Last week we learned that Pope Francis has torn up the Catholic Church’s teaching that same-sex civil partnerships are gravely immoral. This week he will be rooting for the pro-abortion candidate in the US presidential election.
These two surreal developments are causing distress bordering on spiritual despair to conservative American Catholics. Whether you feel any sympathy for them depends on your point of view. The Pope, it is safe to say, is unlikely to lose any sleep over the matter.
Francis dislikes the United States in general and its president in particular. That’s not surprising; so do most Argentinians. What is surprising is the depth of his contempt for conservative American Catholics. In fact, it’s hard to say whom he hates more, Trump or traditionalists. At any rate, he’s gunning for both of them now.
On the face of it, this seems perverse. It’s true that most conservative Catholics will be voting for Trump, but with limited enthusiasm. In many cases it will be just to keep out Biden, a pro-choice nominal Catholic who — as demonstrated by a video clip in which struggled to remember anything about Amy Coney Barrett — is now so senile that he’ll be quickly replaced by his anti-Catholic running mate Kamala Harris, a fanatical enthusiast for late-term abortions.
What sort of pope is looking forward to a Biden-then-Harris presidency that will use a mixture of legislation, executive orders and Supreme Court packing to remove all legal protections from Catholics who adhere strictly to the Church’s teaching on sexual morality? The answer is: a new kind of pope, one who not only regards doctrine as negotiable (as have several popes down the ages, though without admitting it) but who subordinates it to a personal agenda that is more political than theological.
Consider last week’s bombshell about gay civil partnerships. When he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 2010, the then Cardinal Bergoglio argued privately that the Church should embrace the idea as a way of stopping the Argentine government introducing same-sex marriage, which he opposed and still opposes. He couldn’t persuade his fellow bishops to go along with this, and when he was elected pope his previous stance was hushed up.
On Wednesday last week, the premiere of a documentary film entitled Francisco revealed sensational footage of Francis telling a Mexican television interviewer that in order to protect homosexual people ‘what we have to have is a civil union law — that way they are legally covered’. The interview dated from 2019 and therefore, according to Fr Antonio Spadaro, the left-wing Jesuit who acts as the Pope’s unofficial communications adviser and is far more influential than the Vatican press office, was old news.
But what Spadaro must have known was that Francis’s comments about civll unions never aired. The Mexican TV interview was shot on cameras belonging to the Vatican. The latter literally cut them out before it handed over the tapes, presumably because it realized that the Pope had flatly contradicted Catholic teaching.
‘Contradicted’ is the right word here, not ‘changed’. Popes have some freedom to change the Church’s teaching, but they must do it the right way, presenting it as a ‘development’ of doctrine and, crucially, explicitly exercising their authority. Comments in an interview, even made on the record by a pope, don’t count as teaching. Official pronouncements do, even if issued by a Vatican department rather than the pontiff directly.
In the case of civil unions, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated authoritatively in 2003 that ‘legal recognition of homosexual unions’ was ‘gravely immoral’. That remains Catholic teaching today — in theory. In practice, the publicizing of the Pope’s demand for a ‘civil union law’ renders the 2003 ruling a dead letter. The Church can no longer ban Catholic politicians from supporting gay civil unions now the whole world knows that the Vicar of Christ supports them too.
The question is: how did Francis’s comments, suppressed by the Vatican last year, end up in Francisco? Papal press officers had no idea that the bombshell was about to explode, judging by their panic-stricken floundering when the news broke. But Francis did. He had already watched the film on an iPad belonging to its Israeli-American director Evgeny Afineevsky.
It’s not surprising that the two men have struck up a friendship. Afineevsky is a fierce opponent of Trump and in particular his border policy, with which Francis is also obsessed. Although Jewish, he sees Francis as a sort of anti-Trump superhero, a ‘role model of leadership for the world.’ The premiere of Francisco was meticulously timed: he wanted as many Americans as possible to see it before the election.
