Controversial reforms of Pope Francis may destroy him

Controversial reforms of Pope Francis may destroy him

The Australian
April 20, 2017

Hundreds of posters were plastered around Rome over Easter, in praise of Pope Francis. That wouldn’t be surprising on its own if it wasn’t for the unusual source sponsoring the bills.

The Global Tolerance Initiative, a group started six months ago by Sheik Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai, where floggings and stonings prevail under sharia law, named Francis as its “Global Champion of Tolerance Easter 2017”.

The posters read in Italian and English: “Thank you Pope Francis. True Christian engagement with love and mercy, as demanded by Jesus so often in our Holy Bible.”

At least the posters were positive. In early February, Romans woke up to find hundreds of very different posters adorning the city’s walls, featuring a photograph of a stern-looking Pope and asking: “Where’s your mercy?” The posters referred to Francis’ intervention in the Knights of Malta and other actions he has taken against groups and individuals perceived as religiously conservative.

A poster criticising the Pope has appeared on the streets of Rome.

The bitter Knights of Malta row continues, with tolerance in short supply. This week, Francis, the champion of open borders, has “forbidden’’ the former Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, Matthew Festing, whom he sacked in January, to travel to Rome (from England) for the election of his successor.

Yet again under this extraordinary pontificate, the peculiar has triumphed over the predictable, as it did a few weeks before Easter when Pope Francis put on a sheik’s robe, a gift from Iraqi political and religious leaders, who joked they had promoted him to “pope sheik’’.

“How bizarre, when thousands of Christians are being killed,’’ a well-informed non-church-goer in Rome said.

Equally bizarre was Francis’s insistence, in his speech to a world meeting of populist movements in February, that “Muslim terrorism does not exist … there are fundamentalist and violent individuals in all peoples and religions’’. However sincere his commitment to inter-religious harmony, it comes at a time when more than 300 Christians a month are being killed, 700 injured and 200 churches destroyed.

Apart from North Korea, nine of the 10 worst countries for persecution were Muslim. Francis made the persecution of Christians his special prayer intention last month. But in view of upheavals caused by mass migration to Europe, his April prayer intention is more problematic — a call to young people to be “protagonists for change’’ and “mobilise for the great causes of the world’’.

The video accompanying the message shows a young European woman helping refugees off a boat.

In Western and developing nations, Christian unity and tradition, which have underpinned democracy with a belief in the dignity of every human being, the rule of law and the separation of church and state, has rarely mattered as much. Islam is on a growth spurt, set to become the world’s largest religion by 2070.

After four years, dissatisfaction with Francis has emerged not only from traditional and conservative cardinals but some who backed him at the last conclave. Recently, The Times of London reported that: “A group of cardinals who supported the election of Pope Francis are worried that his controversial reforms are leading the Catholic Church towards a schism and are planning to appeal to him to step down’’. He would be unlikely to do so.

There is, however, a fragmentation within Christianity’s Mother church that is causing concern. Significant political, economic and theological issues are in play. Some of the current “causes’’, mainly of the green-Left variety being promoted by the Vatican, for example are highly controversial.

“Biological extinction”

The recent Vatican conference on “biological extinction’’, for example, promoted a radical, anti-development agenda reminiscent of Castro’s Cuba. Speakers included US population control doomsayer Paul Ehrlich, who appeared despite a petition with more than 10,000 signatures urging Francis to cancel the invitation.

Ehrlich’s 1968 book, The Population Bomb, predicted mass starvation in the 1970s and 80s, including the deaths of 65 million Americans, due to overpopulation. Ehrlich, who supports widespread abortion and prenatal sex selection, said in 2011 that it may be better for girls to be aborted than boys: “You can be aborted as a concept, you can be killed at birth, or you can be sold into slavery and die in a slum someplace. It would be interesting to know how many females you’re keeping out of hideous situations — the ones who are not killed or infanticided but nonetheless not valued.”

Francis’s close friend, Argentinian bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, head of the pontifical academies of Science and Social Sciences, hosted the conference. Its final communiqué blamed the profit motive for the wholesale destruction of species and demanded major wealth redistribution.

At a Vatican meeting in January, Sorondo told The Australian that his closeness to Francis drew extra scrutiny to his work. But, he said, the friendship helped him promote action on climate change and other causes.

