The Throne Wobbles: The Political Assassination of Pope Francis

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Once more sexual scandal rocks the Roman Catholic Church. But underneath the surface a vicious civil war is being fought in a deeply divided church. Allegations of cover-up are the daggers. And Pope Francis faces a political assassination.

The Roman Catholic Church has fallen upon hard times of late.

Across the world, sexual scandals are exploding like ACME dynamite in a Looney Tunes skit. Each one rocks the church to the core.

Just in this year alone there have been scandals in Chile, Australia, Pennsylvania, Guam, and Honduras. There are dozens of victims – if not hundreds – going back over decades. Investigators have identified hundreds of perpetrators, which now include some of the highest ranked clergy in the world: bishops and cardinals. Some of these have been convicted in secular courts. A cardinal awaits sentencing in Australia.

And it is not only children who have suffered from clerical abuse, but also seminarians. These young men, some of them scarcely more than teenagers when they began their priestly training, have been abused by men who claimed to be their shepherds. They were harassed, groomed, and coerced into sexual relationships with clergy who were old enough to be their uncles. It has been revealed that rampant homosexuality is virtually the norm in some seminaries around the world.

In July of this year, Lifesite News reported the claims of seminarians in Honduras. They complained:

“We are living and experiencing a time of tension in our house because of gravely immoral situations, above all of an active homosexuality inside the seminary that has been a taboo all this time,” continued the young men’s letter, “and by covering up and penalizing this situation the problem has grown in strength, turning into, as one priest said not so long ago, an ‘epidemic in the seminary.”

An article published by the National Catholic Register, also in July, made the following claim:

In a letter written to the seminary’s formators that was subsequently circulated in June to the country’s Catholic bishops, the seminarians asserted “irrefutable evidence” exists that a homosexual network pervades the institution and is being protected by its rector.

The article goes onto allege that high-placed clergymen had sexual relationships with young seminarians. This is not only a breach of Roman Catholic doctrinal teaching on sexuality and a violation of the vows of celibacy that priests are meant to take in the sight of God, but surely a clear instance of more powerful individuals taking advantage of inexperienced and relatively less powerful young men:

Similar to the charges surrounding Cardinal McCarrick, who reportedly engaged in a long-standing practice of pressuring seminarians into sexual activity with him while he was serving as bishop in two New Jersey dioceses during the 1980s and 1990s, Auxiliary Bishop Jose Juan Pineda Fasquelle of Tegucigalpa has been accused of engaging in homosexual interactions with Tegucigulpa seminarians.

And, just as the revelations regarding Cardinal McCarrick have provoked troubling questions about what his brother U.S. bishops and the Vatican knew about his interactions with seminarians and about why nothing was disclosed publicly for so long, the Honduran allegations call into question the actions of Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa.

While Cardinal Maradiaga — a key confidante of Pope Francis who is coordinator of the “C9” group of cardinals advising him on reforming Church governance and the Roman Curia — is not himself the subject of allegations of sexual misconduct, he is now under fire for appearing to have disregarded a wealth of evidence of homosexual misconduct by Bishop Pineda, whose resignation as auxiliary bishop was accepted by Pope Francis July 20.

The Honduran seminarians’ letter reportedly was not met with praise for having come forward in June; Cardinal Maradiaga instead accused the seminarians of being “gossipers” who wish to portray their fellow seminarians in a bad light, according to sources in Honduras.

The same article reports allegations that more than half of the seminarians in the diocese are homosexuals – something that could never be known if these men were celibate.

These are not victimless sins. This is evil that damages people’s lives forever. Sexual abuse and harassment inflicts terrible wounds on people’s souls and mangles their capacity for trust and faith. Nothing could be more aptly described as the work of Satan than the sexual abuse of children and the sexual coercion of young people since it fundamentally destroys and impairs their human flourishing.

It is not only the horror of the sexual perversion itself that is nauseating. It is also the rank hypocrisy.

