Four Years Later: Reflections on an Unprecedented Pontificate

On March 13, 2013, I sat in my office and watched my screen as a new pope — a man whom I had never seen before that moment — walked out onto the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica. I had never heard of him. I did not even know his name. Like most Catholics, I had approached the papal conclave with a sense of hopeful anticipation. But the feeling that came over me when I saw the man the cardinals had elected was shockingly forceful. It was a feeling of icy cold dread. As I looked at him, standing there, staring out at the crowd, I heard seven words distinctly in my mind, unbidden: “This man is no friend of Tradition.”

It was a strange sentence. Oddly phrased. I knew, just as surely as one knows that the voice of someone speaking to them in a quiet room is not their own, that this was not my thought, but some sort of external prompting. It would have been impossible for me to even attempt such an assessment, since I knew literally nothing about the man, this Argentinian cardinal, Jorge Bergoglio.

I am admittedly oblivious to the minutiae of ecclesiastical dress or custom. I cannot, therefore, claim that my feeling was rooted in the observance of some obvious deviation from the protocols of a papal election. I did not notice, for example, that he chose not to wear the papal mozetta. I was not jarred by his unusual greeting of the crowd with a “good evening,” instead of something more spiritually profound. I can’t say I recall hearing, in those first moments, that he was a Jesuit. To be honest, I may very well not have noticed these things even under normal circumstances, but these were not normal circumstances. My impression of the man was something that took place on a visceral level. And the feeling was so strong, it distracted me from everything else.

There was something in his face. In the way he stared down at the gathered crowd. There was something…wrong about his eyes. What I saw — what I thought I saw — was something other, looking out through that unreadable mask. Something triumphant, haughty, contemptuous, leering out at long last from atop the pinnacle of a long and hard-fought battle. It was incredibly strange.

When I look back at the photo of that moment, I can see that there was no discernible expression on his face. What I saw was, I think, not so much something physical but more of a spiritual insight. It struck me, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, as a preternatural experience. I was so unnerved, I had to fight down a wave of nausea.

I alluded to these things months later, when I first began, after trying very hard to give Pope Francis the benefit of the doubt, to write about why his papacy was already full of warning signs. I was derided by some at the time, as though this were just some fantasy I had conjured up (for what reason I would do such a thing, I couldn’t hope to explain.) But I have since heard from countless others who had the same, bizarre, unexpected initial reaction. From that first moment, even though I tried hard to shove impressions aside and let reason prevail, I knew, as did so many other Catholics in what I have come to think of as a signal grace. A warning from God: this would be a papacy of terrible consequence.

Four years later, I stand confirmed in that knowledge. Not through the persistence of a feeling, but a preponderance of evidence. If 2016 was the tipping point, 2017 is the year the dam broke. Amoris Laetitia raised the stakes of the battle for the soul of the Church to the level that even the most die-hard ultramontanists — the honest ones, anyway — are now forced to admit that we are faced with a a serious problem. If it took something as significant as an arguably heretical apostolic exhortation that lays siege to the sacraments to raise the alarm, there have also been countless less-well-publicized examples of heterodoxy since that fateful night four years ago that it should remove all doubt about the severity of the crisis. Our attempts to document these things here, though incomplete, have spanned hundreds of pages. It is beyond the scope of a single article to attempt a comprehensive summary of the worrisome moments of the past four years, though we will attempt to call some of the more memorable such events to the reader’s attention below. It should, frankly, have been beyond human means to produce so much confusion and distortion in such a short period of time. And perhaps it was. The devil, after all, is not a creature of brute force, but a master of subtlety and seduction, only too happy to make use of willing instruments.

Whatever the provenance of this insurgency within the very heart — and head — of the Church, we find ourselves in a precipitous moment. For those who remain unconvinced, there’s likely no amount of evidence that could change that. Sides have been taken. Battle lines drawn. The initial phase of the engagement has concluded.

