and reform its central bureaucracy, the Curia, has not endeared Francis to traditionalists, says TP O’Mahony

Pope Francis during his weekly general audience in the Paolo VI Hall at the Vatican yesterday. Picture: Giuseppe Lami/EPA
Pope Francis during his weekly general audience in the Paolo VI Hall at the Vatican yesterday. Picture: Giuseppe Lami/EPA

The Pope turned to one of his closest advisers: “Who is betraying me? The Church is not going in the direction I want it to go in.”

This is actually dialogue from the Sky TV series The Young Pope, starring Jude Law as Pope Pius XIII. But it could be something a Vatican correspondent might overhear any day in exchanges between Pope Francis and one of his advisers in the Casa Santa Martha, where the 81-year-old Argentine resides.

One difference is that Piux XIII’s trusted adviser is a nun, Sister Mary (played by Diane Keaton), whereas there is no woman in Francis’s inner circle. Many people, including some of his friends, believe that a female perspective might have steered him clear of some problems, including a few that were self-created.

This is a troubled papacy. The addition of a woman to its inner circle wouldn’t undo the difficulties Francis is now saddled with, but it might provide a bulwark against others. And it is by no means a novel idea.

When Eugenio Pacelli was papal nuncio to Germany in the 1920s, he met a young Bavarian nun in a nursing home, while he was convalescing. And when he was recalled to Rome, in 1930, by Pope Pius XI, to take up the post of secretary of state, he arranged for the nun, Sr Pascalina, to follow him and to head his household in the Vatican.

She continued in that role in the papal apartments, when Cardinal Pacelli was elected Pope in April 1939, and would, in time, become Pius XII’s most trusted confidant. Such was her influence that her enemies referred to her as ‘La Popessa.’

It is not known how Pope Francis’s enemies refer to him when he isn’t present, but some are powerful and his sense of being ‘betrayed’ is well-founded.

Many Catholics find the idea of sustained and planned internal Vatican opposition to a Pope difficult to comprehend. According to the textbooks, the Roman Curia (the Church’s central bureaucracy) exists to assist the Pope.

In his book, In The Vatican — an expert’s guide to an institution that is often baffling in its complexity — Peter Hebblethwaite reiterates this point: “The Roman Curia is at the service of the Pope”. Then, four sentences later, he adds: “It does not invariably do what the Pope wants”.

This is an understatement.

The Curia will sometimes pursue its own agenda and deliberately frustrate the papal agenda. This is especially true when it is perceived by senior Roman cardinals that their own status, power, and influence are being reduced or curtailed — which is very much the case with Francis, who, from the outset, listed reform of the Curia as one of the priorities of his papacy.

Decentralisation of authority away from Rome is one of the key objectives of his reform programme. “The Argentine Pope made the first — and what is the most significant — reform of his pontificate in the very first days following his election,” says Robert Mickens, the Vatican correspondent of the French Catholic newspaper La Croix.

“It was his decision to shun the secluded papal apartments, deep inside the Apostolic Palace, and make his permanent home at the Casa Santa Marta, a residence for priest-employees of the Vatican and the place where the cardinals lodge during a conclave.

“The choice of address was the beginning of Francis’s slow, painstaking efforts to re-dimensionalise the scope and activities of the Roman Curia and decentralise its power. It was also part of his plan to demythologise the institution of the papacy and eliminate the lingering vestiges of the old papal court.”

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) President Tim Lennon from Tucson, AZ, center, and SNAP members Esther Hatfield Miller from Los Angeles, CA, left, and Carol Midboe from Austin, TX, pose for pictures during interviews with the media in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican during Pope Francis' general audience, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019.  (AP Photo/Luigi Navarra)
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) President Tim Lennon from Tucson, AZ, center, and SNAP members Esther Hatfield Miller from Los Angeles, CA, left, and Carol Midboe from Austin, TX, pose for pictures during interviews with the media in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican during Pope Francis' general audience, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Luigi Navarra)

As part of his promotion of synodal governance, Francis has strengthened and reformed the Synod of Bishops (which had been emasculated by John Paul II and Benedict XVI), and has brought forward legislation to bestow greater decision-making powers and doctrinal authority on national episcopal conferences.

His two predecessors, obsessed with centralised control, had sought to weaken and sideline these conferences.

On Thursday, the presidents of these same national episcopal conferences (over 110 worldwide) will assemble in Rome for a four-day summit. The Irish Church will be represented by Archbishop Eamon Martin, of Armagh.

The global summit was convened by the Pope in what the London-based Catholic weekly, The Tablet, has said “could be a watershed moment in the history of the Catholic Church’s response to the scandal of child sex abuse within its ranks”.

Already, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, of Austria (who is now being included among the favourites to succeed Pope Francis), has said the sexual abuse crisis is the biggest challenge facing the Church, and warned that it threatens its mission to preach the Gospel.