The perpetrators and their abettors are the same men who claim for themselves some kind of apostolic authority, and therefore some kind of moral privilege. They even dare to take unto themselves the title alter Christus – that is, “another Christ”. Could there be anything that better qualifies as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? When a man preys upon the vulnerable like Satan, and at the same time to pretends to be “another Christ”, he has reached a degree of hypocrisy never approached even by the Pharisees.

St. Jude tells us that such men are: “…wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever.” These words surely affix themselves to these grotesque moral and religious mutants. The text also comforts the Christian with the reminder that judgement will most assuredly occur.

THE ASSASSIN’S BLADE

The conclusion is inescapable. Dark cesspits have formed within the Catholic organisation. They steam and bubble and release the fetid odours of sin which until now have remained out of the public eye due to an active effort of concealment.

But a great exposure is taking place. This is not just driven by the findings of courts. It is also being driven by high-ranking clerics effectively spilling their guts to the media. They have sought to “out” each other. They have targeted each other with accusations. They have stamped question marks over each other’s reputation.

It is a vicious political bloodletting that in a previous age would have resulted in piles of bodies, unceremoniously tossed into graves, jewelled daggers firmly inserted into backs.

It is now transparently clear that the Catholic hierarchy is at war with itself. Cardinals are taking potshots at each other. Bishops and priests are weighing in. Both traditionalists and liberals within the church have tried to cast the blame for cover-up and deception upon the other camp. Herein we see the principle that you should never let a good crisis go to waste. Both sides are using it to damn the other.

Some clergy are jockeying for position. They sense that fresh vacancies will soon be open in the upper ranks when senior clerics are purged. Others have battened down the hatches in the hope that the storm will pass and their careers will be unaffected. Still others are spinning their wheels so fast to rewrite history that they have nearly started a small tornado.

Much of the heat has arisen due a former Apostolic Nuncio by the name of Carlo Maria Viganò.  A few weeks ago, Viganò released a lengthy testimony that named prominent and powerful clergy who, Viganò claims, knew of the deplorable behaviour of Cardinal McCarrick but did nothing to stop him.

Most damning of all Viganò has claimed that Pope Francis was told about McCarrick as far back as 2013, and singularly failed to take action. The letter seethes with a spirit of moral retribution. If you want people to resign for their failures, Viganò says, then begin with yourself! Viganò seems to suggest that if Pope Francis wants heads from among the top then he will most certainly get heads: and one of the first to roll will be his own.

It is the first time in living memory that any highly-placed member of the hierarchy has publicly denounced the head of the pyramid: the pope himself. The Roman Catholic Church operates under a strict code of secrecy and silence, which Father Raymond de Souza outlined in the Catholic Herald just a few days ago:

Whatever the truth or falsity of the claims made by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò in his “testimony” calling for the resignation of Pope Francis, it is indisputable that he spectacularly violated the pontifical secret he swore an oath to keep.

That is an earthquake for the Vatican diplomatic corps and the Roman Curia. The “pontifical secret” which binds them is not the confessional seal, nor is it as grave as the conclave seal for the cardinal electors, but it is most serious. After Viganò it will never be the same.

Archbishop Viganò justified the revelation of details he learned on the job on the grounds that his conscience did not permit him to keep corruption hidden. He brazenly invoked the mafia term omertà to speak about the code of silence he was breaking.

Curial officials and Vatican diplomats take their oaths very seriously. I have known dozens of them, many as close friends, and the norm is that they quite punctiliously refuse to discuss even routine matters that cross their desks.

For example, 10 days before the papal trip to Ireland, I asked an old friend, a current official in one of the Vatican congregations responsible for bishops, whether in fact there were any tribunals set up to judge bishops foreseen in the motu proprio of Pope Francis, Come una madre amorevole. He would not answer. I had not asked for any particulars, just whether it was even happening. (Pope Francis confirmed that such a case was underway on his return flight from Dublin.)

And the Vatican takes the oath seriously too. The VatiLeaks affair of a few years ago involved stolen and leaked documents by one who violated his oath, the butler of Benedict XVI. He was prosecuted, convicted and sentenced (though eventually pardoned).

