The Puzzle of the Pope

Eight years ago I wrote an article in Quadrant (“Pope John’s Wonderful Idea”, October 2012) about the diabolical mistake that was the Second Vatican Council (October 1962 to December 1965). The adjective was meant to be taken literally; Paul VI, who was Pope for the latter years of the council, himself wailed that the “smoke of Satan has entered the Church”, as the damage became apparent, damage wrought not so much by the council’s deliberations as by the licence it appeared to give conciliar enthusiasts to embark on a wholesale reinterpretation, at times in the anarcho-hippie idiom of the 1960s and 1970s, of the teaching and practice of the Roman Catholic Church. Not that Pope Paul did anything to clear the smoke away. His principal contribution was to sign off on a jejune and theologically vague rewriting of the Mass which, translated into the vernacular, has proved useless at attracting younger generations of Catholics and at expressing the faith of Catholics of any age, something that the Tridentine Latin Mass he discarded had done for centuries.

This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe

Many people, non-Catholics among them (Agatha Christie was one) protested at the abandoning of what they saw as an integral part of Christendom’s cultural heritage, but few perceived that beyond that piece of iconoclasm loomed the risk of vitiation and even destruction of a form of Christianity going back to the New Testament, for no discernible reason other than to play to the gallery of “progress”. One who did was the English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge. Though in those days an agnostic—he later converted to Catholicism, which is a bit strange after he had half written it off—he wrote that the Roman Catholic Church was “far and away the strongest bastion of Christendom” and lamented:

If it is now crumbling (as seems to be the case) … A light will have gone out which has illumined all our lives, shone through the art and literature of a long civilisation, and served to hold at bay, if only fitfully and inadequately, the wild appetites to gorge and dominate which afflict all our hearts.

Perhaps it is not yet as bad as that, but Muggeridge was right in fearing that the identity of the Church, its moral and cultural presence in the wider world and the influence it exercised on its followers’ lives would all be weakened by Vatican II (as the council was popularly referred to). Although there was no overt alteration of doctrine, many Catholics, lay and clerical, were upset by the radicalism of changes in emphasis after the council, the so-called “opening to the world” with its risk, not always avoided, of absorbing the values of the world, the downgrading of some traditional manifestations of popular piety and the wholesale and unnecessary vandalising of church sanctuaries by aesthetically illiterate liturgists in their zeal to fit them for the simpler new rites. But the young were largely on board and as older Catholics died off objections grew fainter. It was around this time, with student riots and the pill and the rejection of old values, that neophilia became the fashion of our age. Sticking with what is tried and true went out the window, and Vatican II, sure enough, was spruiked by its fans as a “new Pentecost”, a “new springtime” for the Church. Any who still think that today probably also think the Beatles are excitingly novel. 

Chou En-Lai, no stranger to the smoke of Satan himself in his career at the top, is supposed to have said that it was “too early” to assess the effects of the French Revolution. So is it too early to assess the effects, other than the immediate ones, of the Second Vatican Council? Perhaps, but two consequences are clear. One is the arrival on the scene of Pope Francis I, the most enigmatic pope of modern times. The second is that the post-council undermining of the traditional devotional, philosophical and epistemological structure of Catholicism has, half a century later, produced a leader of the Church who seems never happier than when muddying some previously clear aspect of Catholic doctrine, offending when not downright insulting the more traditionally minded of his flock, and ostentatiously adopting the priorities of the secular world, pronouncing himself on issues which are beyond his competence and, one fears, full comprehension.

It is hard to imagine that even to those Catholic progressives and wishy-washy liberals who welcomed his election in 2013 as a breath of fresh air for his, you know, unfussy style, Pope Francis is not becoming an embarrassment. To the bourgeois leftists and media cynics who have also sung his praises his continued appeal, despite what they would see as his one flaw, his opposition to abortion—forcefully and movingly restated in his recent letter to the EU, where it is bound to fall on deaf ears—perhaps lies in the perception that he is doing such a good job at shaking Catholic foundations that with a little luck the whole edifice will soon come crashing down. If so, they may be right. In the West you can already perceive the broken bits of tile falling from the ecclesiastical roof as congregations shrink and the Catholic voice is but faintly heard in public life. 