In an interview with the German magazine Stern, he said: “Francis has made the ‘Joy of the Gospel’ his central topic. The message these perpetrators are sending out is the exact opposite. If we don’t get down to reappraising the abuse, all talk of ‘the Joy of the Gospel’ will go down the plughole.”

The ‘Joy of the Gospel’ (or Evangelii Gaudium) is the November 2013 apostolic exhortation in which Francis set out the programme for his papacy.

This summit is a crucial test for Francis. He has been slow to react to an ever-deepening crisis. The plague of clerical sex abuse has been accompanied by institutional mishandling, avoidance of responsibility, complicity, and cover-up. Unless this week’s summit acts decisively, there is every likelihood, as Cardinal Schonborn has warned, that the Pope’s central reform programme — and his efforts to move away from a monarchical papacy — will “go down the plughole”.

Pope Francis poses for a photo with a group of priests at the end of his weekly general audience in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Pope Francis poses for a photo with a group of priests at the end of his weekly general audience in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

And there is now a new dimension. After his recent historic trip to the Arabian Peninsula — making him the first Pope to visit the birthplace of Islam — Francis acknowledged, on the flight back to Rome, that nuns have been sexually abused by bishops and priests. The stories that have emerged so far, of young nuns being raped and forced to have abortions, do not give the full picture. The cover-ups are endemic.

The sexual abuse of nuns has been the hidden dimension of the wider sex abuse scandal, though we now know that a 1998 study revealed that 30% of nuns in the US had experienced some kind of sexual abuse.

Sr Charlotte Wagner, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the United States, told Jenny Murray, on Woman’s Hour, on BBC Radio 4, that the problem was global, though most widespread in Africa and Asia. A 1994 report, specifying cases of abuse from 20 countries (including Ireland) was sent to Rome, but the plight of nuns — who do not give up their rights as persons on entering a religious congregation — was never given much priority in the Vatican. Until now.

That, at any rate, is the hope of Sr Charlotte, who told the BBC that the practice of leaving complaints to individual dioceses is no longer good enough.

Asked about the factors behind the sexual abuse of nuns, she said it was: The culture of secrecy; A sense of entitlement among priests and bishops; Opportunity.

“This is part of the culture of clericalism, taking advantage of young, naive nuns, who have been taught that the priest is someone who should never be questioned.”

This all forms the background to this week’s landmark summit.

The Tablet, in an editorial, makes a very pertinent point: “The suggestion that senior members of the hierarchy, such as archbishops, should be responsible for the investigation of junior members of it, favoured in some circles, sounds simply like an attempt to keep the scandal within the club. This obviously will not do”.

At the weekend, however, Pope Francis made a move that signals a new determination to enforce a “zero tolerance” policy. He sanctioned the dismissal from the priesthood of a former cardinal, found guilty by the Vatican of sexually abusing minors.

Theodore McCarrick, 88, a former Archbishop of Washington DC and once one of the most prominent figures in the Church, was defrocked days ago. This makes him the most senior figure to be dismissed from the priesthood in modern times. McCarrick, who retired as Archbishop of Washington DC in 2006, was forced to resign as a cardinal last July.

Meanwhile, the publication of a new book — on the day the summit opens — will not help matters.

Entitled In the Closet of the Vatican, it claims that 80% of priests in the Vatican are gay, although not necessarily sexually active. According to the 570-page book, by French journalist and author, Frederic Martel, some of the most senior clerics in the Catholic Church who have vociferously attacked homosexuality are themselves gay.

From left, Rev. Hans Zollner, Mons. Charles Scicluna, Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, Vatican Spokesperson Alessandro Gisotti, Rev. Federico Lombardi and Sister Bernadette Reis give a press conference on a Vatican summit on preventing clergy sex abuse, at the Vatican, Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
From left, Rev. Hans Zollner, Mons. Charles Scicluna, Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, Vatican Spokesperson Alessandro Gisotti, Rev. Federico Lombardi and Sister Bernadette Reis give a press conference on a Vatican summit on preventing clergy sex abuse, at the Vatican, Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

The author spent four years researching it and, according to its British publisher, Bloomsbury, it is “a startling account of corruption and hypocrisy at the heart of the Vatican”.

Bloomsbury say the book “reveals secrets” about celibacy, misogyny, and plots against Francis.

We didn’t have to await a new book to be convinced about the plots. The ‘betrayal’ of Francis within the highest echelons of the Vatican has been going on for some time. No modern Pope has had to contend with such a level of opposition. Even the retired Pope Benedict XVI, 91, has become — unwittingly (from what we know) — a factor in this opposition. In an earlier report, Chico Harlan, of the Rome bureau of the Washington Post, put it as follows: “Try as he might to stay out of the fray, Benedict has been used as a symbol of resistance for a segment of traditionalists who oppose elements of Francis’s reformist papacy and see Benedict’s vision of Catholicism as more aligned with theirs”.

A few days after Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope, in March 2013, he received a phone call from an old friend in Buenos Aires: “Remember, Jorge, the Borgias are still in the Vatican.”

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