Supporters of Pope Francis argue that the accusations have arisen primarily from the traditionalist camp of the church because so many traditionalists loathe the pope. Viganò is sometimes described as a traditionalist.

Indeed, supporters of Pope Francis turned their guns on Viganò very quickly. There are now allegations that he also is tainted. The New York Times reported that Viganò has been accused of hindering a sexual misconduct investigation in Minnesota. If this is true, it marks Viganò out as another hypocrite trying to stiff the pope.

The progressives in the Roman Catholic Church see the traditionalists as people who want to turn the clock back to the medieval period; to go back to Latin, arcane rituals, and a loveless moral legalism. They claim the “trads” feel threatened by Pope Francis because his vision of a humbler, more humane church is a threat to their power and their vision.

A lot of traditionalists made their careers, after all, by being public warriors of a hard Catholic morality. They mouthed the conservative lines of the previous popes with an eye to getting a bishop’s mitre or a cardinal’s hat. With Pope Francis, all that work seems to count for nothing! That’s why they are so happy to torpedo a reigning pope, the progressives say. It is an act of revenge. It is spite.

There is probably quite a bit of truth in this.

On the other hand, the opponents of Pope Francis claim that something shady has been going on. They say that Pope Francis has done little to combat the abuses in the church and his public speeches of contrition and prayers are not enough to deal with the problem. The traditionalists accuse Pope Francis of being a scarcely-Catholic ultra-liberal left-winger, influenced by liberation theology. They claim his theology is scrambled and unclear. They also view him as an ecclesiastical tyrant. The pope is political animal, they claim, who fights with the viciousness of South American cutthroat politics. He stacks the Vatican with his own “yes men” and engages in petty retribution.

Pope Francis is possibly all of these things. It is hard to know for sure, given the crackling hostility within the Vatican. This “Holy City” is a hothouse, steamy and humid with petty grudges and politicking. It is a jungle where senior clerics hate each other venomously.

Father John Zuhlsdorf alluded to this very atmosphere on his blog earlier this week:

When I working in a Curial office I was at first rather taken aback by the style of letters I had to write, with flowery – to American ears – phrases and formulae. Why not just get to the point? What’s with acknowledging receipt of “Your Excellency’s is most esteemed letter under date of…”?

I eventually figured it out. The elaborate courtesy and formulae allowed people to sincerely disliked each other and vehemently disagreed to continue to communicate and get things done.

Francis is certainly in a difficult position because he heads a church that is rapidly becoming ungovernable.

The Council of Trent worked hard to give the See of St. Peter the illusion of a divine mandate and thus the guarantor of unity. But the 16th century polish – although very hard-wearing and long-lasting – can be softened and removed by modernism. Thus the shine is off. The papacy is fast regressing to the murderous intrigues of pre-Reformation skulduggery. The papal office itself is now contested territory.

Up until now, the crackle of gunfire has been muted. The war has been fought behind curtains. Shots in the dark. Whispers and rumours. Political signals and coded snubs.

But now the conflict is in the daylight. There has been a drive-by shooting at high noon. The gunman that pumped the trigger is Viganò.

And his ambush has worked, at least so far. Pope Francis is politically and morally crippled. Discussion about his fitness is omnipresent from the Catholic in the pew, to the secular media, to the clergy themselves. Benedict XVI proved it was possible to resign the job, and he quit due to age. Why couldn’t Francis step down too?

The question now on everyone’s lips, which Pope Francis has so far publicly refused to answer, is: “What did the Pope know and when did he know it?

According to the Spectator, the evidence is mounting that Pope Francis knew about McCarrick. Yet Pope Francis has given no denials. Instead he flatly refused to address the Viganò testimony, telling journalists that they should judge the credibility of the accusations for themselves. He has also preached a homily recently in which he spoke of silence sometimes being the only acceptable response to false accusations.

The implication, with all the subtlety of a sack of hammers, is that the accusations are preposterous and beneath the pope’s dignity.

Now, it is quite possible that Pope Francis is a hapless casualty of the internecine conflict within the Roman Catholic Church. It is also quite possible that Pope Francis is as stained and tarnished as large numbers of senior clergy appear to be. We simply do not know.

