We’re closing 2017 by republishing our twelve most-read articles of the year. Here’s No. 9: Damian Thompson on Pope Francis:
On 2 January, the Vatican published a letter from Pope Francis to the world’s bishops in which he reminded them that they must show ‘zero tolerance’ towards child abuse. The next day, the American Week magazine published an article that told the story of ‘Don Mercedes’ — Fr Mauro Inzoli, an Italian priest with a passion for expensive cars and underage boys.
In 2012, Pope Benedict stripped Inzoli of his priestly faculties, effectively defrocking him. In 2014, however, they were restored to him — by Pope Francis, who warned him to stay away from minors.
Then, finally, the Italian civil authorities caught up with this serial groper of teenagers in the confessional. Last summer Inzoli was sentenced to four years and nine months in jail for paedophile offences. The Vatican, under ‘zero-tolerance’ Francis, refused to supply evidence that prosecutors wanted.
If Pope Benedict XVI had displayed such a hypocritical attitude towards a clerical child abuser, the roof would have fallen in on him: he’d have been driven out of office instead of resigning.
But most of the world’s media have pigeon-holed Francis as a fearless reformer, doing battle against Vatican mafiosi, kiddie-fiddlers and ‘fundamentalists’. This perception made it easy for the Pope’s allies to keep the name of Mauro Inzoli out of English–speaking news outlets until last week.
That perception may change in 2017. For more than two years, leading Catholics have been at each other’s throats over a plan — surreptitiously supported by the Pope — to allow divorced-and-remarried Mass-goers to receive Holy Communion. The secular media have treated this, understandably, as an inside-the-beltway story. It’s difficult to make headlines out of a controversy that even theologians find hard to grasp.
At the end of last year, however, the communion row began to overlap with other controversies, all of which raised questions not only about the Pope’s judgment but also about his state of mind.
A man who, when he took office, seemed endearingly informal — paying his own bill at his hotel, refusing to live in the Apostolic Palace, making surprise phone calls to members of the public — now cuts a less sympathetic figure.
He has broken with a far more significant papal tradition than living in the papal apartments or travelling in limousines. He has defied the convention that a pope, once elected, ceases to play nasty curial politics.
Pope Benedict respected this convention. Liberals who were worried that the ‘Rottweiler’ would harbour ancient grudges watched in amazement — and relief — as he turned into a virtual hermit. This created the factional chaos that led to his resignation — but right up until the end, Benedict was always ‘the Holy Father’.
That title has almost dropped out of use inside the Vatican under Francis, at least in everyday conversation. And, when you hear it, there is an edge of sarcasm. For example: ‘As the Holy Father so wisely says, we all have a natural tendency to eat shit.’
The priest in question is no fan of Francis. But the fact is that the Pope did say it — in public. Last month, he told the media to stop spreading fake stories because ‘people have a tendency towards the sickness of coprophagia’. Which means eating excrement.
Why did he say it? The traditionalist blog Rorate Caeli suggested that ‘ageing or an underlying medical issue’ was responsible for his ‘persistent anger, rancour, vituperation, use of uncouth words (which is known to be increasingly frequent in private)’.
Again, this is an opponent speaking. There is no evidence that the Pope is mentally ill. However, plenty of Vatican employees will testify to his outbursts of temper, rudeness towards subordinates and vulgar language.
He can also be genial, funny and compassionate. But this side of his personality is increasingly reserved for his inner circle and his allies.
All popes have inner circles, it goes without saying. What distinguishes Francis from his recent predecessors is the nature of the alliances he forms. He is far more brutal in the exercise of his power than, say, Pope John Paul II, who certainly had an authoritarian streak in him.
‘Bergoglio divides the church into those who are with him and those who are against him — and if he thinks you’re in the latter camp then he’ll come after you,’ says a priest who works in the curia.
Damian Thompson and Cristina Odone debate the successes and failures of Pope Francis
‘Bergoglio’, note: he doesn’t even call him ‘Francis’. Tellingly, this priest used to be a fervent supporter of some of the Pope’s administrative reforms and he doesn’t look back nostalgically at the reign of Benedict, whom he blames for neglecting his papal duties.
But, like so many Vatican employees, he’s sick of Francis’s habit of telling the entire Roman curia that they are modern-day Pharisees — an analogy that casts the Argentinian pontiff in the role of Jesus.
Clearly Francis believes that relaxing the rules on communion for Catholics in irregular marriages is an act of Christlike compassion. This is also the view of the venerable liberal cardinals who campaigned to elect him. It is often said that he is enacting their agenda — and it’s true that Francis is well disposed to liberal demands for women deacons and married priests.
He is not, however, their instrument. In the words of a Vatican observer who held an important position in Rome for many years, ‘He hasn’t taken on the old progressive mantle so much as created his own personality cult.’ Theological niceties bore him. Personal loyalty obsesses him — ‘and if the cardinal electors had done due diligence they would have discovered that he was an extraordinarily divisive figure among the Argentinian Jesuits’.
It’s not hard to detect a Latin American flavour to the deal-making and settling of scores that has become blatant over the past year. Most Catholic bishops had thought Francis was a plain-spoken and perhaps touchingly naive reformer. Instead, they are confronted by a pope who is simultaneously combative, charming, bad-tempered, idealistic and vengeful.
Does that remind you of anyone? The Trump-Francis analogy has been doing the rounds in Rome for months, and not just among the Pope’s opponents.
‘It’s not meant entirely seriously,’ says a well-placed source. ‘No one is suggesting that Jorge Bergoglio is tempted by the same sins of the flesh as Donald Trump.
‘And there’s another difference. The Americans can kick out their old rogue after four years. Francis doesn’t have to stand for re-election by the conclave. Which, believe me, is lucky for him, because after the misery and nonsense of the past couple of years he’d be eliminated in the first ballot.’