But for the film to make an impact it needed an exclusive story. What a stroke of luck, therefore, that Afineevsky stumbled across a few seconds of footage that few people apart from the pontiff knew existed. (Even the interviewer, Valentina Alazraki, had forgotten Francis’s comment, which was cut out of the video before she got the chance to see it.)
We don’t know if the Pope shares Afineevsky’s naive belief that Francisco will influence American voters. It’s possible, given that he can’t speak English and is reported to read only one secular newspaper, La Repubblica, which until a recent change of editors was firmly on the Trump-hating left. His views on US domestic politics are shaped by Fr Spadaro, whose picture of American conservatives is a grotesque conflation of stereotypes: greasy televangelists, neo-Nazi militias, billionaire fraudsters and rosary-clutching Latin Mass fascists — all of them jumping to attention every time Donald Trump tweets from the gold-plated decadence of Mar-a-Lago.
This is music to the ears of the 83-year-old Argentinian pontiff, who stirs in antiquated economic dogma from Latin America. The United States bleeds the ‘global South’ dry, and does so with special malevolence when it is governed by Republicans. To make matters worse, Catholics have become increasingly prominent in the GOP, which is pretty much evil incarnate in the eyes of the Pope. And so he feels a moral obligation to interfere in American politics — and has done so, relentlessly but often under the radar, since becoming pope in 2013.
One of the least reported stories of the 2016 election was the way the Clinton campaign used liberal Catholic pressure groups to get out of the vote, with the support of left-leaning members of the US Conference of Bishops and its overwhelmingly Democrat staff. Francis approved, and was furious when 52 percent of Catholics voted for Trump.
This time round, the Catholic brand is so damaged by sex abuse revelations that the Democrats aren’t investing so heavily in Catholic front organizations — but, still, the Pope does what he can. In September, secretary of state Mike Pompeo was in Rome for a conference on religious freedom. He called on the Church to defend religious freedom in China, something Francis has conspicuously failed to do; since signing a pact with Beijing in 2018 he has said not one word about the forced abortions on Uighur women or any other Chinese abuse of human rights.
Pompeo was refused a papal audience because, according to Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Pietro Parolin, ‘political figures are not received in election periods.’ And then Parolin let the cat out of the bag. He had ‘heard it said’ that Pompeo had criticized the Vatican-China deal ‘for domestic political use’. In other words, Pope Francis didn’t want to meet the American secretary of state because he was worried it might help Trump on polling day.
The fact that President Trump has unexpectedly done more to support Catholic teaching on abortion than any of his predecessors, and that his opponent is an enthusiast for infanticidal late-term abortions, counts for absolutely nothing in the eyes of this pontificate. Francis may know little about the United States, but he accepts the underlying assumption of the American culture wars: that arguments about moral issues are the continuation of politics by other means. Most views you hold are determined — or at least strongly influenced — by whether you’re liberal or conservative. Also, my enemy’s enemy is my friend.
This profoundly un-Catholic mindset explains why the Pope is happy to see Kamala Harris take office as vice president and then, before long, president of the United States. He doesn’t agree with her views on abortion, but she harasses the sort of right-wing Catholics he regards as despicable hypocrites, so that’s good enough for him.
It also explains the pattern of Francis’s American appointments to major sees and the college of cardinals. He parachuted Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane into Chicago, not bothering to consult his own Congregation for Bishops. The smooth-talking, super-ambitious Cupich is bright — but his real qualification was that he was the most left-wing bishop in the United States, friendly with the pro-choice lobby but reliably nasty to Latin Mass Catholics.
Last year, Francis appointed Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Georgia to Washington — an extraordinary choice, given that he isn’t bright and was also a protégé of the disgraced sex-abuser ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Gregory is African American, but that wasn’t controversial, since conservative US Catholics have abandoned their racism and overwhelmingly favor the Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah to be the next pope. More significantly, Gregory is passionately anti-Trump: he threw a fit when the President visited the John Paul II shrine in DC, and instructed his priests to ignore social distancing by taking part in a pro-Black Lives Matter demonstration. Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso went even further, holding a BLM placard and becoming the first bishop to ‘take the knee.’ The Pope immediately rang him to congratulate him. And last week, in a victory lap after his civil unions stunt paid off, he made Gregory a cardinal.
