“The Dictator Pope”: Mysterious New Book Looks “Behind the Mask” of Francis

A remarkable new book about the Francis papacy is set to be released in English this coming Monday, December 4th, after an Italian debut earlier this month that is rumored to have made quite a splash in Rome. Entitled, The Dictator Pope, it is described on the Amazon pre-order page as “The inside story of the most tyrannical and unprincipled papacy of modern times.”

The book promises a look “behind the mask” of Francis, the alleged “genial man of the people,” revealing how he “consolidated his position as a dictator who rules by fear and has allied himself with the most corrupt elements in the Vatican to prevent and reverse the reforms that were expected of him.”

OnePeterFive has obtained an advance copy of the English text, and I am still working my way through it. Although most of its contents will be at least cursorily familiar to those who have followed this unusual pontificate, it treats in detail many of the most important topics we have covered in these pages, providing the additional benefit of collecting them all in one place.

The author of the work is listed as Marcantonio Colonna — a transparently clever pen name laden with meaning for the Catholic history buff; the historical Colonna was an Italian nobleman who served as admiral of the papal fleet at the Battle of Lepanto. His author bio tells us he is an Oxford graduate with extensive experience in historical research who has been living in Rome since the beginning of the Francis pontificate, and whose contact with Vatican insiders — including Cardinals and other important figures — helped piece together this particular puzzle. The level of potential controversy associated with the book has seemingly led some journalists in Rome to be wary of broaching the book’s existence publicly (though it is said to be very much a topic of private conversation), whether for fear of retribution — the Vatican has recently been known to exclude or mistreat journalists it suspects of hostility — or for some other reason, remains unclear. Notable exceptions to this conspicuous silence include the stalwart Marco Tosatti — who has already begun unpacking the text at his website, Stilum Curae — and Professor Roberto de Mattei, who writes that the book confirms Cardinal Müller’s recent remarks that there is a “magic circle” around the pope which “prevents an open and balanced debate on the doctrinal problems raised” by objections like the dubia and Filial Correction, and that there is also “a climate of espionage and delusion” in Francis’ Vatican.

Some sources have even told me that the Vatican, incensed by the book’s claims, is so ardently pursuing information about the author’s true identity that they’ve been seeking out and badgering anyone they think might have knowledge of the matter. The Italian version of the book’s website has already gone down since its launch. The reason, as one particularly credible rumor has it, is that its disappearance was a result of the harassment of its designer, even though that person had nothing to do with the book other than having been hired to put it online.

If these sound like thuggish tactics, the book wastes no time in confirming that this pope — and those who support him — are not at all above such things. Colonna introduces his text by way of an ominous portrait of Francis himself, describing a “miraculous change that has taken over” Bergoglio since his election — a change that Catholics of his native Buenos Aires noticed immediately:

Their dour, unsmiling archbishop was turned overnight into the smiling, jolly Pope Francis, the idol of the people with whom he so fully identifies. If you speak to anyone working in the Vatican, they will tell you about the miracle in reverse. When the publicity cameras are off him, Pope Francis turns into a different figure: arrogant, dismissive of people, prodigal of bad language and notorious for furious outbursts of temper which are known to everyone from the cardinals to the chauffeurs.

Colonna writes, too, of the “buyer’s remorse” that some of the cardinals who elected Bergoglio are experiencing as his pontificate approaches its fifth anniversary: “Francis is showing,” writes Colonna, “that he is not the democratic, liberal ruler that the cardinals thought they were electing in 2013, but a papal tyrant the like of whom has not been seen for many centuries.”

Colonna then transitions to an opening chapter exposing the work of the so-called St. Gallen “Mafia” — the group of cardinals who had been conspiring for decades to see to it that a pope of their liking — a pope like Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was capable of becoming — would be elected. Formed in 1996 (with precursor meetings between progressive European prelates giving initial shape to the group as early as the 1980s) in St. Gallen, Switzerland, the St. Gallen Mafia was originally headed up by the infamous late archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini. The group roster was a rogue’s gallery of heterodox prelates with a list of ecclesiastical accomplishments that reads more like a rap sheet than a curriculum vitae. (In the case of Godfried Danneels, implicated in some way in about 50 of 475 dossiers on clerical sexual abuse allegations that mysteriously disappeared after evidence seized by Belgian police was inexplicably declared inadmissible in court, this comparison transcends analogy.)

