The Authoritarian Pope

Let’s dispel once and for all with this fiction that Pope Francis doesn’t know what he’s doing.  He knows exactly what he’s doing.  Four years into his papacy, we now have a much better understanding of who Francis really is and how he intends to govern the Church.

The Pope’s Record

A look at Francis’s non-Church political moves is informative.  It would not be unfair to classify his tenure as friendly to authoritarians.  Francis’s meeting last year with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill provided political cover for Russian strongman Vladimir Putin while mostly ignoring Russia’s involvement in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.  Francis himself helped broker the U.S. decision to normalize relations with Cuba and its dictator Raul Castro.  And don’t forget that Francis is still negotiating a deal with China’s oppressive communist regime that would tacitly condone its abuses against Chinese Catholics while permitting Chinese control, or at least influence over episcopal appointments.

Within the Church, his moves are no less discouraging, especially when it comes to curial “reform.”  Francis has replaced the leadership of the formerly conservative John Paul II Institute.  He instituted an oppressive investigation of the Franciscans of the Immaculate, severely restricting their use of the Tridentine Mass for no apparent reason (charges against the order’s founder were later dropped).   He removed one of his foremost critics, Cardinal Raymond Burke, from his post as head of the Vatican’s highest court and relegated him to a ceremonial position, after having previously removed him from a position on the Congregation for Bishops.

Even when Francis doesn’t remove curial leadership, he will “formally [keep] people in place while entrusting the real responsibility to somebody else and thus rendering the original official…less consequential.”  For example, in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Francis went behind the back of Cardinal Müller, a critic of papal allies, to replace three traditional members of the department whom Müller supported (Francis even personally reprimanded one based on rumors of private conversations).  When asked for an explanation, he channeled his inner Louis XIV, “I am the pope, I do not need to give reasons for any of my decisions. I have decided that they have to leave and they have to leave.”  His undercutting of curial leadership with which he disagrees was more thorough after Cardinal Robert Sarah encouraged priests to celebrate Mass ad orientem.  Francis purged Sarah’s Congregation for Divine Worship, with a complete overhaul of 27 new appointments.  And this is all in addition to his stacking of the Synod deck back in 2014.

Perhaps learning from his insufficiently aggressive investigation into the Franciscans of the Immaculate, the Pope’s approach to the Order of Malta is likely a sign of things to come.  In a reckless power grab, the Pope secretly summoned the Order’s Grand Master, Fra Festing, to the Vatican and essentially forced him to resign after Festing had dismissed the Order’s Grand Chancellor for allowing the distribution of condoms.  In doing so, Francis ignored not only the Order’s constitutional requirements but also international law.  He then re-instituted the dismissed Grand Chancellor and forced Festing to write in his resignation letter that Cardinal Burke had asked for the Grand Chancellor’s dismissal, despite Burke having no authority over the Order.  The incident exemplifies Francis’s backroom strong-arming and authoritarian tendencies.

When he’s not personally investigating, sacking, punishing, or undercutting his critics, Pope Francis just ignores them, as in the case of the “dubia” submitted by four cardinals first privately, then publicly after receiving no response from the Vatican.  Following the public disclosure of Francis’s dodge on whether divorced and remarried persons could receive the Eucharist, the Pope asked his allies to attack the cardinals, and his friends have gladly complied.  For some, like the Dean of the Roman Rota, questioning Francis is akin to questioning the Holy Spirit, with the implied threat that the Pope could remove the cardinals’ hats.  Though this was not the most deranged reaction to papal critics.

But of course the entire dubia situation could have been avoided if Francis hadn’t ignored his own advisers: “the CDF lodged a large number of corrections of Amoris Laetitia before its publication last April, and not one of the corrections was accepted….Also before the document was published, 30 cardinals, having seen an advance draft of the apostolic exhortation, wrote to the Pope expressing their reservations, especially on the issue of communion for remarried divorcees, warning that the document would weaken the three essential sacraments of the Church: the Eucharist, marriage, and confession. The Pope never responded to that letter either, a Vatican source told the Register.”

Not content merely to reshape the curia by purges or to wait for allies to attack his critics, Francis himself stoops to publicly disparaging his opponents.  He has criticized the rigidity of young people attending the Tridentine Mass, (even though Jesus said, let the little children come to me). Those who defend Christ have become “dissenting lobbies.”  As Alan Jacobs has said, in “his repeated mockery of traditionalists, even to the point of calling out priests wearing more formal vestments than he prefers as effeminate…he seems to speak…with contempt of anyone who disagrees with him.”

John Allen reported on Francis’s “damn the torpedoes mood” over Christmas, when the Pope characterized his critics as a “malicious” and “hidden” resistance which “‘sprouts in distorted minds and shows itself when the devil inspires bad intentions, often wrapped in sheep’s clothing.’ Accusing some of your critics of doing the devil’s work, needless to say, is not exactly the tone of a leader for whom job number one is healing.”

It is true that Francis isn’t all fire and brimstone; he reserves punishment only for his enemies.  For his friends, he returns defrocked priest abusers like Mauro Inzoli to the priestly state: “Pope Francis and his cardinal allies have been known to interfere with CDF’s judgments on abuse cases. This intervention has become so endemic to the system that cases of priestly abuse in Rome are now known to have two sets of distinctions. The first is guilty or innocent. The second is ‘with cardinal friends’ or ‘without cardinal friends.’”  To give you a better scope of Inzoli’s filth, for which Francis showed mercy, Inzoli was found guilty of both the Vatican and an Italian criminal court for sex crimes against five children as young as twelve years old and now faces a second Vatican trial after the emergence of new evidence.

