Marked by shock over the Paris attacks, the past week began with Pope Francis’ visit to the Christuskirche Lutheran Church in Rome on Sunday, November 15. What he said during the visit – completely off the cuff – has apparently established the primacy of conscience over doctrine and over things Pope Francis called “interpretations.” A more in depth interpretation of that meeting and those words, in fact, provides another impression: that Pope Francis is not merely a Pope alone in command, but that he has been left alone in command by those who are supposed to advise him. At the same time, the “hidden Vatican”, comprised of people who silently and tirelessly work on behalf of the mission of the Church, is still marginalized.
During his visit to the Lutheran Church in Rome, Pope Francis spoke off the cuff, answering three questions and preaching during a religious service. It was a fortunate coincidence that the reading of the day was the passage of the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 25) that Pope Francis loves, as he considers it “the protocol on the basis of which we will be judged.”
While the Lutheran pastor, Jens-Martin Kruse, outlined ecumenical dialogue on the basis of a common gazing upon Christ, Pope Francis focused on the common commitment to the poor, and on a sort of “ecumenism of conscience”. In his words, the theological debate seemed something relegated to the second tier of ecumenical activity, while charity and common prayer were given as priorities.
Pope Francis’ improvised discourse included many deprecating criticisms. Sometimes, theology was considered as (“speeches for theologians”), sometimes he even underestimated the theological issues (“life is larger than interpretations”). The Pope also seemed to under-estimate the reason why Catholics and Lutherans cannot take sacramental Communion together, and he seemed willing to leave the issue open to each person’s conscience.
The impression in the end is that Pope Francis has left everything open to the individual’s good will, without emphasizing the common gazing upon Christ which represented “the common gift of faith,” the only ecumenical gift that Pope Benedict XVI brought to Lutherans during his 2011 trip to Germany.
Whereas the off-the cuff-speech offered some criticisms, the prepared text offered even more of them. The prepared text highlighted the primacy of charity (not in the sense of ‘love’, but in the sense of ‘charitable activity’) over prayer and theology. The prepared text stated that ecumenical dialogue “cannot but start with the preoccupations and problems of man today.”
Above all, the prepared speech also proposed a “re-evaluation of Martin Luther” in view of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, to be celebrated in 2017.
The proposal of a re-evaluation of Luther is part of the Pope’s often-noted pushes for the “Protestantization” of the Catholic Church. This Protestantization is characterized by the notion that the Church should adapt itself to the signs of the times. “Signs of the times” thus becomes a topic of relevance to the Church.
Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, highlighted this problem. He visited Chile from November 6-10, and gave an important speech to the Chilean bishops, stressing that faith risks being relativized on the basis of the signs of the times.
Cardinal Mueller is one of those working to provide the current debate with theological substance. During this past week, he gave other lectures, all of them pivotal to understanding the issues at stake. During the international symposium on the 10th anniversary of Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Deus Caritas Est,” Mueller interpreted the theological notion of charity on the basis of the notion of love. He proposed that the Christian is not merely committed to performing works of charity, but to living his faith. And this faith is a love that must necessarily be based upon reason. Faith and reason are intertwined, Cardinal Mueller explained, and this is the reason that everything in faith has a particular meaning. He grounded all of his reasoning on the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, is also working to give theological roots to the current discussion. In his speech at the same conference (and also in other occasions), he maintained that the current crisis is above all a crisis of faith. This is the real challenge in order to guarantee the Church a future.
Also last week, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, President of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, gave a lecture at the Pontifical Lateran University with the aim of fostering the cultural impetus of Catholic world. Universities, and especially Catholic universities – Cardinal Bagnasco said – must be places where people resist totalitarian and individualistic thought. This is the thought that erodes the reasons of faith.
These visible signs of the Church, expressed by Cardinals Mueller, Sarah and Bagnasco, are supported by the “Hidden Vatican,” that is the individuals who work behind the scenes in this pontificate, shape it on the basis of continuity with an already planned reform process, while they also project a wide-ranging vision: that is, a Church – supported by the Roman Curia – which does not have as its goal to accept and respond to the signs of the times, but one that is able to forecast the signs of the times and to provide prophetic responses to them.
