This fracture within U.S. Catholicism, but also a fracture in the global church. Latin American & European bishops’ conferences have publicly supported Francis while there has been a shocking silence on the part of most U.S. cardinals and bishops. Evangelii gaudium, and its pathway towards liberating Catholicism from any number of historical developments that are now outdated and anachronistic, has alarmed traditionalists.

In La Croix, 15 Sept

For nearly five years he never made it one of his major priorities, despite the fact that many of his admirers and unofficial spokespersons tried to claim the opposite.

But now Pope Francis, who was slow to even pronounce the phrase “clergy sex abuse of minors,” has been forced to face head-on this worldwide phenomenon and its institutional cover-up.

It is arguably the worst crisis to hit the Catholic Church since the Protestant Reformation some 500 years ago. And everyone seems to know it.

Some people are quietly (and not so quietly) delighting in the hope that, by being pressured to devote all his energies towards resolving it, the 81-year-old pope will now have to abandon his broader and more ambitious program of radically reforming the Church and its institutions.

In fact, these people — part of a strange alliance made up of various Catholic traditionalist groups and political conservatives — see the sexual abuse crisis as the silver bullet that will help them achieve the one goal they’ve been working at the past several years — to discredit and neutralize Pope Francis.

Up until just eight or ten months ago, the pope, who will be 82 in December, had focused with a single-minded persistence on laying down the foundations for a bold Church reform. His blueprint came in the early months of the pontificate with the publication of Evangelii gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).

The document, an apostolic exhortation, was released in September 2013. It proposes a renewed vision of the Church, which is more radically wedded to the message of the Gospel and less obsessed with (mostly) human-made rules, customs and sectarian customs sometimes meant to clearly distinguish Catholics as superior to all other Christians.

Evangelii gaudium, and its pathway towards liberating Catholicism from any number of historical developments that are now outdated and anachronistic, has alarmed the traditionalists.

They are horrified by the document’s call to demythologize the papacy, decentralize decision-making and welcome people who live in “irregular” marriage-like relationships or fall short of the “moral” (read: sexual) norms established by the Vatican. 

The real issues behind opposition to the pope

Francis’ adversaries (and this is exactly what they are) ridicule the pope for professing that he does not have all the answers and should not be expected to single-handedly resolve all the problems and thorny issues facing the Church.

They call him naive for opposing unbridled capitalism and insisting on a more equitable distribution of the world’s material wealth and resources.

And they accuse him of caving-in to politically correctness and abdicating his duty of preaching Jesus Christ because he has made care for God’s creation (and the fight against human-induced climate change) one of his major priorities.

More seriously, they mock the pope for his focus on God’s mercy. And now their sudden and disingenuous crusade to combat clergy sexual abuse and its institutional cover-up has become a sort of nuclear weapon to attack him for not getting tough on bishops who failed to deal properly with erring priests.

They were piping a very different tune when the perpetrators and their protectors were the traditionalist priests and bishops that shared their churchy ideologies, such as disgraced Legion of Christ founder Marcel Macial and a good many others.

Please spare us the feigned disgust and moralizing outrage! Those currently trying to bring down Pope Francis make no serious or righteous plea for justice.

Rather, theirs is a bloodthirsty cry for vengeance. And the first head they want on their sanctimonious platter is the pope’s.

Most of the ringleaders of this effort to get the pope, and by any means possible, are also some the most holier-than-thou supporters of the “pro life” movement.

They claim to be in favor of life, yet do not see their contradiction in attacking Francis for formally pronouncing that capital punishment, which is also killing a human life, is morally unacceptable in all circumstances.

But the rest of us can see what underlies their position. It is the vengeful demand that people must pay for their mistakes.

A concerted effort to turn people against Francis

Will they be able to take advantage of this crisis moment in the Church and derail Pope Francis’ pontificate?

It is a serious question and it depends on how much they are able to successfully convince people that the pope is part of the problem and cannot be trusted.