Pope Francis is the direct heir of the liberalism, largely of Teutonic or other northern European manufacture, influenced by Protestantism, that captured large sections of the Catholic Church during and after Vatican II. He is the council’s progeny, formed in a tradition which saw seminaries in the immediate post-conciliar years turned into “agents for change” in the Church in “the spirit of Vatican II”, in which “personal fulfilment” became an indicator of spiritual maturity, the language of devotion became the “everyday” speech the liturgical revisers in their scholarly closed shops imagined they heard around them—they got it slightly off-key, of course, in English at least—and the measure of evaluation of good and bad not always distinguishable from the criteria of Marxism. As with all “liberal” ventures, this culture of clerical formation was ruthlessly enforced, so that traditionally inclined seminarians were sometimes ejected for adherence to practices which not long before had been held to be of spiritual benefit.

An obsession with the new (often in the case of the Church spuriously presented as a rediscovery of the past) is by definition momentary, and it must be said that in the years after Vatican II, in the pontificates of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, much of the Church’s spiritual and liturgical tradition that was dispensed with by the reformers as no longer “relevant” was rediscovered by younger generations. Considerable headway was made in restoring what had been temporarily eclipsed as a result of dubious interpretation of Council mandates, particularly in the sacramental and liturgical field. Many priests are now formed again in something approaching the traditional manner. The old Mass has made its reappearance around the world, to the chagrin of the survivors of at least two generations of priests formed according to a liberal reading of the decrees of the Council and brought up to regard the previous rite as obscurantist mumbo-jumbo. But this kind of change is most evident lower down in the Catholic hierarchy and among the middle-aged and young. At the summit, the spirit of Vatican II is enjoying an encore. For it was only a matter of time until one of those Council-fixated priests would be elevated to the papacy by the upward pressure of promotion and generational change. He duly arrived in the person of Jorge Bergoglio, the apotheosis of Vatican II. 

As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio was not well known when he was elected Pope. In liberal circles a certain amount of cardinalatial plotting preceded his accession, and Bergoglio was not the first choice of the plotters, who had hoped to get the arch-liberal Cardinal Martini of Milan onto the papal throne. They were thwarted by, presumably, the Holy Spirit, who is said to guide all papal elections, and Josef Ratzinger was made Pope as Benedict XVI. When Benedict abdicated for mysterious reasons, the Holy Spirit granted their wish and Bergoglio became Pope Francis, taking his name from il Poverello of Assisi, whom he in no way resembles—and certainly not in his autocratic, some would say arrogant, style (though is it just possible to imagine him, in his latter-day role of ecological activist, preaching to the birds?). Bergoglio’s sheep’s clothing, however, was yet to be cast off, and the newly installed Francis went to some trouble to show what a humble and unpretentious person he was. He declined to live in the papal apartments because of their grandeur and had himself set up instead in a hostel for Vatican guests, itself not exactly a squat, where unspecified sums had then to be spent on security. Much was made of his concern for “ordinary folk” as exemplified in his story about finding the time on arrival in Rome to phone his news vendor in Buenos Aires to thank him and say that, well, shucks, he’d had this promotion to the Vatican and would no longer need the morning paper. Seven years on, this same Pope Francis has a reputation for unapproachability. “Don’t speak first if you pass him in the corridors,” is the advice in the Vatican. Yet when he is in the mood he can be affable and jocular, the picture of smiling good humour.

Most of the cardinals who voted for Francis are understood to have done so because they believed he had the the toughness and probity to reform the opaque and certainly to some extent corrupt finances of the Vatican, controlled by the Curia, the Church’s civil service. But the Peronist will out, and in this worthy intention he was unable to resist complicating matters by playing factions off each other, the modus operandi of politics in Argentina, of which Francis had become an eminently qualified practitioner in his years as a Jesuit superior and a bishop. He appointed Cardinal George Pell to untangle the thickets of financial mismanagement but then, when the now disgraced Cardinal Angelo Becciu, the de facto papal chief of staff, opposed this for various arcane reasons of his own which will no doubt come to light if Becciu is formally investigated, Francis supported him and Pell’s audit was cancelled. At around this time Victoria’s “justice” system got its claws into Pell—a coincidence that not only conspiracy theorists have wondered about—and dragged him back to Australia so that, no doubt to the relief of many with a hand in Vatican finances, Pell was out of the way for several years. Pope Francis has now “welcomed” him back. It will be interesting to see what if any progress Pell’s investigations make this time. 