Pope Francis is left alone at the very moment that he needs prophetic views. Let’s be clear. Pope Francis personally made this decision. He is a decision-maker. He listens to everyone, but then he acts on his own. His project is not that of reforming the Roman Curia, but that of reforming the profile of bishops. He has in mind a Church whose guidelines are “pastoral”, not doctrinal. Prophecy, according to the Pope, is not found in issuing a long-term project. Prophecy, for Pope Francis, the Church as a “field hospital,” that heals wounds as soon as they appear.
These guidelines can be glimpsed at through the choice of new bishops and cardinals. Pope Francis always prefers those who have impressed him in personal meetings, or those who are presented as bishops with a major pastoral touch and only a minor impact on the cultural-political environment. According to Pope Francis, getting directly into the political and cultural fray could harm dialogue, and build walls instead of bridges.
Obviously, Pope Francis’ choices are supported by a number of advisers (not so many, in fact). But how much do these advisers care for the Catholic Church in the long term? Or do they instead exploit the Pope’s wish to be both Pope and parish priest at the same time in order to propose, as bishops and cardinals, those candidates who fit the papal profile, but who, at the same time, could water down doctrine?
It is paradoxical that the Catholic Church is seemingly less prophetic now. The Church is 200 years behind; it is not able to look forward, to further developments of the Second Vatican Council, to a new way of being in the world while fostering a dialogue on the basis of a strong identity without forfeiting a single Catholic principle.
The Church today has forfeited its distinctive language, and it did so at the very moment that it gained enormous popularity, thanks to Pope Francis. But such a change can raise suspicions that this popularity is backed by those who want to take advantage of Pope Francis in order to dismantle the Church.
That there is a long-term campaign against the Church seems evident. Under Benedict XVI, there was a very long period of attacks against the Church because of priestly pedophilia, followed by a period of attacks aimed at Vatican finances. This long period of attacks against Vatican finances resulted in a new season of Vatileaks. Of them all, this latest episode constitutes the weakest Vatileaks, since the Vatican financial system actually works and bears fruit. However, this latest Vatileaks chapter allows us to understand the final goal of the individuals behind it: if the mission and the prophecy of the Church are impervious to attack, it becomes important to put the Church’s financial support at risk, so that it does not have the means to carry forward its mission.
The final goal of the last two books of leaks are the “8 per mille” campaign (that is, the public financing of the Catholic Church in Italy), and Peter’s Pence, that is, the contributions sent to Rome by the faithful since the time that anti-clerical Italian troops conquered Rome in the 19th century and Blessed Pope Pius IX found himself exiled in Castel Sant’Angelo.
This anti-Catholic campaign takes advantage of the isolation of the Pope and of the internal divisions within the Catholic Church. The gang war within the Vatican, in fact, helps the external campaigns against the Church. And many of these campaigns find strength and impetus in the personal attacks that take place within the Catholic Church.
Under Benedict XVI, the main target of these attacks was Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, his Secretary of State, who is still a target. Under Pope Francis, the attacks over financial issues are aimed at Cardinal George Pell, Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, who took over the control and development of Vatican finances. In both cases, the two cardinals demonstrated a certain naivety in their manner of relating to the Curia and in their attempts to “enlarge” their areas of interest. In a world held together by quibble and small power struggles, enlarging competences is not seen as a good will effort. It is rather perceived as a declaration of war.
Pope Francis’ expansive curial reform was supposed to take shape following a major reform of the State Secretariat. As first envisioned, the Secretariat of State was supposed to become a department for diplomatic coordination, while its first section, concerning general affairs, was supposed to be separated from the Secretariat and refashioned as a distinct department to coordinate the functioning of the other Vatican dicasteries. In the end this design was not followed.
Today the Secretariat of State has regained its de facto central role in the Curia. Moreover, Pope Francis has reaffirmed the central role of the Secretariat in a recent letter which re-establishes the status quo of curial operations until the curial reform is complete.
This is how Cardinal Pietro Parolin, via rescripts and papal documents and letters, has restored the competences of an originally to-be-dismantled State Secretariat. In the meantime, the Curia of former times has regained its influence, and diplomats have once again taken over a key role in the Roman Curia.