The names of some of the most prominent members of the group — many of which would have been unknown to even relatively well-informed Catholics just a decade ago — have become uncomfortably familiar in recent years: Cardinals Martini, Danneels, Kasper, Lehman, and (Cormac) Murphy O’Connor have all risen in profile considerably since their protege was elevated to the Petrine throne. After a controversial career, Walter Kasper had already begun fading into obscurity before he was unexpectedly praised in the new pope’s first Angelus address on March 17, 2013. Francis spoke admiringly of Kasper’s book on the topic of mercy — a theme that would become a defining touchstone of his pontificate. When Kasper was subsequently tapped to present the Keynote at the February 14, 2014 consistory of cardinals, the advancement of his proposal to create a path for Communion for the divorced and remarried thrust him further into the spotlight. The so-called “Kasper proposal” launched expectations for the two synods that would follow on marriage and the family and provided the substrate for the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, around which there has been a theological and philosophical debate the likes of which has not seen in the living memory of the Church. For his part, Danneels, who retired his position as Archbishop of Brussels under “a cloud of scandal” in 2010, even went so far as to declare that the 2013 conclave result represented for him “a personal resurrection experience.”

And what was the goal of the St. Gallen group?

Originally, their agenda was to bring about a “much more modern” Church. That goal finally crystalized around opposition to the anticipated election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the papacy — a battle in which they were narrowly defeated during the 2005 conclave, when, according to an undisclosed source within the curia, the penultimate ballot showed a count of 40 votes for Bergoglio and 72 for Ratzinger. Colonna cites German Catholic journalist Paul Badde in saying that it was the late Cardinal Joachim Meisner — later one of the four “dubia” cardinals — who “passionately fought” the Gallen Mafia in favor of the election of Ratzinger. After this loss, the Gallen Mafia officially disbanded. But although Cardinal Martini died in 2012, they staged a comeback — and eventually won the day — on Wednesday, March 13, 2013. For it was on that day that Jorge Mario Bergoglio stepped out onto the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica, victorious, as Pope Francis the First. Those paying attention would take note that one Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium stood triumphantly by his side.

Colonna points out that indications existed — particularly through certain press interviews with Cardinal Murphy O’Connor — the possibility of some pre-meditated collusion between Bergoglio and the St. Gallen conspirators who worked to elect him. Colonna writes:

In late 2013, the archbishop of Westminster gave an interview to the Catholic Herald in which he admitted not only to campaigning at the Conclave, but to gaining Bergoglio’s assent to be their man.

The article by Miguel Cullen in the September 12, 2013 edition of the Herald says, “The cardinal also disclosed that he had spoken to the future Pope as they left the Missa pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice, the final Mass before the conclave began on March 12.”

Murphy O’Connor said, “We talked a little bit. I told him he had my prayers and said, in Italian: ‘Be careful.’ I was hinting, and he realised and said: “Si – capisco” – yes, I understand. He was calm. He was aware that he was probably going to be a candidate going in. Did I know he was going to be Pope? No. There were other good candidates. But I knew he would be one of the leading ones.’” The admonition to Bergoglio to “be careful” certainly seems to imply that Murphy O’Connor – and Bergoglio – knew he was at least bending the rules.

This is supported again in the same article in the Herald where Murphy O’Connor is quoted saying, “All the cardinals had a meeting with him in the Hall of Benedictions, two days after his election. We all went up one by one. He greeted me very warmly. He said something like: ‘It’s your fault. What have you done to me?’”

In an interview with the Independent after the Conclave, Murphy O’Connor also hinted there was a particular programme laid before the 76 year-old Argentinian, that he was expected to accomplish in about four years. The English cardinal told journalist[3] and author Paul Vallely, “Four years of Bergoglio would be enough to change things.” A fair enough comment after the fact, but this was the same phrase recorded by Andrea Tornielli in La Stampa in an article dated March 2, 2013, eleven days before Bergoglio’s election: “Four years of Bergoglio would be enough to change things,’ whispers a cardinal and long-time friend of the archbishop of Buenos Aires.”

Four years has certainly been enough.

From this analysis of Francis’ inauspicious beginnings as the handpicked pope of the most progressive forces in the Church, Colonna takes us on a brief but informative tour of his life and background. He mentions Bergoglio’s strained relationship with his parents — his father a “struggling accountant” and mother a temporary invalid — noting that he rarely speaks of them. He examines Bergoglio’s precipitous rise through the Jesuits in Argentina, despite opposition from his superiors at certain critical points along the way. Highlighted too, was the assessment of the unusually young provincial by the Jesuit Superior General —  offered when Bergoglio applied for a dispensation from the Jesuit rule forbidding him from becoming a bishop — allegedly describing him in no uncertain terms as unsuitable for the role. I say allegedly, because the text of the evaluation has never been made public. Writes Colonna:

Father Kolvenbach accused Bergoglio of a series of defects, ranging from habitual use of vulgar language to deviousness, disobedience concealed under a mask of humility, and lack of psychological balance; with a view to his suitability as a future bishop, the report pointed out that he had been a divisive figure as Provincial of his own order. It is not surprising that, on being elected Pope, Francis made efforts to get his hands on the existing copies of the document, and the original filed in the official Jesuit archives in Rome has disappeared.

