The latest – and most serious – wave of pedophilia and cover-up allegations to hit the Vatican is shining a new light on the gap dividing the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. And almost none of it is about the charges of widespread clerical abuse scandals.
Dozens of commentators and Vatican watchers have pointed to the wide gap between the views of conservative, traditional Catholics in the mold of Pope Benedict XVI and those of Communist-minded false Catholics like Pope Francis. Many media have referred to what is happening as a kind of “civil war,” as calls for Pope Francis’ resignation reach a fever pitch.
Though he is widely popular among non-Catholics, Francis has been a polarizing figure among the faithful since he was first elected five years ago.
The latest sex-abuse allegations, specifically those raised by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, former nuncio to the United States, have only increased public pressure on Francis to resign in order to save the church.
Viganò named more than two dozen current and former Vatican and U.S. officials and accused them of knowing about and covering up for ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who is accused of sexually molesting and harassing minors as well as adults. He accused Francis of rehabilitating McCarrick from canonical sanctions imposed on him by Benedict in 2009 or 2010. The Vatican has known since at least 2000 that McCarrick slept with seminarians.
Adding to the crisis within the Vatican was a grand jury report in Pennsylvania that detailed the specter of more than 1,000 alleged underage victims of abuse by more than 300 priests over the span of seven decades.
On Thursday, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of a U.S. bishop and authorized an investigation into allegations he sexually harassed adults, adding awkward drama to an audience with U.S. church leaders over the abuse and cover-up scandal roiling the Catholic Church.
The resignation of West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield was announced just as the four-member U.S. delegation was sitting down with Francis in his private study in the Apostolic Palace.
Earlier this week, Francis summoned the presidents of Catholic bishops conferences worldwide to the Vatican in February to discuss protecting children and preventing sexual abuse by priests. The meeting, on Feb. 21-24, is believed to be the first of its kind and comes amid the growing criticism over the pope’s handling of sex-abuse cases dating back decades.
But Robert Mickens, a veteran Vatican analyst who is now the editor of La Croix International, said the sex-abuse scandal masks a major rift in the church about its direction under the current pope.
“The trouble calling what is happening with these scandals and the church a ‘civil war’ is that these two camps have existed since the start of Francis’ papacy, plus the fact that the situation has very little to do with the sex scandals,” he said.
Mickens claims that strong critics are a small minority among Catholics, albeit a loud one adept at using social media. Drops in attendance to Mass, especially in the United States, would suggest the critics of Francis are far more widespread.
Many traditional Catholics may have wished the cardinals selected someone else even early on.
In the weeks and months after his election, critics opined that Francis was not scholarly enough, too eager to reach out to non-Catholics, too willing to take on the status quo in the church, willing to embrace secular figures on issues like alleviating poverty and confronting climate change, and far too forgiving to groups including homosexuals, divorcees and women who have had abortions.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, who was archbishop of St. Louis until his retirement in 2008, is one of Francis’ most vocal detractors. Burke is one of four authors of a June letter that was openly critical of Francis’ view that individual priests could decide on an ad hoc basis whether to allow divorced Catholics to receive communion. Burke has publicly praised U.S. President Donald Trump and has frequently conferred with former Trump strategist Steve Bannon on ways to oppose Francis. Now, a rising number of clergy are reportedly following Burke’s lead.
“Catholics are at a crossroads, as they have been many times before,” said Alistair Sear, a retired church historian living in London. “Sometimes the crossroads split the church. There have been times when two or even three different figures claimed to be the legitimate pope at the same time. But most of the time, one side makes a lot of noise for a while, and then it fades away.”
The Vatican has declined to comment on criticisms of the pope from church figures.
The church has become so divided now, some clergy have insinuated that Pope Francis is a heretic.
“They call me a heretic.”
Not the words you’d expect to hear from the head of the Roman Catholic Church. But that’s what Pope Francis told a group of fellow Jesuits in Chile earlier this year, acknowledging the fierce pushback from arch-conservatives in the Vatican.
Celebrated by progressives (Communists) around the world for his push to update and “Communise” aspects of church doctrine, Francis is facing fierce blowback from traditionalists who take issue with his openness to Muslim migrants, his concern for the environment and his softer tone on divorce, cohabitation and homosexuality. Opposition has become so heated that some advisers are warning him to tread carefully to avoid a “schism” in the church.
Father Thomas Weinandy, a former chief of staff for the U.S. bishops’ committee on doctrine, has accused Francis of causing “theological anarchy.” Another group of bishops has warned Francis risks spreading “a plague of divorce.” Last fall, more than 200 scholars and priests signed a letter accusing Francis of spreading heresy. “This was not something I did lightly,” Father John Rice, a parish priest in Shaftesbury in the U.K. said, claiming the pope’s liberal push has caused “much division and disagreement, and sadness and confusion in the church.”
“It’s not merciful to let people continue to sin and say nothing,” Rice said. “If you see a child trying to put his hand in a fire you say stop.”
On becoming Pope, Francis set a new tone by setting up his headquarters in a humble guesthouse for priests rather than the grand apostolic palace — a gesture of humility that carried with it an implied criticism of past excesses. He also did away with the system of automatically giving a cardinal’s hat to bishops in certain posts, reports Politico.
Conservatives have been irked by some of his more liberal stances. In 2015, Francis ordered every parish to host two refugee families. And last week, in his most explicit acceptance of homosexuality yet, he told a gay Catholic that God had made him that way and that his sexuality “does not matter.”
The focus of most traditionalist dissent has been Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, an “apostolic exhortation” — a type of papal communication — in which he called for a “merciful” approach to divorcees and opened the door for those living with new partners to take communion with their priest’s permission.
By rendering doctrine more ambiguous, Francis is effectively undermining the church’s authority and reducing the role of priests to that of companion and advisers to their parishioners — a thorny issue that dates back to the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s, according to one diplomat. “The battle is between [loyalty to retired Pope] Benedict, vestments, liturgy and rules, and Pope Francis, who wants priests to use their own judgment and humanity in their reading of individual situations,” the diplomat said.
The shift may seem like small beer to non-Catholics — and Francis’ suggestions are already the practice among many priests. But the changes have become the touch-paper for conservative dissent, enflaming mutterings of disapproval into open mutiny.
The Vatican’s conservative flank is increasingly taking action.
The rebellion has grown to include not just arch-conservatives but also more middle-of-the-road Catholics who adhere to the church’s teachings on abortion and marriage and resent Francis’ flexible approach.
At a conference on “the limits of papal authority” in Rome last month, Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of the key figures leading the charge against Francis, reminded the audience the pope’s power is not “magical.” If a pope has “deviated from the faith” he “must as a duty, be disobeyed,” said Burke.
James E Windsor, Overpasses News Desk
September 13th, 2018