Reconciliation with China

Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Vatican’s new department for “Integral Human Development’’, has also joined the political fray. Last week, he lauded China, despite its toxic smog, as a model of action on climate change for the US and other nations. China was filling a “vacuum’’, he claimed, created by the Trump administration.

China is on the church’s radar as the Vatican and the Communist Party seek to reconcile that country’s state-approved “Patriotic Association’’ church with Rome. China’s desire to control the appointment of bishops is a potential stumbling block. So is the state’s attitude to the traditional “underground” church, whose followers it tortured for decades. The recent death of 94-year-old bishop Cosmas Shi Enxiang of Yixian in northeast China, who had been imprisoned in secret locations since Good Friday 2001, drew attention to the suppression of religious freedom. The bishop had spent more than half his life in jail and labour camps.

While opinions differ about Francis’s leadership in what he calls “a change of era’’ as opposed to “an era of change’’, what can’t be disputed is that retired English cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor was prescient in March 2013 when he said: “Four years of Bergoglio would be enough to change things”. Murphy-O’Connor was one of the “St Gallen mafia’’, a group of cardinals who met on and off for 10 years from 1996 in the picturesque Swiss town to plan how to counter the influence of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger under Pope John Paul II. Promoting Argentinian Jorge Bergoglio to the papacy was central to their desire to modernise the Catholic Church, a goal made easier when Benedict XVI became the first man to resign the papacy in almost 600 years.

On the positive side, Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher is helping Francis achieve one of his most worthwhile social justice goals, the eradication of slavery and human trafficking, which the pope has rightly declared an “open wound’’ in the modern world. Ten years ago, when Fisher was parish priest of Watsons Bay in Sydney’s east, he rescued an unpaid South American nanny whose passport had been confiscated by her employers. Last week, the Sydney archdiocese became the first in the world, after the Vatican, to begin reviewing all business and purchasing practices to ensure it deals only with firms that can certify they are slavery-proof. The campaign, which is likely to spread throughout the church, is squarely in line with the church’s traditional social justice teaching.

Four years ago, Francis won his peers’ support because he promised to tackle corruption and child sexual abuse. On the latter, appropriately, he promised “zero tolerance’’. Despite that, in a misplaced act of “mercy’’ in 2014, Francis reinstated Italian priest Father Mauro Inzoli, who was stripped of his priestly faculties by Pope Benedict in 2012 — one of 800 priests defrocked by the German. Last year, Inzoli was jailed for four years and nine months for serial paedophilia against boys.

For all the opprobrium meted out to the church in Australia over the abuse issue, bishops’ efforts in this country over the past 20 years to tackle this evil have been overlooked in the rush to condemn. There is almost an Orwellian silence about the fact that few, if any, recent cases have been reported.

Vatican finances

On the Vatican financial front, to Francis’s credit, and that of Australian Cardinal George Pell whom the pope brought in three years ago to tackle the arcane mess and impose modern accounting standards and transparency, slow, steady progress is being made.

More than €2 billion “tucked away” off the books has been found, and about 5000 “suspicious’’ Vatican Bank accounts closed. Italian police are investigating two former administrators of the body that oversees Vatican property and other investments, APSA (Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See), Piero Menchini and Paolo Mennini, for “irregular’’ transactions from 2001 to 2011. Former senior APSA official and priest, Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, known as “Monsignor 500” for the 500-euro bills he flashed around Rome, has been subject to an investigation over money laundering. He denies all wrongdoing. Magistrates recently froze 2.5 million euros in assets of Italian private banker Giampietro Nattino, on suspicion he’d used the Vatican bank and APSA to manipulate financial markets.

APSA is headed by Italian cardinal Domenico Calcagno, well known to Vatican journalists for two reasons — his gun collection and because he has been under investigation by Italian prosecutors over alleged misappropriation of funds at an institute in his former diocese, Savona, in Italy’s north. Calcagno’s job in overseeing property and investments is separate from that of Pell’s. While headway is being made, reform would be more advanced had Francis not caved in last year to those who wanted a comprehensive audit of all Vatican departments by PricewaterhouseCoopers suspended.

Black pope controversy

On the religious side, the words of the South American pope are being scrutinised intensely. Not Francis’s words, but those of his friend, Fr Arturo Sosa, the Venezuelan who was elected Jesuit Superior General five months ago — a role known as the black pope.

