Today, on 7 March, there appeared in the prominent secular Austrian newspaper Die Presse an article, entitled “Francis – Populism in a Catholic Way” (“Franziskus – Populismus auf katholisch”), which contains some strongly critical remarks about Pope Francis and his perceptibly continual leadership. (The Austrian Catholic website Kath.net has also reported on it.) Hans Winkler, the author of the article, is the former Vice-President of the Austrian Catholic Publisher’s Association (Verband katholischer Publizistinnen und Publizisten Österreichs), and he formerly worked as the foreign policy chief editor for the largest regional Austrian newspaper, Kleine Zeitung.
With a reference to the date of Pope Francis’ election on 13 March 2013, Winkler claims that, for four years now, the Catholic Church is thus being ruled “by a populist.” By way of contrast, he calls the U.S. President Donald Trump a “right-wing populist,” whereas he calls Francis a “radical populist” who is Catholic. The Austrian journalist defines the word “populist” as someone who often disregards “the legal standard, and the law itself, in the name of a form of justice as it is defined by himself.” Winkler adds that such a person “suggests a closeness to the people” and suggests that the people have been “betrayed by the ‘elites.’” Winkler explains:
In the case of the pope, the Church authorities and the theologians play the role of those who impose burdens upon the people, which burdens he now promises to remove from them. In an aggressive way, he regularly lectures the cardinals.
It is in this context that Hans Winkler addresses Pope Francis’ treatment of the four dubia cardinals. Winkler sees that Francis intentionally does not respond to the presented dubia concerning Amoris Laetitia:
The populist does not respond to criticism substantially; he rather responds on the personal level. A typical example for this is the rude reaction of the pope to the request (dubia) of four cardinals concerning Amoris Laetitia, the teaching document concerning marriage and the family – a request which was presented in accord with all the Church’s own rules and forms of courtesy. Francis is said to have been “angry” about it.
Winkler continues his description of the disrespect that Pope Francis has recurrently shown toward his own cardinals when he says:
Up until today he [Francis] does not consider these cardinals to be worthy of a response. This is not only impolite, there is in this also obviously a method. No other head of a world company would deal in such a manner with his management personnel. Instead, he lets loose some subordinate minor devils [“Unterteufel”] who are immediately available to implement some corresponding threats at their disposal, or who themselves may even accuse the petitioners of heresy, that is to say of apostasy from the teaching of the Faith.
Since Winkler’s words are trenchantly incisive and insistent, it is worthwhile to quote him once more at length, especially when he continues the presentation of his wider insights, saying:
In spite of all of his assurances of collegiality, the pope makes his decisions certainly in an authoritarian manner. At the Synod of Bishops [on the Family], he referred to his primacy of jurisdiction as it has been defined at the First Vatican Council. In questions of the economy and of the protection of the environment, the pope shows an ideological determination which he is quite intentionally lacking in his own [expected] field of expertise: the teaching on Faith and Morals.
The Austrian journalist continues by questioning some of Pope Francis’ own recurrent (and non-negotiable) ideas about economical matters, and he then concludes that “Francis has clear sympathies for the classical form of populism in Latin America, the Peronism of his homeland.” In this respect, the pope’s attention is especially given to the distribution of wealth to the poor. “Because they always talk about this, the left-wing Caudillos on the [Latin American] continent enjoy the quite open support of the pope,” explains Winkler, who then adds: “This [papal support] currently has some destructive consequences in Venezuela.” As this Austrian journalist sees it, this papal support inordinately helps the regime in Venezuela which, according to the Archbishop of Caracas himself, is a “dictatorship” which despises the Venezuelan people.
Later in his article, Winkler applies his criticism of Pope Francis also to his magisterial document, Amoris Laetitia. He accuses the pope of planting ambiguity in this text when he says:
The central and disputed question concerning the admission of the remarried divorcees to the Sacraments is intentionally formulated in such an ambiguous way that everybody can read in it whatever he wishes. And that is how it has happened: bishops in Poland or in Africa draw out of it conclusions other than those in Germany or Malta; the Bishop of Philadelphia draws out the opposite from the conclusions of [the diocese of] Chicago. [my emphasis]
Therefore, says Winkler, the bishops have now “to chose their own [individual] teaching concerning marriage and the Sacraments.” The pope “calls it ‘healthy decentralization‘,” adds Winkler, which notably now does “not pertain only to some kind of pastoral questions, but also to doctrine itself.” [my emphasis] In the journalist’s eyes, the pope seems to hope that “his ‘merciful’ approach will, in fact, be dominant.” However, says Winkler, this confusing decentralization is also a grave cause for concern in the eyes of Cardinal Gerhard Müller himself, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. According to Cardinal Müller, such decentralizations may not – must not – mean “separate dogmatic declarations” which also would possibly “relativize constitutive sacramental structures.” With reference to these same quotes from Cardinal Müller, Winkler thus claims that “Müller takes a different position from the pope regarding the question of Amoris Laetitia.” The article ends with another Müller quote: “One cannot serve the pope by fostering a personality cult around him.”
In the context of this new Austrian article in a non-Catholic national newspaper, it might be worthwhile to remember that, in the recent past, there have also been other prominent German-speaking secular media outlets which have published some strong criticism of Pope Francis. In 2015, the German journal FOCUS published an anonymous Open Letter to Pope Francis written by a former member of the Curia; also in 2015, the German journal Cicero published a report written by Guiseppe Rusconi which dealt with the recurrent criticisms of the pope still coming out of the Curia; in 2016, one of Cicero’s own editors, Alexander Kissler, wrote a strong critique of the pope; in 2016, the German national newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung ran an article written by the well-known journalist Markus Günther, who rebuked Pope Francis publicly for his bad leadership; finally, the same newspaper published another critique written by Christian Geyer. We should consider the heavy burden on the hearts of such authors who have taken the risk to present these sincere and wholehearted criticisms to the public.