All we know for certain is that Pope Francis has plenty of enemies. Many are his religious “brothers and sisters” – what a lovely lot! We know that there are large numbers of conservative Catholics who see Pope Francis as dangerous and heretical. Some have even prayed for his death, as one Polish priest was disciplined for doing recently.

We also know that Francis has plenty of friends who play hardball and show no mercy.

There’s a lot of water left to flow under this bridge.

We must take Solomon’s wisdom to heart and judge the case with balanced scales. This means we must let the situation run its course and sensibly, patiently, and intelligently wait for hard evidence to emerge before arriving at conclusions. For nobody deserves a trial by media, not even a pope, and nobody deserves to be condemned and hanged on the basis of Tweets, rumour, innuendo, and hearsay.

Easter Sermons: Banal, Saccharine, and Boring

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When St. Paul preached on this hill in Athens nearly 2,000 years ago, his “Easter sermon” turned the city upside down and became one of the most influential in the history of the world. Not much danger of that happening with the trite, cliched efforts of modern pastors, clerics, and theologians.

At Easter it has become customary to hear straining-to-be-meaningful sermons that aim either to emotionally energise a congregation, or otherwise attempt to apply the resurrection of Christ to contemporary political and social issues. Some preachers are unwitting comedians, as they offer hilarious examples of what happens when orthodoxy is derailed and an ersatz Christianity is transposed over the top. The result veers between contemptible and ridiculous.

This year did not disappoint. Dutifully, newspapers reported the sermons of a motley cast of popes, bishops, princes, pastors and priests whose pronouncements from pulpits around the world, when taken together, constitute a powerful emetic.

A small sample is sufficient to give a flavour of Easter in 2018:

Pope Francis used his Easter sermon to talk about refugees, immigrants and Syrians. Last year, he used his Easter Sunday sermon to talk about tragedy, misery, and disaster in the world with very little mention of the themes that the Apostolic writers were wont to associate with Christ’s death, burial and resurrection: themes like sin, repentance, forgiveness, and spiritual regeneration.

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Pope Francis offers to the crowd the glad tidings of Easter, with sermons featuring strong messages about geopolitics, including immigrants, Syrians and refugees.

To be fair to Prince Charles, he is not a preacher by vocation but if he is ever crowned king, he will receive the appellation “Defender of the Faith” and will become the head of the Church of England, which implies the need for a minimal theological awareness.

It is with great relief to all that Prince Charles demonstrated that he would not be out of place among the muddle-headed prelates of the Church of England as he delivered a patented woolly message on Good Friday reminding everyone about the great similarities between Islam and Christianity. So great are these similarities, that it is a matter of extreme befuddlement to the Prince as to why there is no peace between them.

The Prince reminded everyone that Mary is a shared figure in both Islam and Christianity, and having thus established this striking, cosy closeness between the faiths, appealed for everyone in the middle east to lay down their shoulder-held missile launchers, and to live at peace as friends. The Prince’s message is bound to make a big difference to the geopolitical situation, with many thousands of people heeding his words. For what militant in Syria does not hang, bat-like, from every word that proceeds from the His Highness’s mouth? Just like bishops of the Church of England, the Prince has acquired the habit of public hand-wringing, virtue-signalling, vacuous lamentation, and “calls” to masses of humanity to immediately cease their evil ways because their evil ways are simply not very nice.

This year, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby gave his sermon in the presence of an art installation made from hundreds of dangling articles of refugees’ clothing, transforming Canterbury Cathedral into something resembling a Mad Hatter’s laundry room. The Archbishop did make a heroic effort to sound like an Anglican clergyman who actually believes things in the New Testament, although his Easter sermon was richly interspersed with references to bombs and terrorism in Egypt, giving the impression that any mention of the resurrection was a somewhat irritating excursion from his real topic of interest, that being geopolitics in the Near East.

