Pope Francis Gets His ‘Mess’

Pope Francis at St. Peter’s Basilica in 2013. (Stefano Rellandini/Reuters)
Crises and scandals have gathered at the Vatican in the past month. This pontificate is spreading chaos and confusion.

We are all familiar with parody Twitter accounts; someone called Donald J. Trump has a really rather good one going at the moment. When I read the words of a senior Vatican official recently, on the Twitter feed of the Catholic Herald, it seemed just so obvious. A Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorando, according to the report, the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences — it sounds like a job of soul-destroying tedium but is in fact a rather significant position — had described the one country in the world that, in the bishop’s words, was “best implementing the social doctrine of the Church.” That would be the People’s Republic of China.

China is the country that had a remarkably successful try at enforcing a one-child policy, promoting massive abortion (a figure of more than 300 million has been suggested) — sex-selective, with boys highly favored for birth, girls for elimination — enforced sterilization, and execution of criminals. And, of course, the one-party state persecutes the Church and imprisons human-rights advocates. Bishop Sánchez, who said he had been to China and seen all this good work in person, so it must be true, probably wouldn’t agree with Cardinal Joseph Zen, the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, who recently protested the imminent decision of the Vatican to recognize the government-sponsored, quisling “Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.” That move would be at the expense of the members of the “underground” Catholic Church, which has stayed loyal to the Vatican and suffered persecution for decades. Zen said that the Vatican, and by that he means Pope Francis, was “ready to surrender to the Chinese Communist Party” — again, perfectly fine if it excelled at implementing the social doctrine of the Church.

The China policy, being overseen by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state — Cardinal Zen described him as a “man of little faith” — is just one example of the confusion and chaos battering the Catholic Church today. Parolin has called Pope Francis’s document Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love — no sniggers, please) a “paradigm change” in the life of the Catholic Church. Paradigm shifts imply a rupture. Critics of the The Joy of Love — they include several cardinals and bishops — say that Pope Francis has called into question the indissolubility of marriage. That would certainly be a paradigm shift for the Catholic Church, given the words of Jesus about divorce in the Bible.

The problem for the proponents of this “shift,” as George Weigel has explained, is that the Church “doesn’t do paradigm shifts”; if it did, it would cease to be the Catholic Church. It would become more like the Anglican Church, no stranger to rupture and new ways of thinking. The new resemblance to Anglicanism is not the old division of High and Low Church in regard to the liturgy, although that is certainly part of the contemporary Catholic experience; you never quite know these days whether the priest will just celebrate the Mass or attempt a late-night comedy routine. The really acute division, which is why it is so serious, is over the interpretation of basic doctrine. In Malta, for example, the rules allowing or limiting Holy Communion for a couple one of whose members was divorced and remarried while the previous spouse was still living would be quite different for the same couple if they were in Portland, Ore. “Something is broken in the Catholic Church today,” says Weigel.

To the Vatican’s abandonment of Chinese Catholics and of the Church’s ancient teaching on marriage, add Pope Francis’s recent outrageous comments relating to sexual abuse of minors by priests. It was Benedict XVI who first seriously began to tackle the awful problem. To the delight of the secular media, Francis appeared to be pushing an even stronger line. Unfortunately, some cracks began to appear in that narrative early on, with abusers being readmitted if they had friends (such as the pope) in high places; survivor Marie Collins and all other lay members of the Vatican’s commission on the sexual-abuse problem resigned. Now Francis is under fire for apparently shielding a Chilean bishop who had covered for abusive priests and for appearing to be “economical with the truth” about a letter detailing the facts of the scandal in Chile. He said he never received the letter.

The curious fact about all this confusion and chaos is the disconnection between what is happening at the highest levels of the Church and the lack of awareness of it among the vast majority of ordinary Catholics, including many parish priests. Professional Church-watchers — journalists, theologians, and many of those who spend their time immersed in the affairs of the Church — see the present situation as one of the most serious crises the Church has faced in decades, perhaps centuries. One senior American priest tells me that the Church is in its worst crisis since Arius, the third-century heretic who converted whole regions of bishops to his heresy.

In the Catholic Church at the moment, those at the top are aware of a mounting crisis — indeed, many of them are fomenting it — but the average Sunday Mass-goer is blissfully oblivious.

It is rather like the winter of 1979 in Britain, the “winter of discontent,” except in reverse. Then, everyone except those in power was aware of the national crisis: strikes, rubbish in the streets, general malaise. It was only the prime minister, Jim Callaghan, returning to Britain from a conference in the West Indies, who could comment that most people would not “share the view that there is a mounting crisis.” “Crisis? What Crisis?” read in the headline in Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, mocking Callaghan’s cluelessness. In the Catholic Church at the moment, those at the top are aware of a mounting crisis — indeed, many of them are fomenting it — but the average Sunday Mass-goer is blissfully oblivious.

It is worth asking why that disconnection should be, if it’s true. Two causes seem reasonable explanations: dogma and media coverage. “Dogma is the drama,” Dorothy L. Sayers, the Christian apologist and creator of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels once said of Christianity. History relates how it was not unusual, at the time of the Council of Nicaea in a.d. 325, for debate on the two natures of Christ and on their hypostatic union to be common in the taverns and bars of contemporary Greece; the future of Christianity depended on the precise definition of belief. Today it seems that most Catholics regard discussion of dogma as dull or even unnecessary: the equivalent of the mythical question “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

The second reason that most Catholics remain unaware of the severity of the crisis is the free pass that mainstream media have given Pope Francis until now, basically because he isn’t Benedict XVI. Francis apparently downgrading the big social issues — abortion, contraception — early in his pontificate. His famous comment that Catholics don’t have to “breed like rabbits” and, of course, his rhetorical question “Who am I to judge?” with regard to gay priests: All that was music to the ears of liberal media. That is now changing because of one issue the media cannot ignore and will punish ruthlessly: the covering up, real or imaginary, of sexual abuse. As media start to cover more effectively the catastrophic failures and sleight of hand of this papacy with regard to the abuse of minors, all the other issues begin to emerge.

You can hide the rubbish in the streets only for so long. Eventually it overflows, out into the open. When the Church should be speaking with a clear and direct voice, it is instead spreading confusion, misunderstanding, and scandal. Francis famously called for the people to make a “mess” in the Church. To youth in Rio de Janeiro, he said in January 2013, “I want a mess. . . . I want trouble in the dioceses.” It seems, for now, he has got his wish.


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