The Escalation of an Agenda

One of the most important moments of revelation in the Francis pontificate took place during an interview with close papal friend and ghostwriter Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández, in May of 2015:

The pope goes slow because he wants to be sure that the changes have a deep impact. The slow pace is necessary to ensure the effectiveness of the changes. He knows there are those hoping that the next pope will turn everything back around. If you go slowly it’s more difficult to turn things back.” The interviewer then proceeded to ask him whether it does not help his adversaries when they know that Pope Francis says that his papacy might be short. Fernández answered: “The pope must have his reasons, because he knows very well what he’s doing. He must have an objective that we don’t understand yet. You have to realize that he is aiming at reform that is irreversible. If one day he should sense that he’s running out of time and doesn’t have enough time to do what the Spirit is asking him, you can be sure he will speed up. [emphasis added]

These comments, made nearly two years ago, provided an early glimpse of the strategy that has driven the agenda thus far. “Reform that is irreversible” is itself a theme that has been repeated by other close papal collaborators. Cardinal Oscar Andres Maradiaga Rodriguez used these exact same words in January of 2015. They have been telling us their intentions. Many have simply been unwilling to believe that they mean what they say. What this “irreversible reform” has turned out to be is nothing less than severe and intentional doctrinal distortion, a heretical approach to the Catholic understanding of sin and the sacraments, the breaking down of existing structures, rules, boundaries, and institutions, and a resulting confusion that is metastasizing in the Mystical Body of Christ with eternal consequences for souls.

One is forced to wonder: if Satan himself were to engineer an assault from within the Church, how would it differ from what we are experiencing today?

Just two years ago, at the time of his interview, Archbishop Fernández spoke of the favorable public response to the Francis agenda:

The pope first filled St. Peter’s square with crowds and then began changing the Church.” When asked whether the Pope is isolated in the Vatican, he responds: “By no means. The people are with him [Pope Francis], and not with his adversaries.”

Already at the time of his comments, however, things were beginning to change. By 2015, papal crowds were already beginning to diminish in size. And while here in America, at least, he’s been shown to have moved the needle on issues like climate change and feelings of liberal favorability toward Catholicism, there’s no evidence that he’s brought people into the Church. Millennials in particular continue to drift away, even when they express affection for the pope’s liberalizing approach to doctrine. And religious life — not healthy by any measure before the election of Francis — appears to be taking even more serious damage. The pope himself has lamented the “hemorrhage” of priests and nuns from the Church, but seems completely unaware of his own role in their departure — a track record that follows him from his native Argentina. As Fr. Linus Clovis of Family Life International said at a conference in 2015:

The Francis Effect is the disarming and silencing of Catholic bishops, priests, and laity.  Holding firm to Catholic doctrine and practise seems like an act of disloyalty to the pope, yet to acquiesce is to betray the Church.

In an op-ed at the New York Times last September, Matthew Schmitz took things further:

[Francis] describes parish priests as “little monsters” who “throw stones” at poor sinners. He has given curial officials a diagnosis of “spiritual Alzheimer’s.” He scolds pro-life activists for their “obsession” with abortion. He has said that Catholics who place an emphasis on attending Mass, frequenting confession, and saying traditional prayers are “Pelagians” — people who believe, heretically, that they can be saved by their own works.

Such denunciations demoralize faithful Catholics without giving the disaffected any reason to return. Why join a church whose priests are little monsters and whose members like to throw stones? When the pope himself stresses internal spiritual states over ritual observance, there is little reason to line up for confession or wake up for Mass.

“Francis has built his popularity,” Schmitz concludes, “at the expense of the Church he leads.” And it seems that now, the reservoir of good will having been expended, this is a reality that has caught up with him.

With years of mounting resistance that has spread from the scattered concerns of of a few concerned laity up to include the highest echelons of the Church, the situation on the ground is far different in 2017 than in was in 2015. Francis is no longer the “breath of fresh air” he was once perceived to be. Instead, his reckless speech in an incessant string of interviews and speeches grate on the faithful. His constant scolding of those simply trying to live their Catholicism devoutly combined with a seemingly boundless energy for innovation, self-contradiction, and change push people who have tried to give him a fair hearing away. Even some of the most patient Catholic commentators have at last reached the inescapable conclusion that this papacy is most aptly described as “disastrous“.

