Just over five years ago, the Argentine cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio came out onto the loggia of St. Peter’s as Pope Francis. It is useful to recall the situation of the Church that he inherited.
The sex-abuse scandals that had rocked the Church in America and some European countries at the turn of the millennium were subsiding, or so it seemed. But the dysfunction at the Vatican under Pope Benedict XVI had overwhelmed the scholarly pontiff. Benedict’s chosen reformer for the corrupt Vatican Bank, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, initially had success in turning blood-red deficits toward the black, but he was swiftly undermined and sent packing to be the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States. Benedict’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, was arrested for stealing and leaking to the media documents revealing the intrigue and backbiting within Vatican City. Benedict assigned three cardinals to investigate the VatiLeaks scandal. They returned to the pope a long dossier, which was widely reported to contain an account of the financial and sexual misdeeds of senior officials in the Vatican itself. At about this time European banks began squeezing the Vatican Bank, and by the turn of the New Year the Vatican’s own ATMs stopped working. Their function was restored days after Benedict announced that he would resign the papacy, the first papal resignation in five centuries.
Two storylines emerged out of the election of Bergoglio. The first was that the Church had elected a man who had a common touch and would stop the Church from becoming a museum of dead dogmas. The second is that the Church had chosen him because he had shown the energy to reform the dysfunctional curia.
At first, Pope Francis seized the momentum on both fronts. He quickly earned a great deal of positive media for making symbolic breaks with his predecessor. Some of the more traditional vestments were immediately dropped, along with the red shoes. He decided against taking up residence in the papal apartments. Instead he would live in Casa Santa Marta, a Vatican hotel. And he quickly began making his earthy and endlessly quotable comments to the media. He gave candid interviews to the atheist Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari. Asked to comment on how he would counsel gays, he responded: “Who am I to judge?” Francis also quickly formed a special group of nine cardinal advisers to help him accomplish the work of reforming the Vatican itself.
The Francis pontificate was to be an era of mercy for sinners at the peripheries and accountability for malefactors at the Vatican. Instead, almost the opposite has taken place.
While trying to please the progressives who elected him, Pope Francis has plunged the Church into acrimony and confusion. He has put forward a revision of the Church’s teaching on the sacraments that puts traditional concepts of Christian virtue out of reach for all but the most “heroic” Christians. It is a theological revolution that not only threatens the coherence of the Catholic faith but has the potential to affect all Christians.
As for reform? Forget it. Nearly half of the members of Pope Francis’s reformist team have been pulled into sexual-abuse scandals themselves. Cardinal George Pell has returned to his native Australia to face charges of fondling children. Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga has been accused of protecting churchmen who fostered a culture of sexual predation in the seminaries of Honduras. The German cardinal Reinhard Marx was revealed to have been negligent in investigating an abusive priest when he was bishop of Trier. American cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, who heads the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, has been exposed as having passed the buck when a priest tried to inform him of the serial sexual predation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick against seminarians.
These twin scandals of the Francis papacy became intertwined this summer. Reports came out of the Archdiocese of New York that McCarrick had sexually abused a child, and he resigned from the College of Cardinals. But that was not the end of the story. The frustrated reformer of the Vatican Bank, Archbishop Viganò, soon issued a stunning set of public accusations against Francis and his closest collaborators. Viganò charged the pope with having knowingly rehabilitated Cardinal McCarrick and collaborated with other immoral churchmen in order to pursue his progressive theological agenda. Viganò called on the pope to resign in disgrace.
The Vatican’s response to Viganò has been to denounce him forcefully — to accuse him of breaking communion with the pope — while at the same time admitting by inference that his main charge is correct. The Vatican noted that McCarrick had not been formally sanctioned during the Benedict papacy, owing to a lack of evidence — but thereby admitted that McCarrick had at least been restricted. McCarrick took on a larger public profile after the election of Francis, indicating either that these restrictions were lifted or that the Vatican was negligent in continuing to enforce them.
Perhaps we should have seen this coming. The fact is that Pope Francis has conducted his papacy in a way that made Viganò’s claims immediately credible. Francis appointed a bishop in Chile, Juan Barros Madrid, over the loud protests of laity there who accused him of covering up child abuse. Francis scolded these people as calumniators, but eventually the scandal overwhelmed him — and he was forced to send in investigators, who uncovered a Chilean church mired in corruption. In Italy, after interventions by two influential allies of his theological agenda, Francis restored to ministry an infamous priest, Mauro Inzoli, who had molested children in the confessional and who had been defrocked by the relevant Vatican authorities. As civil trials in Italy revealed to the public the depth of Inzoli’s depravity, Francis removed him from ministry again.