This “return to the ancien regime” makes it seem as if Benedict XVI’s pontificate should be put between parentheses.
The mission of the Church suffers more than anyone or anything else on account of this internal power struggle. Even diplomatic texts are written in a sort of paste-and-copy manner, while Pope Francis is left alone. After the attacks on Paris there was a meeting at the United Nations on November 17 about the maintenance of international peace and security. In his speech, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, Permanent Observer of the Holy See, reiterated that more development is needed for peace, but he used the UN terms “sustainable development”, referring to sustainable development goals. No mention was made in the speech of “integral human development”, the pillar of the social teaching of the Church that Pope Francis placed at the center of his speech to United Nations.
On another diplomatic note, it is remarkable that Pope Francis did not immediately issue any response to the Paris attack. On the day after, a telegram signed by the Secretary of State in the name of the Pope was delivered to Paris, and two days after that the Pope made a public appeal during the Angelus. Beyond that, there was no official statement. Yet there was an occasion in which a statement could have been made: his meeting with Jesuit Refugee Service on November 17. That speech – already focused on the disasters of wars – would have been the ideal place to include a strong condemnation of the Paris attacks. But instead it was read the speech already prepared in advance. Pope Francis’ response was left to an interview with a journalist friend who directs the Italian Bishops’ Conference television station. In the end, it was a papal stance, but it cannot be considered an official stance.
These details concerning his response to the Paris attacks support the idea that Pope Francis has been left alone by the very people who backed his election because of their personal agenda. This network of interests is now focused on a gang war with the intention of hardening its position within the Vatican, and looking forward to the next pontificate.
In the meantime, the misinterpretation of Pope Francis’ pontificate continues unabated. The rationale behind this popular misinterpretation is to create a breach between this and the previous pontificate. This operation became evident during the last US Bishops’ plenary assembly, when the 4 year-old document “Faithful Citizenship” faced a vote.
Two bishops, Gerald Kicanas of Tucson and Robert McElroy of San Diego, criticized the way the document had been drafted. They underscored that “many things have changed,” since the document was written, while insisting that it missed a clear reference to the new Pope’s priorities, that is, global poverty, environmental degradation and the criticisms of the economic order that fuels it. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Vice-president of US Bishops’ Conference, explained that the working document followed the “hermeneutic of continuity,” and other bishops supported the document. The discussion was described in almost negative terms by the Jesuit-run magazine, “America,” one of the most active in backing the “revolution of mercy”. Some in the Jesuit world have clearly taken a key role in developing and interpreting this pontificate. However, this uprise of the “left wing” of the American Church did not find any ground.
In spite of these factors, there is always a Hidden Vatican at work, even though Pope Francis does not take it into account. A major outcome of this work behind the scenes was the speech Pope Francis gave to the German bishops during their ad limina visit this past week.
In that speech, Pope Francis confirmed the crisis of the Church in Germany, taking on board many of the views that Benedict XVI outlined in his speech to the German bishops in Freiburg at the close of his pastoral visit in September 2011. Speaking about a Church whose number of faithful is decreasing and whose members barely go to Confession, Pope Francis asked the bishops to preserve the Catholicity of institutions, told them that even Catholic faculties of theology should “feel united with the Church” (sentire cum ecclesia) and underscored that too many structures are being created, while they are barely filled by the faithful.
Pope Francis also criticized the organizational anxiety of the Church in Germany, and asked for more focus on the sacraments and less promotion of laypeople in central roles within religious services, while he insisted that “with no priest, there is no Eucharist.”
That speech was written with the German Church in mind, the Church from which the winds of the revolution blow, and from which the idea is promoted that there should be no central and Roman Church, but a Church composed of many local realities, detached from Rome even in doctrinal terms. Cardinal Mueller, in his speech to Chilean bishops, warned about this “localism”. The Church is one, and cannot have many doctrines, nor can it allow divergent disciplinary choices. Otherwise it would no longer be a Catholic Church. The Church should not turn into a Protestant ecclesial communion. Nor should it become just another among many evangelicals sects, which are spread so widely in South America. Nor should it turn into an NGO, empty of values, the very opposite of what Pope Francis says he wants.