A Shift in Strategy

With the “populist” phase of this papacy now receding from view, there has been a subtle alteration in communications strategy from a Vatican that is nothing if not calculating. The critics of this papacy, once few, have grown significantly in number. Their efforts to resist these institutional errors, foisted as they have been upon the faithful, have become nearly as unrelenting as the papal agenda. The pushback against Amoris Laetitia has included forceful responses from across the spectrum of lay and clerical ranks in the Church. The theological dubia issued by four noteworthy cardinals questioning where the pope stands on traditional Catholic teaching was the most authoritative response, but the theological censures levied against the exhortation by 45 theologians, scholars, and priests was an even more theologically punishing rebuttal. Catholic luminaries like Josef Seifert, Jude Dougherty, and Robert Spaeman have added their own considerable voices to the rising chorus. Blows once easily swept aside by the Vatican apparatus are beginning to land – and sting. Papal boosters in the media such as Andrea Tornielli, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, and Austen Ivereigh have responded by coming out swinging, hoping to put those who refuse to ignore the real man behind the papal curtain in their place.

A more tangible example of how far things have come for the counter-insurgency is found in the appearance of posters that appeared overnight in Rome recently. At The Spectator, Damian Thompson recounts the scene:

On the first Saturday in February, the people of Rome awoke to find the city covered in peculiar posters depicting a scowling Pope Francis. Underneath were written the words:

Ah, Francis, you have intervened in Congregations, removed priests, decapitated the Order of Malta and the Franciscans of the Immaculate, ignored Cardinals… but where is your mercy?

The reference to mercy was a jibe that any Catholic could understand. Francis had just concluded his ‘Year of Mercy’, during which the church was instructed to reach out to sinners in a spirit of radical forgiveness. But it was also a year in which the Argentinian pontiff continued his policy of squashing his critics with theatrical contempt.

Thompson goes on to say:

Although the stunt made headlines around the world, it is unlikely to have unnerved the Pope. There is a touch of the Peronist street-fighter about Jorge Bergoglio. As his fellow Argentinian Jesuits know only too well, he is relaxed about making enemies so long as he is confident that he has the upper hand. The posters convey impotent rage: they are unlikely to carry the fingerprints of senior churchmen.

But does he have the upper hand? It would seem that as he loses control of the narrative, the advantage is slipping. Francis attempted, perhaps a little to eagerly, to downplay the incident. In a recent interview with Die Zeit, he rather unconvincingly laughed off the spectacle, even giving credit for cleverness to his accusers:

Pope Francis said he was at peace, adding: “I can understand how my way of dealing with things is not liked by some, that is totally in order. Everybody can have their opinion. That is legitimate and humanly enriching.”

When the interviewer followed up asking if the posters were enriching, Francis replied “the Roman dialect of the posters was great. That was not written by anyone on the street, but by a clever person.” The interviewer interjected, “Somebody from the Vatican?” to which Francis quipped, “No, I said a clever person (laughs).”

“Either way, that was great!” he concluded.

So great, in fact, that there is an ongoing Italian criminal investigation into “the conservative circles believed responsible” for the posters. And when a parody edition of L’Osservatore Romano was published the same month as the posters, also lampooning Francis, the Vatican launched its own police investigation into that matter as well. If persistent rumors are to be believed, Francis’ reaction to criticism when he is behind closed doors is far less sanguine than when the cameras are rolling. And as our extensive coverage of the dubia has shown, Francis has no qualms about making use of surrogates to attack anyone who stands in his way.

These reactions tell us something very important: resistance is not useless. It is having an effect.