There is a type of churchman that Francis seems to favor: the morally compromised and the doctrinally suspect. The archbishop of Bruges, Jozef De Kesel, was known to promote the ordination of women and the making voluntary of priestly celibacy, and was credibly accused of knowingly appointing a pastor who had molested a child. Francis made him a cardinal. There was the archbishop of Stockholm, Anders Arborelius, who ignored calls to investigate a pedophile priest for years. The victim was told to go see a therapist instead. Arborelius is sympathetic to the idea of creating a female version of the College of Cardinals. Francis made him a cardinal, and Arborelius speculated that his elevation was a way for the pope to honor Sweden’s commitment to refugees. There’s also Giovanni Becciu, who was working for the pope’s secretary of state. When the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers began uncovering financial fraud in the Church, Becciu suspended its audit. The auditor general from PwC later said he was forced out on trumped-up accusations; Becciu accused that accountant of being a spy. Francis then made Becciu a cardinal. Another cleric, Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, is set to stand trial in France for his role in covering up a child-sex-abuse scandal in Lyon. Francis made him the head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, which adjudicates abuse cases.
Or consider Monsignor Battista Ricca, reportedly Francis’s “eyes and ears at the Vatican Bank.” Ricca was widely known for engaging in affairs with men at different posts during his clerical career. He was attacked in an area of Montevideo known for cruising, and he had to be rescued from an elevator in which he was trapped with a rent boy. (It was a question about Ricca that Francis made the occasion of his headline-grabbing statement “Who am I to judge?”) And finally there is the man known as the “vice pope,” Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga, the one being charged by seminarians in Honduras with allowing a culture of predation to flourish. Rodríguez Maradiaga first became famous across the Catholic world for saying that the Church scandals in Boston in 2002 were the invention of Jewish-controlled media who were avenging themselves on the Catholic Church for “confirm[ing] the necessity of the creation of a Palestinian state.”
The truth is that Jorge Bergoglio had another mandate. It is candidly discussed by journalist Austen Ivereigh in his book The Great Reformer. Ivereigh, who has become the Anglophone world’s papal hagiographer, details how a group of progressive European churchmen that had been meeting for decades at St. Gallen in Switzerland to discuss their views on the Church had come to see Bergoglio as their candidate. Among these were the archbishop of Brussels, as well as the Belgian cardinal Godfried Danneels and the German cardinal Walter Kasper. What they wanted was a pope who would open up all the theological debates that had been closed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Communion for the divorced and remarried. A revision of Church teaching on homosexual relations and relationships.
Kasper was a theological progressive who believed that the Church was no longer able to reach modern man in a pluralistic society. He was also given to sometimes grand pronouncements, writing that “dogma never settles a theological issue once and for all.” Danneels was Belgium’s leading bishop from 1979 to 2010; as it did in Ireland and Quebec, secularization seemed to come almost overnight in Belgium, and Danneels has occasionally been a cheerleader for these changes. He wrote a private letter to his prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, praising the government’s decision to allow same-sex unions. It was a position he would reiterate emphatically years later, telling two newspapers that the Church “has never opposed the fact that there should exist a sort of ‘marriage’ between homosexuals, but one therefore speaks of a ‘sort of’ marriage. But it is not true marriage, that between a man and a woman, therefore you have to put another word in the dictionary. But that it is lawful, that the law can legitimately provide for it, that’s something about which the Church has nothing to say.” In a major public scandal, Danneels was revealed to have pressured the victim of sex abuse by a Catholic bishop, the victim’s uncle, to remain silent. He was enduring a quiet and disgraced retirement, but after pushing for the election of Bergoglio, he appeared on the loggia next to the new pope. He was also invited by Francis to contribute to the Synod on the Family.
That is why it is easy to credit the allegations against Francis. He’s done it all before.
What is a pope for Catholics? The Council of Florence said that he is “the true Vicar of Christ, and the Head of the whole Church, and the Father and Teacher of all Christians; and that to him in blessed Peter was delivered by our Lord Jesus Christ the full power of pasturing, ruling, and governing the whole Church.” The first Vatican Council rejected those who claimed the pope can deliver new doctrines, saying that his responsibility was to protect and safeguard the existing truths of the Catholic faith. “To satisfy this pastoral duty, our predecessors ever made unwearied efforts that the salutary doctrine of Christ might be propagated among all the nations of the earth, and, with equal care, they watched that it might be preserved, genuine and pure, where it had been received.”