Their aim is to persuade Catholics that only a new and clean pair of hands at the helm of the Vatican, that consolidates even more power at the center, is the only hope in resolving the crisis.

But, in fact, it is just the opposite. The current pope believes that local problems demand local solutions. And this is true even for the clergy sex abuse crisis.

For even as we slowly and begrudgingly have come to the realization that this is a global phenomenon, we need to see that it has components and contexts that vary from one region to another.

The right and best solution will necessarily demand regional responses that, in some cases, will sometimes be different.

For example, in traditionally Catholic countries such as Italy where the hierarchy still wields great influence and institutional and even political power, the response will necessarily be different from countries where the Catholic Church is a persecuted minority.

In the former, civic leaders and secular entities have been complicit in (and continue to perpetuate) the cover-up of abuse.

In the latter, clergy abuse has been used as a further weapon to attack the Church.

It is hard to see how a one-size-fits-all policy dictated by the Vatican could be effective in every place throughout the world. In fact, that has been the approach up until now. And it has failed.

But in order to reverse that, it will be imperative to further decentralize and restore the rightful authority that, over the centuries, the Vatican and the papacy have gradually stripped from local Churches, patriarchates and synods (more recently in the form of episcopal conferences). 

The time is right for de-centralization of Church authority

Pope Francis has called all the presidents of the world’s national bishops’ conferences to Rome next February for a three-day meeting to discuss “the protection of minors.” That’s a very broad and vague topic.

But the fact that he’s having such a gathering is an indication that he understands that the sex abuse crisis is a worldwide problem (even if it has yet to be played out in public in many places).

It is also an indication that he believes the entire hierarchy, and not just he and a few people in Rome, must decide together on the steps that need be taken to get to the root of the problem and its prevention.

Will Francis use the February meeting to obtain a clear mandate for his desire to grant more juridical (and doctrinal) authority to the local churches and their episcopal conferences? That seems like a real possibility.

But the pope is absolutely convinced that the deeper issues at the heart of abuse perpetrated by the Catholic clergy — whether that be an abuse of authority, conscience or sex — are clericalism and elitism in the Church.

How to effectively eradicate them will be much, much more difficult than punishing abusers and their protectors. It will require, as Francis has often said about all reform/renewal in the Church, a change of mentality.

And that is a very painful thing that not only the pope, the bishops and priests will have to suffer through. It will be a purifying path for the entire People of God.

Follow me on Twitter  @robinrome

The right-wing effort to delegitimize Pope Francis

Massimo Faggioli

The publication of the “testimony” of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former Vatican nuncio to the United States, is an unprecedented moment in modern church history—and not just because of his demand that Pope Francis resign.

The eleven-page document, crafted and published by Viganò with the help of sympathetic Catholic journalists while the pope was in Ireland, is motivated by a personal vendetta and enabled by a serious crisis within U.S. Catholicism.

Those familiar with Viganò’s career at the Vatican and in Washington, D.C., were not surprised to see his accusations fall apart upon inspection. His earlier smear campaign against other members of the Curia, which came to light because of “Vatileaks,” had similarly collapsed.

It is worth noting that the first real pushback from the Vatican came on September 2, when officials challenged Viganò’s account of how he had arranged the private meeting between the pope and Kim Davis in 2015.

Viganò misled Pope Francis about that stunt, and ignored the advice of Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Archbishop Joseph Edward Kurtz, who had both warned him against it.

There is still much we don’t know about how Rome handled information about Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, but at least three things are already clear enough.

First, this was not just an ordinary case of some disgruntled cleric complaining about his former boss; this was a retired papal diplomat trying to bring down the pope.

Operation Viganò has failed in its purpose, and one hopes that its failure will give Francis the strength he needs to deal with the American abuse crisis the way he finally dealt with the crisis in Chile.



