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As Papal Criticism Mounts, Vatican Insiders Fire Back

A thrown knife plunges menacingly into the wall. A handgun slides in from off-screen to fire a warning shot. Words of caution appear on the screen: “The only thing I can tell you is to watch your step.” When I was a young boy playing Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, silly warnings like these told me I was hot on the trail of the villain. And now, thirty years later, these same images come immediately to mind after reading Andrea Tornielli and Giacomo Galeazzi’s flailing, indignant riposte to papal critics in the October 16 edition of Vatican InsiderTheir tacky, “hit list”-style screed comes off as little more than comical bravado from the hired thugs of some noirish, two-bit criminal organization who have found someone they don’t want sniffing around their turf.

This duo of vaticanistas — Tornielli the more notable of the two, particularly since he and Pope Francis have now published two book-length interviews together — don’t waste any time bothering to select a target. The first sentence is a shot from the hip, an indiscriminate accusation against anyone who dares speak a questioning word about the current pontificate:

The glue that holds them together is their aversion towards Francis.

From the word go, we are treated to an ad hominem argument — not business, but personal. But who is the “them” in that sentence? Unlike other recent examples of more diplomatically vague smackdowns of papal critics, Tornielli and Galeazzi name names. A whole litany of them. Among them we find such wide-ranging figures as Professor Roberto de Mattei, fellow top vaticanista Sandro Magister, noteworthy Italian journalist and author (of “Fourth Secret” fame) Antonio Socci, Italian traditionalist blogger Maria Guarini, and even an entire alleged conspiracy “between Hong Kong circles, sectors within the US and Europe’s right-wing” who have raised vocal objections to the Vatican’s dangerous Ostpolitik with China. The 45 theologians who wrote up a list of censures against Amoris Laetitia get an honorable mention.

Later, ecclesiastical figures like Cardinals Robert Sarah and Raymond Burke make walk-on cameos as opposition forces, as does Bishop Athanasius Schneider. Lest the presence of episcopal spine unsettle anyone expecting a Bergoglian fait accompli, the authors are quick to cite Italian sociologist (and — I’m not making this up — international vampire expert) Massimo Introvigne, who reassures:

“There are more than 5000 Catholic bishops in the world, only about ten of them are active in their opposition, many of whom are retired, which shows that it is not substantial.”

Introvigne claims that this opposition “is present both on the web and in real life and is overestimated: there are dissidents who write comments on social networks using four or five different pseudonyms, to give the impression there are many of them”.

For such an easily-dismissed threat, there are a staggering number of fingers pointing in every direction. Lefebverites and sedevacantists lumped into the same category with breathless angst, along with those who believe that either Pope Benedict’s resignation was invalid or Pope Francis’ election was. The authors spare some token harsh words for a couple of “disappointed ultra-progressives”, but the main thrust is, unsurprisingly, aimed at conservative and traditionalist figures in the Catholic world.

Perhaps the most outlandish thing of all is the title of the authors’ pearl-clutching outburst: “Catholics who are anti-Francis but love Putin.” There is, of course, not even the slightest effort made at substantiating such a charge in nearly 2,000 words of mudslinging, save this throwaway conjecture buried at the very end of the piece:

Introvigne pointed out a surprising trait that many of these circles share: “It is the mythical idealization of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is presented as a “good” leader in contrast to the “bad” leader, the Pope, because of his stance on homosexual people, Muslims and immigrants. Russian foundations that have strong ties with Putin co-operate with the anti-Francis opposition.

This, from the same analyst who stated dismissively that this anti-Francis movement “is not successful because it is not united.”

Well, which is it? Are we all ecstatic Putinistas held together by hate glue, or aren’t we? (The more one ponders this accusation, the funnier it gets.)

One target of the smear campaign has already responded. Fr. Bernardo Cervellera, editor-in-chief of AsiaNet, an official press agency of the Roman Catholic Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, objects to being included in the roundup of suspects:

Not a day goes by without AsiaNews publishing reports of the Pope’s homilies, speeches, audiences, summaries of encyclicals. We are among the fastest agencies to offer what the Pope teaches on-line with translations into Italian, Chinese, Spanish and English. Many Chinese, Indians, Latin Americans are grateful for the speed with which they can access the Pope’s words, particularly since the official sites are too slow. We chose to offer this service, which occupies us every day, even on Sundays, to help the Churches in Asia to receive the words of the Pope as soon as possible. We did this with Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI and now with Pope Francis.


Given this experience, we are very sorry – for their lie, rather than for ourselves – that two Vatican experts have cited AsiaNews among “those Catholics who are against Francis and worship Putin.” Because both statements, regarding the Pope and Putin, are false. I’m not here to list proof of this: all anyone has to do is actually read the articles we write. For us it is a point of honor – and professionalism – never to comment on what we like most about the powers that be, but all aspects, be they complex or contradictory, of a given event. This, for us, means being of service to the truth.

In another analysis by Italian Catholic scholar Francesco Colafemmina (as cited by Robert Moynihan in his most recent letter), a certain ancient parallel is observed:

It gives the first and last names of all of them, in a sort of mediatic ‘proscription list’ worthy of Sulla [Note: In 82 BC, when the Roman leader Lucius Cornelius Sulla was appointed dictator rei publicae constituendae(‘Dictator for the Reconstitution of the Republic’), he proceeded to have the Senate draw up a list of those he considered enemies of the state and published the list in the Roman Forum. Any man whose name appeared on the list was ipso facto stripped of his citizenship and excluded from all protection under law; reward money was given to any informer who gave information leading to the death of a proscribed man, and any person who killed a proscribed man was entitled to keep part of his estate (the remainder went to the state)… Many victims of proscription were decapitated and their heads were displayed on spears in the Forum.