The reality for Catholics is that we have reached a saturation point — let’s call it Peak Francis — and there is nowhere to go from here but down. This means that for the revolutionaries who have taken control of Holy Mother Church, there is far less benefit at this point in the use of subtlety; little to be gained through coyness or the continued pursuit of popularity; only an agenda already well underway that needs to be firmly cemented into place before this papacy becomes, as it inevitably will, a thing of (unhappy) memory. Fernández warned us that as time grew short, things would speed up. But the pace of change is so breathtaking, even reckless, that it has awoken the faithful from a decades-long complacency. It is perhaps for this reason that those more cautious career churchmen who have dedicated countless years to incremental, permanent ecclesiastical change are now wishing to make Francis go away. They unleashed a weapon they cannot control, and it is damaging their own cause as well as that of their adversaries.

It is, as I said above, impossible to adequately sum up the full litany of problems introduced by this papacy. But to take a top level view, reflecting briefly on some of the major issues in play during Francis’ brief tenure, we will find that they are astonishing in their boldness and scope.

The main thrust of the campaign to remake the Church took the shape of a consistory and two rapid-fire synods that began the process of dismantling the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony and the concept of objective grave sin — a process brought to fruition through an apostolic exhortation — Amoris Laetitia — that promotes adultery and the reception of communion (and other sacraments) for those living outside the state of grace.

Meanwhile, other fundamental aspects of Catholic teaching and identity have been simultaneously eroded. We have seen long-established Church teaching on the death penalty and the doctrine of hell usurped by contradictions. We are treated with increasing frequency to questions about the possibility of a female diaconate. Whispers have also begun about relaxing the celibacy requirements of the Latin Rite priesthood. Under the leadership of Francis, the Vatican went so far as to celebrate the legacy of the same Martin Luther it had previously condemned on the eve of the 500th anniversary of that arch-heretic’s rending of Christendom. The pope himself has encouraged, through permissive and ambiguous answers, the reception of Holy Communion by individual Protestants, in violation of both long-standing sacramental discipline and canon law. Along this same trajectory, we now hear frequent rumors of a planned revision to the Mass that will make it suitable as an ecumenical prayer service that can be celebrated in common with Protestants — a possible answer to the more-than-just-rumored growing push within the Church for intercommunion. This is sadly unsurprising from a pope who has demonstrated his opposition to evangelization (proselytism, as he calls it), and who shows an apparent disregard for the Eucharist, before which he is known rarely to kneel. Some have questioned whether this is the fruit of some physical disability, but he has demonstrated that he is able to kneel on other occasions, such as the washing of the feet of Muslims on Holy Thursday. (The most recent example of his strange Eucharistic posture comes to our attention by way of images of his retreat this past week in Arricia.)

The theological musings of Pope Francis include the idea that there is no Catholic God; that atheists are also redeemed; that the miracle of the loaves and fishes was not an actual miracle of multiplication; that Jesus likes it when we tell Him we have sinned and will sin again, that the first and greatest commandment is love of neighbor, and that the Blessed Virgin Mary wanted to accuse God of being a liar — to name but a few.

And then there are the optics of this papacy: Francis’ embrace of communist leaders and symbols and regimes while rejecting those who want to secure their borders and ensure their economic security. His authoritarian approach to governance, from the brutal suppression of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate to the burgeoning Dictatorship of Mercy to the gutting of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Pontifical Academy for Life to the attack on the John Paul II Institutes for Marriage and Family to the systematic removal of Cardinal Burke from all positions of curial influence to the dismantling of the sovereignty of the Knights of Malta and the decapitation of their head to the blaming of Burke for the whole affair. See also his embrace of a host of figures involved in sexual deviancy, including but not limited to the alleged homosexual administrator of his papal household, Msgr. Battista Ricca, about whom he famously said, “Who am I to Judge?” His appointment of a priest known for comparing gay sex to the Eucharist as a Consultor for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. His leniency on clerical sex abusers like Fr. Inzoli and clerical sex abuse enablers like Cardinal Daneels. In a similar vein, we are left to wonder at his appointment of Archbishop Paglia to head up the Pontifical Academy for Life and the Rome campus of the JPII Institute for Marriage and Family, a man who has been revealed to have commissioned a homo-erotic mural within his Cathedral church a decade ago and who just this month publicly praised “a radical, leftist atheist who wanted to legalize prostitution and who sympathized with pedophiles.” We are also treated to a conspicuous papal advocacy for unfettered migration amidst his outright denial that Islamic terrorism exists, or that Islam is an ideology that advocates violence; his allowance of the use of the Basilica of St. Peter’s for an ecological light show on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. His multiple points of association with George Soros, his work with UN population control advocate Jeffrey Sachs, his closeness to Italian abortionist Emma Bonino, his invitation to global population control and abortion advocate Paul Ehrlich to speak at the Vatican, and so much more.

