Papal reforms unite widely divergent army of opponents

Pope Francis

ROME- "Is the Pope a Catholic?" Normally it's a joke question, but in the frenzied climate surrounding Pope Francis' doctrinal reforms, some conservative Catholics are answering: "No. He's a heretic."

 Controversy over Jorge Mario Bergoglio's attempts to modernise church teaching on marriage, the eucharist and papal authority itself have created a strange alliance that stretches from anxious theologians and cardinals to some of the more eccentric faithful, who don't believe there has been a valid Pope in the Vatican since Pius XII more than half a century ago.

 Speaking at a conference in Kentucky in July, Cardinal Raymond Burke, the American conservative who has spearheaded opposition to Pope Francis' reforms, said Catholics needed to distinguish between the teaching of Francis the man and Francis the Pope.    

 "Observing the centennial of the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima, we must recall how her message or, as it is sometimes called, her secret, is principally meant to address a widespread apostasy in the Church and the failure of the Church’s shepherds to correct it," the cardinal said.     

 The messages delivered to three Portuguese peasant children by what they believed to be an apparition of the Virgin Mary predicted apocalyptic events, including the outbreak of World War II, and other developments in the life of the Church.       

 Cardinal Burke, who in 2014 was shunted aside from the presidency of the Vatican's most important tribunal to the largely ceremonial role of patron of the Order of Malta, said there were "many troubling manifestations of confusion, division and error in the Church."      

 In an apparent criticism of Pope Francis' leadership, the cardinal told a conference on Church teaching in Louisville: "In a diabolical way, the confusion and error which has led human culture in the way of death and destruction has also entered into the Church, so that she draws near to the culture without seeming to know her own identity and mission, without seeming to have the clarity and the courage to announce the Gospel."       

 It was therefore necessary for Catholics to distinguish between the Pope's off-the-cuff remarks and the authoritative magisterium of the church, he said. "It is simply wrong and harmful to the Church to receive every declaration of the Holy Father as an expression of papal teaching."      

 An analysis of Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), signed by 45 Catholic theologians last year found much that was objectionable.       

 The authors said the document did not provide sufficient evidence to suggest that Pope Francis had fallen personally into heresy, but they nevertheless identified 11 statements in the text as constituting heresy. "When it comes to the document itself, there is no doubt that it constitutes a grave danger to Catholic faith and morals," they concluded.       

 With so much discussion of heresy, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Pope's "mainstream" critics are increasingly in sympathy with the extremist fringes of the Church, the "sedevacantists" who hold that at least the last four pontiffs were impostors.      

 The website claims a fragment of the secrets of Fatima related to the risk that the true faith would not be preserved in Rome. The site quotes the late Cardinal Mario Luigi Ciappi as saying: "In the third secret it is foretold, among other things, that the great apostasy in the Church will begin at the top."       

 The website also publishes a text attributed to Sister Lucy of Fatima, one of the three child seers, which refers to a fake Holy Father with a "devilish gaze." To assist readers in their analysis, it publishes 12 photographic close-ups of the Pope's eyes; in this case those of Pope Benedict XVI, who was the reigning pontiff when the alleged Fatima document emerged.       

 Conservative Catholics have also criticised the Pope for his teachings on worldly political matters, from his open-door policies on immigration to his apparent soft spot for socialist dictators and initial reluctance to get involved in the pro-life battle over Charlie Gard, the British baby suffering from an incurable muscular wasting disease.       

 Newspapers have contrasted Pope Francis' criticisms of President Donald Trump, received by the Pope with a stony-faced scowl in the Vatican, and his more friendly demeanour towards Nicolas Maduro, the man who has overseen the precipitous political and economic decline of Venezuela.       

 The Wall Street Journal pointed out that Francis often decried North American capitalism as "an economy that kills", while it was hard to beat oil- and mineral-rich Venezuela as an example of fatally flawed economic policy, with its citizens "reduced to picking through garbage cans while their leaders ratchet up the repression. Not to mention Cuba's military-socialist colonialism."       

 Many supporters of the Venezuelan opposition see the Vatican's diplomatic interventions in their country as sympathetic to an oppressive regime and tending to undermine their efforts to achieve meaningful change. "At this dark hour, doesn't the struggling people of Venezuela deserve some public inspiration from the first Latin American Pope?" the Wall Street Journal wondered.       

 Marcello Pera, a former speaker of the Senate, co-author of a book with Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, and an atheist, has expressed alarm at the Pope's advocacy of an unlimited welcome for migrants from Africa and the Middle East. The policy constituted an existential threat to both Europe and the Catholic church, Mr Pera warned in a hard-hitting interview with Il Mattino newspaper.      

 The Pope was not interested in the theological aspects of Christianity, but in its social message, according to the Italian philosopher. "Bergoglio is not worried about saving souls but only in social security and well-being," he said. His were ideas "that lead to the suicide of the Catholic church."       

 Such a wide range of papal critics can sometimes make uncomfortable bedfellows for Riccardo Cascioli, a conservative Catholic journalist who organised a conference of secular theologians last April, calling on the Pope to clarify the more contentious elements of Amoris Laetitia.      

 "It's not correct to lump us all together. There is a risk of personalising things around the figure of the Pope and not dealing with the real issues," Mr Cascioli said.       

 Mr Cascioli, who is the editor of two Catholic publications, said he was worried that Pope Francis' changes were leading towards a Protestant-style church, with lax discipline and decentralised power that could mean that one type of practice could apply in Germany and something quite different in Poland. "The Catholic Church has never been like that," he said.         

 "Simple Catholics are disoriented because they see that what they were taught no longer applies. It's a dramatic moment, with at least two churches confronting one another across a worrying rift."       

 Mr Cascioli said the problem was not so much with Pope Francis himself as with the Vatican chain of command that was implementing radical policies that had emerged in universities and seminaries in the 1970s but had previously been kept in check by the hierarchy.      

 The crucial battle was not so much about marriage but over the real presence of Christ in the eucharist, he said. "If Christ is not present, then everything collapses. That's why the situation is so grave."       

 Heretical or not, Pope Francis certainly seems to have made a mistake in the choice of title for his teaching document on marriage and morals. Joy and love don't seem to fit the current climate.