It is in his strictly ecclesiastical capacity as, Catholics believe, Christ’s representative on earth that Pope Francis has generated the most controversy. Theologically, his doctrinal stance is orthodox enough, but in the application of faith to practice he has spoken with ambiguity and encouraged confusion. An example of this is his encyclical letter Amoris Laetitia. Its language is—almost certainly deliberately—imprecise in parts but can be interpreted as offering adulterers admission to Holy Communion, in defiance of traditional Church teaching on marriage and divorce. But does it or not? When nine cardinals asked him to clarify the letter, Francis flatly ignored them. So no one knows and practice varies according to the diocese you’re in and what its bishop thinks. 

In other doctrinal forays Pope Francis has questioned the Catholic concept of the “just war” and declared, in opposition to the Church’s own catechism, that capital punishment is invariably wrong. Most recently he has given his blessing to civil unions for same-sex couples. This is in line with his generally relaxed attitude to homosexuality—too relaxed, some would say, given that Francis has taken a “nothing to see here” line with various predatory clerical gays in high places—but at odds with Catholic moral teaching that homosexuals should be chaste. 

His attitude to the Christian life is pastoral rather than intellectual. Some of his—to many Catholics—unsettling utterances are delivered as though they had just come into his head, often as off-the-cuff short homilies at morning Mass called fervorini. Catholics disagree about how much weight to attach to these pronouncements. None of them qualifies by traditional criteria as infallible—indeed, the Pope can think the earth is flat if he wants to—but are they simply the Pope’s own opinions or something Catholics in conscience should try to believe? Pope Francis has thus puzzled many people, for whom the essence of the papacy is its function of teaching the faith clearly and authoritatively.

As for his excursions into secular issues, they might as well have been lifted out of a Greens policy handbook, complete with attendant turgidity. In the encyclical Laudatio Si, one of his first ventures into climate-babble, he wrote:

A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system … Humanity is called to recognise the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.

“Creation is groaning,” he has said, all on account of “sinful structures” (that’s capitalism to him). In late October he announced:

As you examine the great challenges facing us at this time, including climate change, the need for sustainable development and the contribution religion can make to the environmental crisis, it is essential to break with the logic of exploitation and selfishness

—capitalism again—“and to promote the practice of a sober, simple and humble lifestyle.” His notion of the “the great challenges facing us at this time” is instructive. The West’s churches are emptying, the secularist opposition to Christianity is advancing on all fronts hand-in-hand, in the manner of the Hitler-Stalin pact, with aggressive Islam, and the Pope is busying himself with eco-crankery. And it’s all empty words. What does he mean by “a simpler and humble lifestyle” as though it were the great panacea? The Green dream of a subsistence economy? A “simpler lifestyle” is what Christians should always try to live, not to serve some secular cult of Gaia but to avoid corruption by the world, by the things that are Caesar’s and not God’s. 

Christ distinguished between the two sets of claims by separating the obligations of faith from those of politics, but Pope Francis has plenty to say about Caesar, only this time his views are those of The Guardian. He doesn’t approve of “populism”, which in Europe, he has stated, begins with “sowing hate”. This is partly because he sees it as opposed to unlimited immigration. He has several times likened populism to the rise of Nazism. He clearly doesn’t realise that “populism” is a leftist boo-word for democracy, which leftists do not like because it is an obstacle to their various schemes of “world governance” and because it too often delivers the results they don’t want, such as Brexit and the Donald Trump presidency. On the latter Pope Francis is uncompromising. He dismissed Trump as simply “not a Christian” for wanting to keep out illegal immigrants.