Second, the attempt to turn the anger of American Catholics, anger at the revelations involving former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, toward Pope Francis personally has not only failed but backfired.

It has led, not very surprisingly, to a reconsideration of the role the two previous popes played in keeping McCarrick’s misconduct a secret. Francis is the first pope who not only  took public action against McCarrick, but has also “accepted” the resignation of a number of bishops guilty of covering up for sexually abusive priests.


It took less than a week—between August 26 and September 1—for journalists to begin filling in the real picture behind Viganò’s “testimony”: if a sexual abuser was allowed to become cardinal archbishop of Washington, D.C., it was because of what the whole ecclesiastical system under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI did and failed to do.

Third, it’s been clear from the start of this episode that it will take a long time to get to the bottom of what really happened. It is naïve to imagine that there is just one McCarrick dossier locked up in some filing cabinet in the Vatican, or even that everything is on a piece of paper somewhere.

The “bishops’ factory” has always been, at least in the second millennium, a mix of bureaucracy, social mobility, and informal networks. The Vatican has never been a totally bureaucratic system, and not everything is written down.

Where are we now?

This summer has inaugurated a new chapter in the history of the abuse scandal. The ecclesial context of this chapter is very different from the situation between 2002 and the pontificate of Benedict XVI.

The sex-abuse crisis is now reacting explosively with another crisis: the growing rifts within the Catholic Church in the United States. There is, first, the not entirely new rift between different kinds of Catholic culture.

Then there is the rift between the current pope and many American bishops, which is more recent.

Finally, last week, in his article for the National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters had the courage to use the s-word: schism. A growing number of conservative Catholics no longer accept the pope’s legitimacy.  What happened in the past few weeks exacerbated tensions that have been building for years. In truth, the people behind this attempt to force Francis to resign are a small minority of Catholics in the United States; they do not reflect Francis’s relationship with the whole U.S. church, much less the Catholic Church globally.  It is unlikely, therefore, that the current crisis will lead to an open schism with two popes, two Curias, two colleges of cardinals, and two “obediences.”



But the situation is complicated by the fact that there is still a pope emeritus in the Vatican. Benedict XVI has become a symbol of resistance for traditionalist Catholics who oppose Francis’s reformist papacy and see Benedict’s theology as more aligned with their own.

Signaling a different obedience

It is too soon to say whether Viganò’s “testimony,” which unintentionally underscored serious problems with the way Benedict’s Curia dealt with charges of abuse, will end up forcing them to reconsider their uncritical allegiance to the pope emeritus.

What is clear is that some have certainly tried in these past five-and-a-half years to use Benedict against Francis and to signal a different obedience, in an act of defiance against the bishop of Rome that would not have been tolerated in an earlier age.

In any case, Winters is right that there are schismatic tendencies within the U.S. Catholic Church that you don’t see elsewhere—not even in China, where the problem is the existence of two episcopal hierarchies, not two different kinds of Catholicism.

Today communion is in danger here in the United States. Five centuries ago, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, one of the most important theologians for Catholic ecclesiology, defined three bonds (vinculi) of communion with the Church: common profession of faith, communion in the sacraments, and bond to ecclesiastical authority, especially of the pope. (This definition was incorporated in paragraph 14 of Vatican II’s Lumen gentium.)

Sacramental communion has been weakened by the liturgical split that followed Benedict XVI’s decision to reintroduce the pre-Vatican II Mass as an “extraordinary form” of the Roman rite.

But what is really in danger is the bond between the church as a people and ecclesiastical authority—not just particular church officials, but the very idea of ecclesiastical authority.

The current crisis is really a combination of three different kinds of crisis: theological, political, and geopolitical.

The theological crisis. The attempt by traditionalists in this country to delegitimize Francis recalls the modernist controversy under Pius X in the early twentieth century, but with the roles reversed: a minority of traditionalist activists are now trying to silence a modernizing pope.

