Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Pope Francis' opponents keep pushing back (Opinion)

Pope Francis gives interviews all the time. 

Generally on informal occasions he tends to favour delivering a few off-the-cuff remarks. 

Even when his words are misinterpreted and clarifications need to be issued later on, he loses no sweat over it.

An example is the now established feature of an impromptu press conference on his plane journeys home from overseas trips and his folksy response to whatever questions he’s asked – to the delight of reporters, ever anxious to file up-to-the-minute copy.

A second style of interview is with the media on formal occasions, when he tends to be much more circumspect in his comments and tends to choose his words more carefully.

A third is the private, ‘closed door’ meetings with specific groups – usually with bishops, priests and members of his former religious order, the Jesuits. 

In this case, nothing is off the table as he usually encourages a frank exchange of views and favours a ‘say-what-you-think’ approach. But, in a context of mutual trust, there’s an expectation, even a presumption, of confidentiality.

Unfortunately for Francis, that presumption didn’t apply to some who were at his recent meeting with Italian bishops, all 200 of them.

Apparently, during the meeting, some bishop (or bishops) raised the subject of gay priests and gay seminarians and what was described as ‘an anti-gay slur’ was used in the course of the discussion.

Shortly afterwards a report of the meeting, including the use of the ‘slur-word’, was leaked to the press by a bishop or bishops, including that Francis had told the meeting that gay men shouldn’t be ordained priests and that gay seminarians were not welcome in seminaries.

It was bad enough that a trust was betrayed in terms of confidentiality – and that it spread across the globe like wildfire – but worse, that it played fast and loose with the truth.

This emerged after an interview in an Italian newspaper with Bishop Savino, the vice-president of the Italian bishops, in which he refuted the reported comments – in that they were incorrect in crucial respects and didn’t reflect what Francis had said and the context in which they were delivered.

It had been reported that Francis attacked gays. He didn’t.

That he had said that gay men shouldn’t be priests. He didn’t.

That he had said at the meeting that gay students shouldn’t be accepted in seminaries. He didn’t.

What he did say was that priests – gay or heterosexual – should keep their promises of obedience, poverty and chastity.

Two things strike me about this. 

The first is that anyone familiar with Francis knows that it would have been very unlike him to make homophobic comments because Francis – more than anyone else in the long history of the Catholic Church – has been most supportive of gay people. 

The accusations, running counter to the evidence of the support Francis has given to gay people, are simply incredible.

From early on in his pontificate when, in response to a question about gay priests, Francis said, ‘Who am I to judge?’, he opened up the need to draw gay people from the periphery into the centre of the Church; he underlined again and again his consistent policy of favouring an inclusive Church where everyone is welcome and everyone should be included; and recently he introduced a pastoral blessing for gay couples. 

Invariably the record shows that Francis has been compellingly supportive of gay people and gay priests. 

As Bishop Savino pointed out, ‘It makes no sense to say that Francis is homophobic’. 

The accusations run against all the evidence to the contrary.

This prompts a second thought: why would bishops (or cardinals) possibly decide to tell untruths and/or exaggerations and betray a pope to whom they had formally sworn an oath of obedience?

For those acquainted with the Catholic Church, what seems scarcely credible is in fact true. 

And it’s this. It isn’t just that one bishop (or a few bishops) leaked a false version of one meeting. 

It’s part of a worldwide, organised attempt by extreme traditionalists to undermine Francis with the intention of blocking the reforms that were supposed to be implemented 60 years ago after the Second Vatican Council and that Francis is now adamant need to be introduced. 

It’s no secret that there’s a strong push-back against Francis and the meeting of Italian bishops was just another effort to damage him and in particular to turn gay people against him. 

In modern-speak, what happened was that Francis was ambushed or, as we say, set-up.

There are multiple previous examples of this push-back. For instance, in 2018 when Francis was returning to Rome after his visit to Ireland, Archbishop Carlo Vigano, the retired papal nuncio in America, issued a statement accusing Francis of knowing that the former Cardinal of Washington Theodore McCarrick was guilty of sexual abuse but that he had done nothing about it. 

It was a chilling accusation clearly meant to undermine Francis and his recent meetings with abuse victims in Ireland. Later, Vigano’s scandalous accusations were shown to be untrue.

It isn’t just the occasional recalcitrant bishop who opposes Francis in his efforts to bring the Catholic Church into the 21st century. 

Some cardinals have walked the same dishonourable path: the Australian, George Pell, who while part of an advisory group of eight cardinals chosen by Francis was later unmasked as the anonymous author of a book that sought to undermine Francis; Gerhard Muller, a German who having reached the requisite retirement age as head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith became a thorn in Francis’ side because Francis insisted he retire; Robert Sarah, who encouraged Pope Benedict to oppose Francis’ reforms; and Archbishop Georg Gansweain who published a shameful memoir (inaccurately entitled Nothing But the Truth) and emailed it to journalists even as Benedict was laid out in St Peter’s.

Little wonder that Francis is nervous that the push-back from traditionalists mentioned above (and others) might lead to a breakdown (or schism) of the Catholic Church. 

It may well be the reason why Francis is pausing expected and reasonable initiatives at the coming synod this October.