Communist China, on the other hand, which persecutes Christians, basks in papal esteem. In late October, Pope Francis authorised the renewal of the Vatican’s 2018 diplomatic agreement with Beijing, by which he has given official recognition to the “patriotic” Chinese Catholic Church established by Mao Zedong and controlled by the Chinese government but until the agreement disowned by the Vatican, and has ditched the much-persecuted “underground” Church loyal to successive popes. Presumably as a quid pro quo, this pope who is so vocal on human rights in other political contexts—“everyone should, according to his or her specific gifts, fight to protect the fundamental rights of individuals”, he told a conference in Rome on “Human Rights in the Contemporary World”—has said not a word against China’s human rights abuses, which are inflicted not only on Christians but on a genocidal scale against the Islamic minority known as the Uyghurs. On Tibet and Hong Kong he is a sealed book. Nor, in his capacity of honorary Green, has he uttered a hint of disapproval of China’s shameless industrial pollution (though to be fair neither have the Greens themselves).

Where will it all end? Francis turns eighty-four on December 17 but has plenty of stamina and is not interested in retiring quietly into the background. As long as he can he will no doubt keep up his unpredictability. Yet why should he seek so deliberately, as it would seem, to be controversial? My own suspicion is that he enjoys it. That would not be entirely his own fault. The tendency of the last half-century to glamourise the papacy as a kind of global conscience has given an outgoing personality like his the stage on which to perform. He likes the attention directed on him, the sharp intakes of breath—“Have you heard what the Holy Father has said this time?”—the reputation for volatility, for bringing fire and a sword rather than peace and ease of mind to the Catholics who look up to him.

He has a vision of the Church as a “field hospital” rather than a comfortable retreat from the world. He wants to shake Catholics out of their complacency, yet if he only knew it, Catholics, in the Western world at least, long ago lost any complacency they might have had under an avalanche of secular contempt and media persecution for which child sexual abuse was only part of the cause, and was as much a weapon against them as a reason for condemnation.

Catholics need a pope who can use the undoubted pastoral gifts Francis has (one being that the first instinct of most people, believers or not, is to like him) to fortify them to endure the slings and arrows of worldly despisal and to remind them of the eternal truths of their faith, not add to their confusion and disorientation. And the world needs a pope who will preach those truths to it, not try to gain its attention by parroting back to it ideological clichés of its own invention. 

Christopher Akehurst, a frequent contributor, lives in Melbourne

5 thoughts on “The Puzzle of the Pope

  • Steve Smith says:

    Yes, it is said that the Holy Spirit inspires the conclave which elects popes. However, surely the Spirit had a day off when this pope was elected! Most of my friends are Catholics but it’s rare to hear a good word about him from any of them. Loud on social issues and virtue signalling, silent on things which really matter. The arrest of Jimmy Lai, a prominent Hong Kong Catholic, is an example of this. The Pope’s silence is deafening.

  • pbw says:

    “…the language of devotion became the “everyday” speech the liturgical revisers in their scholarly closed shops imagined they heard around them—they got it slightly off-key, of course, in English at least…”
    The man who was, finally, given the job of cleaning up the English of the liturgy was none other than the Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney (as I think he then was), George Pell. Most notably, the fratelli tutti “we believe” of the Creed was corrected to “I believe.”

  • Lawrie Ayres says:

    There is no doubt about it – Pope Francis is a communist. He even gave Joe Biden permission to receive Holy Communion despite old Joe approving of killing near to term babies. Whatever happened to the “Thou shalt not kill” part of the Ten Commandments. I am afraid Frank will join the other leftist luminaries on the wrong side of the river Styx.

  • James Franklin says:

    I can’t see why conservatives are complaining about Pope Francis when he hasn’t done anything. Some comments that the envirnonment shouldn’t be vandalised and that it’s no big deal if some divorced people receive communion isn’t in Che Guevara territory.

  • guilfoyle says:

    Great article -all true – Pope francis and his ‘hirelings’ are currently engaged in wholesale persecution of traditional Catholics- banning the Catholic Mass to Catholics.

Leave a Reply