A House Divided

I’ve written before about the civil war in the Catholic Church against Pope Francis. Some accused me of exaggerating. Not so. Indeed the events of the last few weeks confirm what’s now obvious and, mostly, now generally recognised – that there’s a huge division between those who want reform in the Church and those who are attempting to block it.

There’s little doubt but that the trajectory Francis is taking the Church – giving free reign to the reforming designs of the Second Vatican Council – has emphasised the clear division in the Catholic Church between those who regarded Vatican Two as a new dawn and those who saw it as a betrayal.

The publication of a new book to mark the 70th birthday of Cardinal Gerhard Müller brings the division into clear focus. Significantly in it Pope Benedict, now in his 90s and living a stone’s throw away from Pope Francis in the Vatican, pays fulsome tribute to Muller’s ability as a theologian.

Muller is a key figure, the only cardinal with any degree of credibility who opposes Francis. Appointed by Benedict to the important position of Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Muller was re-appointed by Francis and made a cardinal in the first consistory of February 2014, thus (it was presumed) copper-fastening his loyalty to the new pope. His obedience as a cardinal – there’s a special bond of loyalty a cardinal has to the Pope – was taken for granted, probably too because he was so keen on the concept when dealing with ‘difficult’ priests.

There were two other arguments indicating that the transfer of authority to a new papacy would be seamless. One was that the election of Francis was a clear statement by the cardinals that they wanted to revisit the potential of Vatican Two; and another was that Benedict retired gracefully to a cloistered life.

In the new dispensation, while Francis encouraged debate, even robust debate, nobody expected a cardinal, least of all a prefect of the CDF, to be disloyal and disobedient to the pope. But that’s how it has turned out. Francis eventually had to sack Muller, who then had a hissy-fit about how badly he was treated and now, apparently, sees himself as the leader of the Vatican opposition to Pope Francis.

But Francis isn’t backing away or conceding any ground to his opponents. For the fourth year in a row he has lectured the Curia, the Vatican civil service. And he’s taking no hostages. He told them that within the Curia there was an ‘unbalanced and debased mindset of plots and small cliques’. He talked of ‘a cancer’ in the Curia leading to a culture of ‘self-centredness’. He referred to his disappointment that people he had chosen to implement reforms ‘let themselves be corrupted by ambition or vainglory’. Little wonder that as The Tablet put it, his words ‘were met with a sullen show of obedience’. It was their fourth annual ticking off in a row.

So almost five years into his papacy, where are Francis’ reforms?

Francis’ vision is rooted in the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The Church is a community, not a monarchy so he’s changing the way the Church is governed, giving more power to local bishops and commending a form of joint decision-making with priests and people. He’s trying to create a new attitude among the people as well as appointing people in tune with his approach.

On the plus side he has started what appears to be a root-and-branch reform of the Curia. He’s reducing the governing elite in the Vatican, in number and authority. (This means what The Tablet described as ‘fewer princes in purple’.) He’s giving extra powers to local bishops and national conferences of bishops. He’s moving women into the higher ranks of the Curia and at present he’s studying the conclusions of the commission he set up to study the issue of women deacons. He has deflected attention from the focus on sexual morality, moderating the heretofore obsession with sex. And most of the problems with the Vatican Bank have been addressed – though some remain.

Most importantly he has placed a new emphasis on the Church as a ‘field hospital’ where mercy and care, particularly for the poor has become the corner-stone of pastoral practice.

On the minus side Francis has just celebrated his 81st birthday. He has a busy year next year. A trip to India is on the cards. He’s coming to Ireland in August. There’s a synod on youth later on in the year. All of that as well as the day-job of leading a world-wide community of 1.3 billion people.

On the minus side as well, bishops, most of whom were appointed by Popes John Paul and Benedict, seem reluctant to follow the path of reform laid out by Francis, on behalf of the cardinals who elected him.

This explains why, for example, the bishops of England and Wales thanked the curia for reminding them that even though Francis was clearly implying that the new missal should be reformed, the reminder from Rome was that Francis’ intervention wasn’t retrospective so therefore didn’t apply to the new missal! Even though there’s a line-up of retired English bishops now queuing up to apologise for not blocking the translation when it was presented to them. (It also explains why the Irish bishops seem reluctant to follow the path of reform.)

And on the minus side as well is the campaign by some cardinals and bishops, including Cardinal Muller, to undermine Francis’ reforms and slow down progress with the growing sense that the retired Pope Benedict is supporting the disobedient and disaffected.

Who could possibly have imagined that there’s a civil war going on for the very soul of the Catholic Church? On one side Francis, supported by cardinals around the world and those who believe the reforms of the Vatican Two need to be implemented. And on the other side, a few cardinals, theological conservatives, and younger more traditional clergy waiting (and some praying) for his papacy to be over.

2018 will be an interesting year for Francis and not because of his fleeting visit to Ireland.


Similar Posts


  1. Chris McDonnell says:

    Brendan Hoban’s reference to the bishops of England and Wales is pertinent. The response from the hierarchy in England has been the echo of silence; a pin dropped in the whispering gallery in the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral would have caused a greater sound wave.

    What cannot happen, must not happen, is that the question having been asked by so many is left hanging in the air. That will not do. This is a question that deserves an honest answer.

  2. Brendan, as usual you have put your finger on one of the the problems in our Church.
    The appointment of Bishops, using the template drawn up by Pope John Paul 11.
    This template called for sound men, with a good Marian devotion, who would do Rome”s bidding.
    leadership ability and thinking out side the box, well,they were a big no no.
    Every Parish has what I like to call “The self appointed defenders of orthodoxy”.These people have a ready ear in the Curia.
    Consequently, Bishops by and large, being spineless creatures are terrified of them.
    As we experienced recently in our Parish,when our local bishop was called upon to bring a conservative Parish Priest to order.
    We had high hopes, but alas, the Bishop just threw the problem back to the Parish.

Join the Discussion

Keep the following in mind when writing a comment

  • Your comment must include your full name, and email. (email will not be published). You may be contacted by email, and it is possible you might be requested to supply your postal address to verify your identity.
  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger. Comments containing vulgarities, personalised insults, slanders or accusations shall be deleted.
  • Keep to the point. Deliberate digressions don't aid the discussion.
  • Including multiple links or coding in your comment will increase the chances of it being automati cally marked as spam.
  • Posts that are merely links to other sites or lengthy quotes may not be published.
  • Brevity. Like homilies keep you comments as short as possible; continued repetitions of a point over various threads will not be published.
  • The decision to publish or not publish a comment is made by the site editor. It will not be possible to reply individually to those whose comments are not published.