In Australia, the Anglican Archbishop Kay Goldsworthy was reported to have given a sermon imploring Anglicans “not to run away from challenges”. Following this sermon of dazzling substance, she was so swept up in the awe of the resurrection that she immediately addressed the major sporting scandal running the rounds in Australia, involving high profile cricket cheats. The Archbishop was most concerned that the cricketers should forgive themselves, which she opined was going to be one of their foremost challenges – the forgiveness of God not even rating a mention.

Perhaps one of the most preposterous articles was written by Robyn Whitaker, a theologian whose interests include “gender, sexuality and ethics”. One online profile states that she has expertise in feminism and gender equality.  Whitaker’s article asked readers to focus on the race of Jesus of Nazareth and to think about his skin colour.

Other clerics and would-be religious leaders decided that it was best to boil the texts of the scripture dry, and get down to the residue of a few basic principles. “Hope” is always a popular one, or sometimes “renewal“. Vague concepts like these are quite plastic. Even a borderline-competent public speaker can use a theme like that as a launching pad for a peppy talk to boost the morale of their listeners. The resultant sermon typically sounds like it could have been lifted from a life coaching manual.

Finally, there are those sermons that bear titles which imply that the meaning of Easter is opaque and dark. It is no longer clear in a world of modernity, colour and excitement. Titles like “Why Easter still matters” or “What should the resurrection mean to you?” arrogantly suggests that the resurrection of Christ is an impenetrable historical story, remote and alien to the listener.

This is just a small sample, mind you, of Easter sermons. The banality is endless, and it comes as a considerable relief to turn from these “clouds without water”, as St. Jude would describe them, to the fountains of living water from the scriptures. For in contrast to modern clerics, the New Testament begins from a very basic supposition.

The New Testament takes for granted that this supposition is clear to anyone.

It is quite simply this: something of tremendous consequence was accomplished when Jesus died on a crucifix outside of Jerusalem. This has shifted the invisible order of things, and this alteration of the spiritual reality in which humankind lives reached its apogee three days later when Christ rose from the dead, the true King of all the Earth.

Not one of the apostolic witnesses asks the question, “Why does the resurrection matter?“. Not one of them attempts to make the resurrection applicable to their hearer’s context. Not one tries to blend the resurrection story into a morality fable about slavery or the machinations of the Roman senate and their greedy imperial taxation schemes. Not one tries to boil it down to a string of saccharine, safe buzzwords – “it’s all about love, folks!”.

No, the inverse. The apostolic assumption is the resurrection, if truly believed by the reader, is significant in a way that will be obvious to anyone. It is quite clearly a testimony that requires no interpreter because the very fact that a man has risen from the dead is sufficient of itself to establish his primacy in the constellation of ideas and opinions. It justifies his claims; it underscores their merit; it overturns all competition; it empowers his gospel. A person who reads of the resurrection, who believes it, and who earnestly, deeply seeks for Christ in the silence and stillness, will find him.

The best kind of sermon in our times, therefore, is one that follows the apostolic example. It is the sort of sermon that invites people to believe and seek for Jesus himself. Not to seek for “hope” that Aunt Sally will get better, not to seek for “renewal” of our finances in 2018, neither to seek to mine the text for forgettable sentiments to spray upon contemporary political issues. But, rather to be made aware of the heaviness of our peril. Of our imminent approach to judgement and ruin. To be broken and contrite in our reflections upon ourselves.

And thus to seek for Jesus himself: the Lord of Life who welcomes properly penitent souls. The One who can transform a person’s inward life and give him a deep sense of the beauty of holiness; the ugliness of sin; a thirst for godliness; a hunger for God; and the unspeakable joy of tangible, deep communion with our Creator, Friend, and Redeemer.

How different Easter would be if clerics took their cues from St. Paul and preached the resurrection as the Apostle did. No mealy-mouthed sugary sweetness here. Rather St. Paul preaches the resurrection as a divine command to the human race; an urgent and non-negotiable summons to repent and believe. And he does so with the unstudied impetuosity of a man who knows of that which he speaks, is unswerving confident, and knows that he is conveying the authorised message of God to the world:

For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you…

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.