Despite these setbacks, Bergoglio was seen, at the time, as a champion of Catholic conservatism in the mode of John Paul II by Cardinal Quarracino, his predecessor in the archbishopric of Buenos Aires and the man who ultimately ignored the warnings and raised him to the episcopacy. The perception of Bergoglio’s conservatism appears to have stemmed largely from his opposition to the Marxist liberation theology that had become so prevalent in the region — an opposition which, as Colonna explains, was not so much because of ideological disagreement as class warfare:

Bergoglio himself was a man of the people, and in Latin America “liberation theology” was a movement of intellectuals from the higher classes, the counterpart of the radical chic that led the bourgeoisie in Europe to worship Sartre and Marcuse. With such attitudes Bergoglio had no sympathy; although he had not yet identified himself explicitly with the “theology of the people”, which arose in direct competition with the Marxist school, his instinct made him follow the populist line of Peronism, which (whatever the cynicism of its creator) was more in touch with the genuine working class and lower middle class. Thus, Father Bergoglio backed the apostolate to the slum districts, but he did not want their inhabitants recruited as left-wing guerillas, as some of his priests were trying to do.

His Peronism helps to make clear, in another illuminating moment, Francis’s infuriating habit of saying diametrically opposing things from one day to the next:

The story is told that Perón, in his days of glory, once proposed to induct a nephew in the mysteries of politics. He first brought the young man with him when he received a deputation of communists; after hearing their views, he told them, “You’re quite right.” The next day he received a deputation of fascists and replied again to their arguments, “You’re quite right.” Then he asked his nephew what he thought and the young man said, “You’ve spoken with two groups with diametrically opposite opinions and you told them both that you agreed with them. This is completely unacceptable.” Perón replied, “You’re quite right too.” An anecdote like this is an illustration of why no-one can be expected to assess Pope Francis unless he understands the tradition of Argentinian politics, a phenomenon outside the rest of the world’s experience; the Church has been taken by surprise by Francis because it has not had the key to him: he is Juan Perón in ecclesiastical translation. Those who seek to interpret him otherwise are missing the only relevant criterion.

The book is packed with such fascinating insights into the phenomena of the Francis papacy, in part by viewing the present through the lens of his past. From indications that his notorious simplicity was simply a means of shedding any “ballast” that might impede his pursuit of power to his ostentatious humility (often with cameras conveniently waiting to capture the moment) to his masterful manipulation of an over-eager media into displaying the image he wishes to portray, the layers of the Argentinian pope are peeled back and examined, offering a deeper understanding of the man himself.

Colonna does not spend much time on the question of the validity of Francis’ papal election, but he does raise questions about the convenient (for the St. Gallen group) timing of Benedict’s abdication and considerations made both by papal biographer Austen Ivereigh and Vatican journalist Antonio Socci on the politicking and the questionable canonical validity, respectively, in the 2013 conclave. “Whether one chooses to uphold Socci’s view or not,” Colonna writes, “there is something rather appropriate in the fact that the political heir of Juan Perón should have been raised to the head of the Catholic Church by what was arguably an invalid vote.”

The book does not merely content itself with the pre-pontificate history of Bergoglio. Under the microscope, too, are the critical agenda items of the ongoing papacy, foremost among them, those promises which have never materialized. From reform of the curia to a supposed “zero tolerance” policy on clerical sexual abusers to Vatican bank and financial reform, some of the major initiatives of the Francis papacy have failed to reach fruition, been abandoned, or have received only lip service.

Later chapters deal, among other important topics, with the heavily-manipulated synods on the family, the Vatican response to orthodox resistance, the saga surrounding the dubia, the gutting and reinvention of the Pontifical Academy for Life, the destruction of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, the Vatican-supported coup within the Knights of Malta, and the persecution of those ecclesiastics who fail to toe the line for the papal agenda — along with an examination of the KGB-style tactics deployed by “Kremlin Santa Marta”. (On a personal note, I was both pleased and honored to discover a chapter subheading entitled “The Dictatorship of Mercy,” with a direct reference to the article in which I coined the term.)

There is a great deal of material in this book for all Catholics, but it will be of particular interest to readers of this website, who have watched many of these developments unfold in real time. There are also new things to learn from the text, particularly in its examination of the pope’s Argentinian history. If you or someone you know is interested in getting up to speed quickly on where things are with this papacy — and why it is so singularly controversial — this book appears to be an excellent starting point to cover much of the necessary ground. At 141 pages, it provides a sufficient amount of depth without overwhelming the reader with too much information, and the language and presentation make it an easy, fascinating read.

I believe The Dictator Pope will prove to be a critical tool in understanding and documenting the present papacy, and so, despite already having a copy of the text, I’ve also pre-ordered the book, both in support of the author and to help bolster its status via the one metric that seems to garner the most attention: sales rank. I encourage you to do the same. Already in Italy, the e-book is an Amazon best seller, having attained the rank of #60 in that country and hovering at #1 or #2 in books in its category. It would be fantastic to thrust it to the top of the charts in the English-speaking world as well.

That would send quite a message.

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