Western People 9th June 2020
One of the most baffling features of Irish life is the reluctance of the Irish Catholic Church to take the side that the pontificate of Pope Francis represents. Francis wants us, as a church, to rediscover and implement the insights of the Second Vatican Council – for so long moth-balled by his predecessors – to focus on protecting planet earth, to place the poor at the centre of our concerns, to breathe new life into the concept of mercy, to emphasise a synodal (or group) approach to decision-making and to find new ways of spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Francis’s agenda, to use that term, is clearly accepted by the vast majority of Catholics and he’s a hugely popular and captivating presence wherever he goes and yet, peculiarly, when it comes to taking a lead from him, at a time when the Irish Church is almost running on empty we seem reluctant to respond to the opportunity and the challenge he represents.
The reason, I think, is that too much attention at too great a cost is being given to those who want the Irish Catholic Church, not to survive or possibly thrive in the twenty-first century but to return to the nineteenth.
There is, as the dogs in the street know, a struggle going on for the soul of Catholicism. And at the heart of it are two views of the world and two approaches to the Second Vatican Council (Vatican Two). On one side are progressives or reformers like Pope Francis seeking to embed the Council’s vision of opening the Church to the world. On the other side are Pope Benedict and the ‘neo-traditionalists’ who see the Church as being against the world and who question the wisdom of the Council.
While Benedict is careful not be seen opposing Francis, there’s no doubt but that’s what he’s doing and that’s clear when his coded messages are unpacked. For example, recently Benedict – in a letter to mark the centenary of the birth of Pope John Paul II – praised him for being a ‘restorer’ who had brought order and discipline after the turbulence of the Council.
By implication this means that Francis who’s ‘restoring’ the vision of Vatican Two to centre-stage in the Catholic Church is bringing disorder, indiscipline and turbulence to the Church. The message from Benedict is crystal clear – Francis is taking the wrong road. Don’t go there.
When Francis is attacked his tactic seems to be to remain silent but inwardly he must be seething that Benedict who promised to spend his retirement in quiet prayer is instead effectively undermining him and operating as the leader of the Pope’s opposition.
A recent example of the guerrilla tactics the opposition to Francis now employs was the open letter in early May ‘to all Catholics and People of Good Will’ organised by the retired papal diplomat, Archbishop Carlo Vigano – the man who launched a bitter attack on Francis at the end of his Irish visit and issued it to coincide with Francis’ usual meeting the media on the plane home from Ireland. It was a blatant attempt to inflict maximum damage on Pope Francis and his reforms.
The letter suggested, bizarrely, that there was a worldwide conspiracy to use the coronavirus pandemic to restrict people’s basic rights ‘unjustifiably and disproportionately’. It was a clear rebuff to Francis who has accepted, as most sensible people do, that restrictions of individual rights are needed in the present crisis.
The letter went on to say that the contagiousness of the virus has been vastly exaggerated and that imposing lock-downs was ‘a disturbing prelude to a realisation of a world government beyond all control’. This, it continued, would mean erasing ‘centuries of Christian civilisation’ and establishing ‘an odious technological tyranny’ in its stead.
This, of course, is utter nonsense, and part of a number of crude conspiracy theories with no verifiable credibility that feed into the fears of overly-pious, innocent and credulous people. It would suggest, bringing it closer to home, that Dr Tony Holohan, instead of struggling on behalf of the Irish people to minimise the death-toll from a vicious virus, is part of a worldwide conspiracy to establish a global government in order to erase ‘centuries of Christian civilisation’.
Quite something to believe but run-of the-mill stuff for the conspiracy theorists.
The letter is signed by the usual retinue opposed to Francis, including Cardinal Gerhard Muller, who wasn’t re-appointed to a key Vatican post by Francis and who, when he discovered the reaction in his native Germany, attempted to distance himself from it. It is supported too by American ultra-conservative, ‘alt-right’ Catholics, some of whom believe that being rich is a sign of God’s favour and who oppose Francis placing the poor at the heart of the Church’s mission, as well as by ambitious Vatican officials frantically waiting for Francis to die so they can dis-assemble his reforms to date.
Ironically, when Popes John Paul and Benedict were in office, those now undermining Francis were the very people who were quick to dismiss anyone who sought to raise a question as ‘disobedient to the Holy Father’ though apparently such sensitivities no longer apply to them.
The daft Vigano letter, has had the effect of making those opposed to Francis look spectacularly foolish and has also reminded us once again of the high price our Church is paying for indulging the irrational theories of extreme Catholics who would have us believe anything.
Chickens, I’m afraid, coming home to roost.