The Pope’s Personality

The standard tale of Francis’s pre-papacy experience is that he encountered difficulties when thrust into a Jesuit leadership role at a young age, before learning a more humble style of governance after being removed from office.  But comparing notes between his actions while Pope and his supposed youthful mistakes belies the notion that Francis changed at all.

“[A]t the age of 36, [he] found himself appointed provincial superior of the Jesuits in Argentina…‘That was crazy,’ the pope acknowledged…‘I had to deal with difficult situations, and I made my decisions abruptly and by myself.’…Bergoglio used the word authoritarianism’ to describe his leadership style back then, admitting, ‘I did not always do the necessary consultation. . . .”

“Faced with this new role [with the Jesuits], Bergoglio took to the Don Corleone style of management — you were either with him or you were against him, says Jim O’Grady at WNYC. If he had a problem with a priest, Bergoglio would yell at that priest in front of a group to humiliate him. ‘Bergoglio was kind of a jerk,’ a senior church official told WNYC. (‘Except the official used a stronger word than ‘jerk,’’ WNYC notes.)”

“Bergoglio’s self-described ‘authoritarian’ reign ended in banishment. After his stint as provincial, his new Jesuit superiors received so many complaints about his difficult personality that he was eventually assigned to a new post in Córdoba, 400 miles away. There, Vallely writes, he ‘brooded,’ feeling ‘sidelined and belittled.’”

Compare those descriptions to Francis’s style as Pope:

There’s his temperamental personality, prone to anger when not around his friends. “[C]lose friends of Pope Francis say he’s got a bit of a stubborn streak, and isn’t temperamentally inclined to rethink decisions.” Damian Thompson: “[P]lenty of Vatican employees will testify to his outbursts of temper, rudeness towards subordinates and vulgar language.  He can also be genial, funny and compassionate. But this side of his personality is increasingly reserved for his inner circle and his allies…. ‘Bergoglio divides the church into those who are with him and those who are against him — and if he thinks you’re in the latter camp then he’ll come after you,’ says a priest who works in the curia.”

In contrast to both Benedict XVI and John Paul II, Francis has little tolerance for promoting those with ideological differences.  Last fall when selecting new cardinals, he passed over conservative bishops from traditional cardinalatial sees in favor of handpicked liberal favorites.

For these favorites and Francis’s other allies, we have moved away from a Church that relies on Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition interpreted consistently by the collective Magisterium.  Rather, it is the Pope alone who decides what Jesus wants: “Archbishop Scicluna’s wish to avoid addressing previous papal teaching was further witnessed [when] he said: ‘Whoever wishes to discover what the true will of Christ is for him, the true heart of Jesus, he should ask the Church, not blogs.’ ‘He must ask the Pope and the bishops who are in communion with the Pope,” he added. ‘Whoever wishes to discover what Jesus wants from him, he must ask the Pope, this Pope, not the one who came before him, or the one who came before that. This present Pope.’”

“In the words of a Vatican observer who held an important position in Rome for many years, ‘He hasn’t taken on the old progressive mantle so much as created his own personality cult.’ Theological niceties bore him. Personal loyalty obsesses him — ‘and if the cardinal electors had done due diligence they would have discovered that he was an extraordinarily divisive figure among the Argentinian Jesuits.’”

And authoritarians with personality cults naturally engender protests:  “On Saturday, posters appeared around Rome featuring a stern-looking Pope Francis and asking…‘Ah Francis, you’ve taken over congregations, removed priests, decapitated the Order of Malta and the Franciscans of the Immaculate, ignored Cardinals… but where’s your mercy?’”

“Most Catholic bishops had thought Francis was a plain-spoken and perhaps touchingly naive reformer. Instead, they are confronted by a pope who is simultaneously combative, charming, bad-tempered, idealistic and vengeful.”  Indeed, “Bergoglio has shown himself to be a stealth enforcer, capable of summoning that old authoritarian steel if it serves a higher purpose.”

The Pope’s Impact

Francis is fascinated by politics and one of his most important principles is that “unity prevails over conflict.”  We have seen how he has enforced this during his pontificate: those who cause conflict are purged to preserve unity.  Those who insist on fracturing the illusion of unity are denigrated or ignored.  An “autocratic fever…seems to have broken out in the Vatican” amid a “climate of fear” by those who wonder if they will be purged.

For the foreseeable future, Francis will likely continue to reshape the Church’s hierarchy in a way that no modern pope has done, ignoring those with ideological differences in favor of those who share his progressive vision.  For a college of cardinals that voted him second to Benedict XVI in 2005 and Pope in 2013, this will undoubtedly continue to shift the body into his camp.

Orthodox bishops and priests will continue to stand for the true Faith and doctrine of the Church, upholding the very words of Christ and St. Paul. But they must now reckon with the fact that doing so may expose them to marginalization from Pope Francis himself.  This catch-22 is a brilliant political stroke from the Pope, who puts his ideological adversaries in the bind of either acquiescing to his agenda or exposing themselves to be purged from positions of authority.

Pope Francis knows exactly what he is doing.  How will those who disagree with him now respond to an authoritarian pope?