But it recalls even more the “integrist” breakaway of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, whose excommunication latae sententiae (automatic) followed his illicit ordination of four bishops for the Society of St. Pius X. What happened in the aftermath of this split within French-speaking Catholic culture between Vatican II and 1988 may be happening now in the United States, only on a larger scale.

The traditionalist quarters of U.S. Catholicism reject the development of church teaching during and after Vatican II. Their rejection is in some ways even more radical than that of Lefebvre, whose objections to Vatican II were, at least to begin with, more narrowly focused.

Many traditionalists now reject the council root and branch—not just its “spirit” but also the documents issued by the council.

There has been a theological polarization in the U.S. Church, each side moving in the opposite direction, so that there are now very few Catholic figures left who can build bridges between the left and the right.

Certainly this generation of U.S. bishops is no longer up to the job. The lower clergy and lay men and women in positions of leadership—from parents to school teachers to liturgical ministers—will be tested very intensely over the next few months.

Can they still talk with the other kind of Catholic, and teach others to do the same?

The political crisis. The rift within U.S. Catholicism, and between traditionalist Catholics and Francis, cannot be understood apart from the political polarization of America.

New enthusiasm for an older version of Catholicism

The first phase of the problem was the growing identification of the U.S. bishops with the Republican Party, largely because of a few social issues. As the Republican Party has been radicalized in the past decade, so have more than a few bishops.

During the same period, some prominent conservative intellectuals have embraced Catholicism for reasons that seem purely political. This is not a new phenomenon.

It has much in common with Charles Maurras’ Action Française, a nationalist movement condemned by Pius XI in 1926. Maurras had no time for the Gospel but saw Catholicism as a useful tool for the creation of an antidemocratic social order.

The new enthusiasm for an older version of Catholicism on the part of conservative intellectuals with no interest in theology also mirrors the rise of Ultramontanism in the first half of the nineteenth century.

The Jesuit John O’Malley’s latest book on the theological movements that set the stage for Vatican I helps us see the many similarities between nineteenth-century Ultramontanism and early-twenty-first-century traditionalist Catholic Americanism.

In both movements, the game is played mostly by journalists and other lay intellectuals whose understanding of the church is essentially political rather than spiritual. They celebrate the church as an institution that can withstand modernity, and especially the modern state.

They have little or no interest in ecclesiology or sacramental theology—or anything else that cannot be easily weaponized against their political enemies.

The geopolitical crisis. The Catholic media outlets that have been an integral part of the Viganò operation want to recapture Rome but have little knowledge of Rome or, for that matter, the global church.

For them, the whole Catholic Church is the American Catholic Church writ large. Philadelphia is not the new Avignon, but the United States resembles what France was for Catholicism in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The Great Western Schism resulted in part from a contest for leadership of Christian Europe between the papacy and the French monarchy. There is now a tacit contest for moral leadership between the world’s last superpower and the Vatican.

This is a fracture within U.S. Catholicism, but also a fracture in the global church. It is worth noting that Latin American and European bishops’ conferences have publicly supported Francis since Viganò’s letter appeared, while there has been a shocking silence on the part of most U.S. cardinals and bishops.

Some conservative U.S. bishops have vouched for Viganò’s integrity, and a few Francis appointees mentioned in the letter have come to the pope’s defense, but most U.S. bishops have kept their own counsel.

Their failure to support Francis can be read as a sign of their desire to have answers from Rome about McCarrick, but it can also be understood as their attempt to recover their credibility by signaling their distance from a pope that the powerful Catholic right never really accepted.

It isn’t clear how the relationship between these U.S. bishops and the pope will be repaired. The bishops’ synod on young people beginning next month in Rome is technically an “ordinary synod,” but, because of its timing, it is likely to be an extraordinary moment in the life of this fractured church.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is Catholicism and Citizenship: Political Cultures of the Church in the Twenty-First Century (Liturgical Press, 2017). He is a contributing writer for Commonweal. Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s