It indeed appears as though critics of the Bergoglian regime are hitting closer to the mark than can be tolerated. When one’s grip on power is sufficiently firm, acknowledging the arguments of one’s enemies is ordinarily a tactical error. One friend of mine noted this morning that “all tyrannies are filled with paranoids”. Hilary White, who has lived in Italy for some time now — including several years as a Rome correspondent for LifeSiteNews — offered me her own take on the rationale behind lashing out:

The question fundamentally misunderstands the motivations of the arch-narcissists. They don’t think about the long term; they react with narcissistic rage any time they’re crossed. It’s an intimidation tactic. It’s also very typical Vatican who start every day with the assumption that they can do and say anything they want because of their position. This arrogance is the one main governing principle for dealing with them. They can do no wrong because they are the Vatican, and anyone gainsaying them simply has to be crushed. Optics. Really. Isn’t. A. Thing. with these people. They absolutely, utterly and completely DON’T CARE what it looks like from the outside. There is no outside. Nothing outside matters…and most especially “anglo-saxons” don’t matter. The contempt they hold all Anglos in is a thing to behold. Really shocking when you meet it.

Still, I wonder if their power and influence is more precarious than it superficially appears. They have total control of the Vatican and are stacking the ranks of the curia, yet I’ve received reports from Rome on more than one occasion indicating that the reigning cabal have been surprised, angry, and even somewhat fearful about the potency of their opposition. They expected the Synod to be a cakewalk. Instead, they had to settle for a Hegelian outcome and a revolution constrained to footnotes. They faced the opposition of 13 prominent cardinals, and the pope was reportedly none too happy about it. Yes, they’re still getting what they want, but they’re actually having to work for it.

But if Hilary is right, and this is simply an intimidation tactic, it’s a spectacularly ineffective one. I can’t imagine anyone mentioned backing down in the face of this too-precious tirade; as Fr. Cervellera has already proven (and no doubt others soon will), the reality is quite the contrary.

It is also important to view Tornielli in context; once known as a Ratzingerian, there is a sycophantic air in his new and close collaboration with the very different style and message of Pope Francis. A longtime Vatican observer I know confided, “I’m reasonably sure that Francis and his team don’t trust Tornielli, but are ready to use him.” And he does seem useful. He is considered by many to be one of three media figures of particular use to this papacy as unofficial mouthpieces — the other two being La Repubblica co-founder and L’espresso editor Eugenio Scalfari; and the fellow Jesuit and close friend of Francis, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, La Civiltà Cattolica‘s editor in chief. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to surmise that this naming of names is a not-so-subtle message sent from the Holy Father himself, or at the very least, his closest allies: “The only thing I can tell you is to watch your step.”

Catholic Culture‘s Phil Lawler makes note of the same:

Most disquieting of all, it seems likely that what Galeazzi and Tornielli wrote reflects what they have heard from their contacts in the Roman Curia. If that is the case, then some of the people surrounding Pope Francis believe that the Pontiff is the victim of a budding conspiracy. Having adopted the paranoid style, they see enemies wherever there is resistance to their agenda.

Colafemmina, too, recognizes this as an attempt at a consolidation of power:

In any case, there is no precedent for this use of journalism to marginalize, ghetto-ize, criminalize, these admittedly sometimes irritating minorities who do not conform to the unconditional assent regarding Bergoglio… It is unprecedented because this use of the press for geopolitical purposes, in order in the end to cancel all freedom of expression, through the ridiculing of dissent, shows what power such journalism is serving.

I believe that part of what we’re seeing here is a Vatican that is trying to look in control while quietly panicking over its inability to comprehend the sort of asymmetrical information warfare they are faced with. They cannot accurately gauge — let alone neutralize — the expansive influence of critics who operate almost entirely outside of established structures, instead building audiences predominately online and across a broad spectrum of social media platforms. To use an example with which I am personally familiar, what, other than fear of an out-of-control counter-narrative, could have caused the Vatican Press Office to issue a statement in the name of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (breaking his silence on current matters facing the Church) to address a decade-old story that merely found new life in the pages of this website? Similarly, not only did Cardinal Pell publicly acknowledge and respond to a Synod walkout petition co-authored by several online Catholic writers (myself included), but reports came to us through back channels that the very effort itself upset top officials in the Vatican. I know of these instances because of my involvement; how many other such stories are out there?

Whatever the motivation, the result, rather than being a substantive rebuttal or show of control, is instead a petulant and amateurish tabloid piece that seeks to discredit and demonize those who — for various reasons, and in various ways — refuse to simply knuckle under to one of the most novelty-obsessed and disruptive papacies in Church history. It is an unserious effort, and should be treated as such — much like so many of the actions of the pontificate it seeks to defend.

For Catholics from all orthodox perspectives who are troubled by the Francis papacy, it is in fact the love of Christ and His Church that is the glue that holds them together. Any aversion they may feel to the man who holds the office only exists in relation to how far he places himself — and the souls under his care — from that reality.

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