It is a completely staggering list. But it is also an undeniable one. Our cultural context is not the same as it was during the Second Vatican Council, or even the promulgation of Humanae Vitae. During those halcyon years (for progressives), the Church was able to utterly control the narrative through the sheer weight of her global stature and gravitas. In 2017, however, sources close to the Vatican have repeatedly told us that the institutional ineptitude in understanding a world dominated by decentralized, social media cannot be underestimated. They do not understand the Internet. And the Internet has been holding them to account.

But the Vatican has fresh blood. Greg Burke, a former Fox News and Time Magazine correspondent took over Fr. Frederico Lombardi’s position as Director of the Vatican Press Office last year. Francis is close to the bishops of the incredibly well-funded and cunning German Church, who have the resources to hire consultants to shore up their weaknesses. Business as usual cannot be assumed in perpetuity.

I’ve mentioned in previous reports that rumor, always the medium of information transfer around the Vatican even in the best of times, has been increasing in scope and importance in these latter days of the Francis papacy. From candid but confidential emails received from well-connected readers to leak-gushing blogs like that of the alleged but anonymous Italian priest Fra Cristoforo, to the tantalizing but short-lived Twitter account of a supposed “Rogue Swiss Guard,” an information-starved Catholic press has an excess of potential material to work with when it comes to click-worthy content. It is also, therefore, a target-rich opportunity for enemies of papal critics to sow false rumors and diminish the credibility of those willing to present them without verification. The 2016 US Presidential election brought to our attention the reality of phony news websites created by the political Left in order to disseminate false information and discredit those who shared it. Recent Wikileaks dumps have indicated that similar strategies may have been deployed on social media sites and in comment boxes, with the purpose of generating confusion and disruption. As more evidence emerges connecting the Vatican to the progressive, global elite — including new claims that these political powers exerted pressure on Pope Benedict to resign — cross-pollination of methodology moves from the realm of speculation to that of probability.

The likelihood of similar tactics used by powerful figures in the Church — waters chummed with “fake Catholic news” to send critics on credibility-destroying snipe hunts  — turns an impossibly rapid news cycle into a veritable minefield. Pope-watchers are being forced to slow down to avoid a major misstep just when the pace of Vatican events is reaching fever pitch.

This is why we must remember that the subject matter of our work is not merely the domain of human affairs. No less a figure than God Himself is marshaling the forces in this battle for the Catholic Church, and if we can’t see through the fog of war beyond arm’s length, we can trust our omniscient commander to give us the necessary marching orders for the fighting that is to come.

Make no mistake: the days of this papacy are numbered — and as it wanes, the danger it represents to the faith will only increase. It will take decades to undo the damage that has already been done. With less to lose and much still to accomplish, Francis and his allies cannot be expected to hold back — particularly when there can be no guarantee of a like-minded successor in the next conclave. The time to cement irreversible change in the Church is now. 

Gone are the days when our primary mission was to convince the Catholic world that there is a problem. The problem has been recognized by those with eyes to see, and as the gloves come off, we must realize that we are David to the enemy’s Goliath. With cardinals opposing cardinals, bishops against bishops — and the fundamentals of Catholic belief the subject of contention — the Church as we know it is unlikely to survive in one piece.

Brace yourselves. The real war is about to begin.


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