All of which might surprise people who knew Jorge Bergoglio back in Argentina. In friendly company he was never politically correct on the subject of race — and, his tactical support for Argentine civil unions notwithstanding, even less so when it came to talking abut gays. He prefers old-fashioned Marxists to practitioners of identity politics; it is economic injustice, not racism or homophobia, that moves him to genuine anger.
But my enemy’s enemy is my friend, and last September Fr James Martin, SJ, found himself invited to meet the Pope to discuss ‘the joys and hopes, and the griefs and anxieties, of LGBT Catholics and LGBT people worldwide.’ Martin is a soft-spoken charmer whose embrace of the rainbow flag (without openly supporting gay marriage) has won him a celebrity following and furious denunciations from orthodox clergy. Francis’s decision to bless his ministry was a neat snub to every conservative Catholic in America.
Which brings us back to Francis’s support for civil unions. It’s hard to dismiss it as purely opportunistic, given that he has held this stance for a decade. It also chimes with the private opinion of many middle-of-the-road priests in Europe, who think it’s a useful fallback position for a Church faced with overwhelming public support for gay marriage. But even those moderate clergy are astonished by the way it was done: the Pope wiping out a paragraph of Church teaching in a fragment of an interview that he appears to have sneaked past his own press officers.
They wouldn’t have been so taken aback if they were more familiar with the Bergoglian playbook. The Vicar of Christ is a devious old politician who spends hours every day thinking about how to wrong-foot people he despises, and it’s a long list.
In that respect the Francisco stunt was a masterstroke. It gave Francis ecstatic headlines just when he needed them most, at a time when police all over the world are closing in on Vatican officials who stole hundreds of millions of dollars from the faithful. It also stifled the yawns that greeted his long-awaited ‘social encyclical’, Fratelli Tutti, which, to quote Dr Samuel Gregg of the Acton Institute, demonstrated yet again that the Pope isn’t interested in dialogue with ‘anyone who doesn’t fit on the spectrum between left-wing populists and your run-of-the-mill neo-Keynesian.’ And it overshadowed the Vatican’s renewal of its pact with Beijing, a deal so squalid that even papal diplomats change the subject when it’s mentioned.
On the other hand, Francis’s endorsement of gay civil unions creates an almost irresolvable problem for the Catholic Church, though not necessarily because of the subject matter. Francis may have pushed the Church closer to social acceptance of gay marriage, but there’s no way it can perform them or legitimize them without overturning 2,000 years of teaching. There’s little appetite, even in liberal circles, for the catastrophic schism that would result. (A quick reminder: more than 90 percent of Catholics aren’t gay.)
The real crisis created by Francis is one of authority, and this does have the potential to leak into every corner of the Church. No previous pope has deliberately challenged official teaching and got away with it; this one appears to have. Francis has been called ‘the political Pope’ because both his teaching documents and public comments are suffused with a left-wing globalist agenda. Now he has taken this politicization to a new level, by smudging the line between the Magisterium (the corpus of official doctrine) and his own off-the-cuff initiatives. It’s the dictator’s trick of giving his every passing fancy the force of law.
Ever since Francis started lobbing missiles at doctrinal conservatives, the latter have been asking ‘is the Pope Catholic?’ Now this tired wisecrack has become a serious question. Everything about Francis’s demeanor suggests that he thinks he and his closest allies are Catholics but most of the Church isn’t — and it’s his job, and that of his successors, to hack away at any bits of the Magisterium that challenge the humanitarian consensus. But there’s little point in probing him further on this subject because, unusually for a Jesuit, he barely follows theological debates and is happy to coast along on a mixture of half-remembered lectures and gossip.
To put it another way, he’s a short-term thinker, and never more so than this week. Right now, all that matters to the Successor of Peter and Vicar of Christ is that, come Tuesday, Donald Trump receives a good kicking.