Sosa, who was a liberation theology sympathiser at one point, recently questioned 2000 year-old Gospel teaching and the words of Christ: “What God has joined together, man must not divide’’.

“At that time, no one had a recorder to take down his words,’’ he said. “What is known is that the words of Jesus must be contextualised, they are expressed in a language, in a specific setting. The word is relative, the Gospel is written by human beings … so it is true that no one can change the word of Jesus, but one must know what it was!”

The problem, as one Australian bishop, normally a staunch Francis backer, tells Inquirer, is, “They’re trying to twist Our Lord’s words. That crosses a line.’’

Last week, an Italian priest/scholar warned Francis that Sosa’s ideas were “of such gravity that they cannot be passed over in silence without becoming complicit in them” because they threaten to “result in a Christianity without Christ”. The white pope is yet to respond to the black pope.

Amoris Laetitia

Australia’s bishops have not announced a collective position on Amoris Laetitia, Francis’s controversial apostolic exhortation last year, which appeared to open the way to the reception of holy communion by those who are divorced and remarried. The issue prompted four cardinals to send the pope a set of “dubia’’ (questions) which he has not answered. The issue has opened deep divisions:

• “You cannot change doctrine with footnotes or a loose statement in an aeroplane interview,’’ Dutch Cardinal Wim Eijk complained. “I would like (Amoris Laetitia) to be clarified.’’

• Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen said the dubia was “a very respectful request by those bishops and cardinals to have a clear statement’’.

• Polish bishop Jan Watroba said he has been “overwhelmed with many similar questions”.

• Austrian Bishop Andreas Laun said: “I agree with them (the four cardinals). It is all about truth and not about my feelings. This has nothing to do with mercy. Could John the Baptist have “mercifully allowed” Herod to have his brother’s wife?’’

• Cardinal Pell defended the cardinals’ right to question the pope: “How can you disagree with a question?’’

On the other side:

• Italian archbishop Bruno Forte said criticism of Amoris Laetitia “had no right to exist’’.

• Vatican canon lawyer Monsignor Pio Vito Pinto said the four cardinals gave Francis “a slap in the face”.

• Greek bishop Frangiskos Papamanolis said the cardinals questioning the pope had committed “two very serious sins” of “apostasy” and “scandal”.

• South African cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier said: “Jesus also chose not to answer certain questions.”

In the US, archbishops are taking polar opposite positions, raising the prospect of different rules in major cities a few hundred kilometres apart. Such disunity over Sacraments is disturbing those who value unity.

An English bishop joked recently that a woman in his diocese who was divorced and remarried civilly knew she could not receive communion there, but would do so near her holiday home in Malta, where the church has announced a change of rules. So have many German dioceses. This week, a letter was sent on behalf of Francis thanking the Maltese for their guidelines. Paradoxically, however, the Chilean bishops reported this week that Francis took a clear, conservative line when he met them in Rome recently, saying a clear “no’’ to communion for remarried divorced persons and for pro-abortion politicians. Confusion is mounting.

In seeming support for Francis, Brisbane’s archbishop Mark Coleridge, who represented Australia at the Vatican synod on the family, has tweeted that Amoris Laetitia “subverts absolutism — all v. nothing, black v. white, in v. out. Why do some seem to depend on absolutism? #Jesus doesn’t.’’

He told the Jesuit-run America magazine in December that pastors were “very often dealing in a world of grays and you have to accompany people, listen to them before you speak to them, give them time and give them space, and then speak your word, perhaps’’.

Other controversies are also on the cards, possibly over priestly celibacy, a push to create a quasi, non-ordained diaconate for women, and the church’s approach to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

Francis is eager for change, arguing that the Holy Spirit “moves us, makes us walk’’. But some of his most senior cardinals are warning that too much has been lost since the Vatican Council more than 50 years ago. Over the three years from 1962 to 1965, the world’s bishops met at the Vatican, reviewing and overhauling many of the church’s workings in an effort to draw closer to the modern world.

In a landmark speech in Germany last week, Nigerian Cardinal Robert Sarah, head of the congregation for Sacraments and Divine Worship and considered a possible future pope, said the church had renounced its centuries-old heritage: “Political Europe is rebuked for abandoning or denying its Christian roots. But the first to have abandoned her Christian roots and past is indisputably the post-conciliar Catholic Church’’

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