Francis’s defenders have rejected that modest duty. One of his chief apologists and attack dogs, Father Thomas Rosica, has grandly claimed that “Pope Francis breaks Catholic traditions whenever he wants because he is ‘free from disordered attachments.’” He explains that the Church has entered a “new phase,” and that “with the advent of this first Jesuit pope, it is openly ruled by an individual rather than by the authority of Scripture alone or even its own dictates of tradition plus Scripture.” By this definition, the papacy would be transferred from a guardian of truth to its living oracle. It would be easy to dismiss Rosica as a mere enthusiast but for the fact that Francis openly challenges Church teaching. Most recently, Francis revised the Catechism of the Catholic Church to say that the death penalty had become inadmissible, effectively declaring that the Church had been in error until his arrival.
But most crucially, Francis has worked to undermine the moral teachings of the Church that touch on matters of sex. Francis called the two-year Synod on the Family and immediately reopened a controversy that had seemingly been put to bed. He heavily promoted a thesis of Cardinal Walter Kasper that those who had left their first marriage and made a second one could be admitted back to Holy Communion without repenting of the second adulterous union.
The synod turned into a rancorous and confusing spectacle, and it ended with Pope Francis hysterically denouncing the conservative faction that was resisting his revisions. The resulting document, Amoris Laetitia, soft-pedaled the change Francis wanted, suggesting only in a footnote that people in unions the Church was obliged to recognize as adulterous could receive Holy Communion.
To most non-Catholic Christians this may seem like the most sectarian of concerns, touching on an obscure matter of discipline that is unique to Catholicism’s particularly exalted view of marriage. But in fact this revision was accomplished by dropping a depth charge into the heart of Christianity.
The pope, with the bishops, had recast adulterous second marriages as “irregular unions,” as if the matter were something to do with paperwork rather than a sacramental reality. And instead of “living in sin,” the remarried were in a state described as “not fully the objective ideal.” The Vatican’s own translation is eye-opening:
Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.
Beyond this, the pope proposed to judge these cases not by the categories of Christian faith but by bourgeois norms. Pastors are urged to “include” people who are in “irregular” marriages. Instead of seeking signs of penitence, contrition, and a willingness to amend one’s life in confession, pastors are to look for signs of “stability” in the lives of those who are in a non-ideal state.
The logic of transforming commandments that one must obey into ideals that one more or less, but never fully, approximates is to turn all sins into semi-virtues. And the implications of this revolutionary change become obvious when applied to other moral matters. Some Canadian bishops read the pope’s teaching as licensing them to offer the Last Rites to people before euthanasia. After all, who are they to judge whether the soul before them fully understands and is culpable of the sin of suicide? What do you expect them to do, start instructing them in the faith?
It may seem crazy to focus on the footnotes in a mostly unread and forgettable document, but the theological revolution at work can spread across all Christianity. Under Francis the Church now teaches that sometimes God’s commandments are simply impossible to follow, that it would be cruel to urge someone to obey them, and that it would be foolish to tell people that God will generously grant them help in actually obeying them. Cardinal Kasper had occasionally defended this understanding by saying that following the Church’s teaching on marriage required “heroism” in certain circumstances, but that “heroism is not for the average Christian.” Francis was widely reported to speculate privately that perhaps half of all Christian marriages are invalid because modern man is so morally deformed he cannot be expected to understand what a marriage is. This is a kind of B-school Christianity, for moral mediocrities. It is a place where God’s love stops short of transforming your life. It’s a mercy where, in the name of inclusion, the Church blesses the sins that break up families and create orphans.
Ultimately the vision Francis has promoted presents a God who is not merciful but indulgent, even lazy, and indifferent. It is God as a Baby Boomer parent. He expects less of you, and you can expect less of Him. In this new religion, where our faults become semi-virtues, salvation itself is changed. Instead of a free gift from God, it becomes a debt owed to us. Christ is not moved by an act of love to sacrifice himself as a propitiation for sinners. Instead, he dies on the cross because our human dignity, revealed in our semi-virtues, obliges him to do so.
What Francis is slowly instituting is a religion of presumption. A religion of “good enough,” where our misguided efforts put God in our debt. Communion becomes a participation trophy. And by freeing the Church from its preoccupation with outdated sins such as adultery, Francis can refocus the Church on the things he likes to denounce, such as the building of border walls, or air conditioning.
And no wonder, then, that the Vatican itself is filled with moral mediocrities, with men who are sexually and financially compromised. No wonder the Vatican investigates and inveighs against whistleblowers immediately but waits decades to investigate predator bishops. Believing in sin is now worse than sin itself. No wonder this church has a pope who refuses to wear red shoes. They symbolize martyrdom. That’s for heroic Christians, not for men like Pope Francis.