Pope Francis, Cornered Between Vatican Conservatives And Trump Allies
The Argentine pontiff, used to navigating politics in Buenos Aires, is battling at a whole different level now. And his papacy may hang in the balance.
BUENOS AIRES — Even admirers have noticed just how worn out and defensive Pope Francis now seems. As head of the Catholic Church, he is being squeezed from two sides. First there is the proliferation of child abuse scandals that can no longer be swept under the rug, in part because of how quickly the modern media disseminates the information, but also because of a cultural shift that has no tolerance for such behavior. The previous silence of the victims has disappeared, blowing off the lid of secrecy and the statute-of-limitations strategy that had so far enabled their tormentors to evade prosecution.
At the same time, the world has changed since Francis was chosen as pope. His enemies in the Church have formed a bloc and are in league with a generation of ultra-conservative or nationalist leaders active across Europe or in fascist networks in the United States. The same people make up the chorus praising the administration of President Donald Trump.
Far-right populist and former Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon, who never distanced himself totally from his extravagant boss, is working from offices in Europe to provide oxygen to extremists in the Vatican. A recent initiative by this sector was the explosive letter from a former Vatican ambassador in Washington, Carlo María Viganó, accusing the pope of covering up child abuse episodes and "betraying Christ's mandate." These are grave accusations, and the only solution he says, is the Supreme Pontiff's resignation.
The protagonists behind this war are organizations like Tradition in Action, a gathering of ultra-conservative theologians based in Los Angeles that has even claimed the pope is helping fulfill the 1917 prophecy of the Virgin of Fatima. The prophecy augured that a "false pope" with diabolical views would impose the rule of apostasy. Jorge Bergoglio, who rose from Archbishop of Buenos Aires to the pontificate, has become a leitmotiv of their blog posts, which express conservative fury at his moves in favor of divorced believers or tolerance toward homosexuals. But their delirium goes beyond these issues.
The Argentine pope looks to be cornered.
Francis's life as pope was much better when Barack Obama was in the White House. The Argentine's papacy aligned well with the Democratic agenda and earned increasing international prestige as the renovator of a stagnant Church that had distanced itself from ordinary people, and the instigator of historic diplomatic changes. That high international standing also served to mitigate strong criticisms in his native Argentina, where he has a penchant for placing himself straight into the ideological crack dividing the nation.
His partnership with Obama led to involvement in the Middle East, where he traveled in 2014 and urged, using the same tones as the U.S. president, a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict. Obama's agenda also made Francis into a key figure in the detente with Cuba. Washington needed a solution to the longstanding impasse with Havana to boost its standing in a region where Russian and especially Chinese influence were growing, and close an uncomfortable and unnecessary legacy of the Cold War.
The Castro regime, for its part, needed an outlet to counter its economic woes made worse by the collapse of its strategic ally Venezuela. The Castros wanted a strong and credible state institution that would help contain the domestic tensions expected to come with Cuba's economic reconversion. Raúl Castro's memorable presence at a mass officiated by the pope was the synthesis of the depth of this transatlantic partnership.
Francis backed Obama's postures on climate change. He insisted on specific solutions for and the acceptance of refugees. And he rejected Trump's idea of walling off Mexico, calling for bridges instead. He has also taken up the powerful standard of the defense of the poor, which has meant sidelining some traditionalists in the Curia. One is U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, perhaps the greatest of the pope's ecclesiastical enemies and a heavyweight in the war simmering inside the Church's corridors.
Bergoglio is no revolutionary. But he does have a particular vision of history, which explains his alliance with Obama and his international views. This has failed to put him above the political fray in Argentina, and even convinced him there was no need to firmly denounce the atrocious acts of the Ortega regime in Nicaragua, or the barbarism of Bolivarian fascism in Venezuela. But again, his internal enemies are not specifically moved by these postures: They have different aims.
The world has changed since Francis was chosen as pope.
And now, those enemies are exploiting the sex abuse crisis. Note that Viganó"s letter on the matter showed no concern for the minors hurt under the Church's care.
In February 2017, The New York Times detected an alliance between Burke and Bannon to organize ultra-conservative prelates opposed to the pope's positions. For these people, linked also to the Tea Party and other Republican Party radicals in the U.S., a traditional Christian force is needed to stop the expansion of Islam. They consider Trump a necessary leader and condone European extremists in their rejection of foreigners (especially Muslims), gays and abortion.
The pope's opponents are trying to erode the validity of his moral and international postures, which contradict Trump's. To that end, Burke remarked at a conference in Louisville, Kentucky that the Church had lost its identity under Francis and its mission to preach the Gospel.
The Argentine pope looks to be cornered, and his enemies have deftly turned the Church's abuse crisis into a weapon. Indeed, the issue is having a huge impact around the world and among Catholics in particular. To widen the rift and aggravate conditions, they are now pinning the blame on homosexual lobbies inside the Church.
The victims of abuse and the representative organizations demanding strict and preventive measures have so far received the Pontiff's expressions of understanding, a letter begging forgiveness, and little else. Those hoping that the pope would end what many see as a contributing factor to these perversions — priestly vows of celibacy — can expect no spectacular novelties here.
Francis did himself a service in this struggle by stacking the College of Cardinal with loyalists. But depending on how things turn out, it may be his only real victory.