Can Pope Francis lead the Catholic Church into the future? He wants reforms, but parts of the clergy are strategically torpedoing his efforts. In an interview, Vatican expert Marco Politi talks about his powerful counterparts.
Interviewer: There are theologians who openly accused Pope Francis of heresy. He is ridiculed on the Internet, priests pray for his death, a former nuncio even demanded his resignation: has any pope ever been treated so disrespectfully?
Marco Politi (journalist and Vatican expert): No, while there has been much polemic against John Paul II. and Benedict XVI., but such an aggressive escalation and attempts to delegitimize the Pope, so many attacks from the clergy and the bishops, that has not happened in the last hundred years.
However, one must differentiate when criticizing him: There is a lot of diversity in the Catholic Church, with its 1.3 billion members. There are bishops who are open to social ies but reject homosexuality. Others agree with communion for remarried divorcees but oppose diaconate of women. But there is just a hard core, they are fundamentally against Francis, because they fear a softening of principles to which they have adhered all their lives.
Interviewer: Isn't it paradoxical that Pope Francis, of all people, who preaches charity and a merciful Church, is met with so much hatred?
Politi: Yes, but it's also understandable, because Francis is unsettling people who cling to tradition and can't imagine a different church. He is a pope who is cleaning up the church's centuries-old obsession with sex. We were not now discussing the pill, premarital relations or divorced remarried people.
Or his image of God: He speaks of a God of mercy, who is not the supreme judge but the father of all people, not only Christians, but also Muslims, Jews and atheists. It's revolutionary, but it's also upsetting parts of the church.
Interviewer: In your new book "The Francis Conspiracy" you write of a real "civil war" in the Catholic Church, that the pope is surrounded by opponents. Is this a small, noisy minority?
Politi: No, that's long been rumored by Francis supporters, that these are few who make a lot of noise. But it is not so. When I think about the last two synods, I guess there is a hard core of 30 percent. And then there's the silent middle, which agrees with some reforms but is afraid of everything. You can't imagine another church, where it will be much harder to witness, of course. And that is why they are the silent brakemen.
Interviewer: Is the pope not to blame for the opposition within the church?? Did he not also make mistakes?
Politi: His supporters say it was a mistake that he did not turn the Curia upside down when he took office, and that all the dicasteries [note. of the editors: "ministries" of the Roman Curia] with people who think like he does. That was definitely a mistake. But you have to understand, he did it out of consideration for Pope Emeritus Benedict and because he believes the personal example could get things moving. Vatican spokesman JoaquIn Navarro-Valls once said, "The pope believes in personal example, but one day he will bump up against the hard core of the Curia." And so it has been.
Interviewer: In your book, you describe 2018 as the "Eleventh of September of his pontificate." In the U.S., Germany, Ireland and around the world, the dimension of abuse in the Catholic Church became clear. In the face of this crisis, the pope sometimes acted clumsily; an anti-abuse summit ended without concrete results; in Chile, he initially did not give credence to abuse victims….
Politi: The 2018 trip to Chile was the first time the Pope's charism was touched and it exemplifies how he was lied to. It was about the Chilean bishop Juan Barros, who is said to have covered up years of abuse of children and adolescents by the priest trainer Fernando Karadima. Still, Pope Francis publicly came to his defense several times, saying the "faithful should not be led around by the nose 'by the leftists'"; there was no evidence, he said at the time. He was convinced that the accusations against the bishop were fabricated because he had not been informed. Particularly embarrassing was that also in the Cardinal Council K9 with Francisco Errazuriz sat a Chilean cardinal who had not enlightened the pope, this came out later.
Pope Francis then recognized this error, allowed investigations to proceed under Archbishop of Malta Charles Scicluna, and apologized with a self-critical "letter to the people of God in Chile". And he has made it clear that the root of abuse is clericalism, because clericalism is abuse of power and conscience.
And there we can observe again how conflicts develop in the Catholic Church, because a few weeks later Josef Ratzinger wrote an article in which he contradicts this thesis and attributes abuse to a lack of faith in God and the sexual revolution of the 68ers, a completely opposite point of view. And immediately Cardinal Muller, for example, jumped in and called it a good analysis. These are power struggles like in a secular state.
Interviewer: If the pope is so reform-minded, why did he not even mention the possibility of "viri probati," or ordained married men, in his recent letter to the Amazon Synod, and flatly reject ordination of women?
Politi: I think it has to do with the prere. After all, the opposition has been gathering for more than a year, and not just the well-known critics like Cardinal Burke, Cardinal Muller or Cardinal Sarah. When the Synod was over, suddenly the former president of the Italian Bishops' Conference, Cardinal Ruini, also spoke of a wrong decision of the Synod regarding the "viri probati". He said, "I pray and hope that the Pope will not do it."Or the head of the Congregation for Bishops, Marc Ouellet: he had already demanded in a book that the celibate priesthood must continue. This means that there is a network of oppositionists. It was important in the Amazon Synod that there was a two-thirds majority. But I don't think there would be a two-thirds majority for the "viri probati" in a world synod. And there the pope was afraid of a split, they pushed him to the wall.
Interviewer: You write in your book about the "final phase" of the pontificate, meaning you think Francis won't be pope much longer?
Politi: That means that – like in soccer – we are in the second half of the game. The pope is no longer the youngest, the pontificate can no longer last indefinitely. There are people who would like to see him step down, but he will not simply give up as long as he has the physical and spiritual strength to do so. And of course he won't resign as long as Benedict is alive, because then we would have two emeritus popes, that would be even more complicated. Francis will continue, because he is single-minded and in this sense also persistent.
But there is already a struggle going on among those trying to influence the power structure in the next conclave. In the USA, groups have already formed that try to manipulate opinions with dossiers and speeches.
Interviewer: But can he lead the Church out of its crisis?
Politi: He has initiated many processes. He has cleaned up the Vatican bank, no more mafia money can be laundered there. More than 4.000 accounts have been closed, there are no more opaque money flows and there is cooperation with the secular courts to track down financial crimes. None of this existed in the past. Francis has also decentralized the Catholic Church: Priests, local bishops and national bishops' conferences now have more autonomy and authority.
And on the ie of abuse, he has brought out two important documents that are groundbreaking: He abolished papal secrecy after 500 years, so victims and secular courts are now entitled to see the archives. This is a very big step forward. And the second important document of the Pope describes a procedure to deal with bishops who conceal or are guilty themselves. It took years to get this through, one step forward, one step back, it was slowed down and sabotaged. But now the Pope has prevailed, and this shows how difficult it is to chart a new course when there is resistance, sabotage and opposition within the Church.
He is a "transitional pope" in my eyes, he is like a farmer who sows: He will not reap the harvest, but he has sown the seed. Whether the harvest bears fruit will depend not only on his successor, but on the entire faith community. I have seen a lot of passivity among the faithful, so the big question is: What are the priests doing?? What do the bishops do? And what are the faithful doing?
The interview was conducted by Ina Rottscheidt.
Information: Marco Politi: "The Francis plot. The lonely pope and his fight for the church." Herder Verlag, 24 euros