Bishop at Vatican meet charges liberal peers with doing devil’s work
Vatican City: At one
point during a major summit of the Roman Catholic hierarchy that ends this
weekend, a senior conservative bishop took the floor inside the Vatican’s
assembly hall and promptly charged his liberal peers with doing the devil’s
gathering, known as a synod, has erupted into a theological slugfest over Pope
Francis’s vision for a more inclusive church, displaying the most bitter and
public infighting since the heady days of Catholic reform in the 1960s.
Archbishop Tomash Peta
of Kazakhstan captured the intensity of the divide, raising eyebrows — and even
a few incredulous laughs — as he decried some of the policy changes being
floated at the synod as having the scent of “infernal smoke.”
It was just another day
at a synod that — more than any single event since Francis began his papacy in
2013 — has highlighted the extent his outreach to once-scorned Catholics has
triggered a tug-of-war for the soul of the Catholic Church. More important, it
underscored just how hard it may be for Francis to recast the church he serves
in his image.
In fact, the pushback
by traditionalists has been so strong at the synod that the chances of fast
changes on hot-button family issues — including whether to offer communion to
divorced and remarried Catholics and more welcoming language to homosexuals —
have substantially dimmed, if not gone completely out.
As the synod races
towards a close, there has been a last-ditch push to find common ground that
could at least open the door to policy alterations. But some observers are
already comparing Pope Francis to President Obama — a man whose reformist
agenda was bogged down by a conservative Congress.
“Francis has the same
problem that Obama had,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior analyst for the
National Catholic Reporter. “He promised the world, but Congress wouldn’t let
him deliver. If nothing much comes of this synod, I think people will give the
pope a pass and blame the bishops for stopping change.”
For Francis, the synod
— the Vatican’s second in 12 months on issues related to the family — sets up
perhaps the most important decision of his papacy.
The 270 senior church
officials from 122 countries are set to finish voting on a final document by
Saturday. But Francis has the final say, holding the power to simply accept the
synod’s recommendations, go beyond them, or withhold judgment to encourage
All of those avenues,
however, carry a measure of risk.
Using his powers to go
beyond the synod’s recommendations could rouse the wrath of conservatives, some
of whom are already openly questioning the trajectory of his papacy. Yet if the
final recommendation of the synod falls short of liberal hopes, simply rubber
stamping it, or encouraging more debate, could generate disappointment among
Francis’s fans worldwide. They may begin to see him as a revolutionary in
gestures and words, but not on substance.
If he agrees fully with
the synod’s recommendations, “there might be a collapse of his popularity in
world public opinion, but there might also be an increase of his popularity
among Catholics,” said Massimo Franco, author of The Crisis of the Vatican
Empire and a columnist at the Italian daily Corriere della Sera.
Even by Vatican
standards, the level of drama at the synod has been extraordinary.
As recently as Wednesday,
the Vatican strenuously denied a report in the Italian press that Francis had a
small brain tumor. That came after the synod started off with a bang in early
October, when another leak in the Italian press brought to light a letter to
the pope signed by 13 conservative cardinals — including Cardinal Timothy Dolan
of New York — that seemed to question the pope’s handling of the synod process.
Adding to the mystery,
some of the 13 denied they had signed the letter. Some Vatican watchers saw
Francis’s recent warning to the synod not to be taken in by conspiracy theories
as a thinly veiled reference to the missive. To some senior Vatican officials,
the letter appears close to open sedition.
“The widespread opinion
I perceived among the fathers has been a sense of disgust,” Bishop Marcello
Semeraro, one of the senior clerics who will draft the final synod document,
told the Vatican Insider web site.
Yet by telling bishops
that nothing is off the table for discussion, Francis has undoubtedly lifted
the lid on what can be examined — including his management style. Conservatives
bishops, however, see him as having also opened a Pandora’s box, allowing a
free flow of ideas that have startled some traditionalists and provoked a sharp
Of the many issues
under debate here, two have emerged as the most polemic.
One is whether to grant
divorced and remarried Catholics — who are technically committing adultery in
the church’s eyes — access to communion. In addition, there is the question of
whether to offer a warmer welcome to gays and lesbians, including striking
references to homosexuality as “intrinsically disordered” from church
The divide is not just
liberal vs conservative, but also geographic with prelates in Africa, for
instance, denouncing the “Eurocentric” and “Western” fixation with issues such
Guinean Cardinal Robert
Sarah linked the push for gay rights to abortion and Islamic extremism,
comparing them all to what “Nazi-Fascism and Communism were in the 20th
The vehemence of the
backlash has shocked even some moderate conservatives, suggesting the rise of a
Tea Party-like faction of bishops within the hierarchy.
“Some of them are talking now like this is
Armageddon,” Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, said in an
interview with The Washington Post.
“They see themselves as the sons of goodness
and others as the sons of darkness and evil. I have been very surprised by this
apocalyptic view of things at the synod . . .
This isn’t the way discussions are done,” he added.
The sniping has gone
surprisingly public — and personal. The powerful conservative Cardinal George
Pell, for instance, suggested in an interview with Le Figaro that an epic
“battle” was taking shape in the church between the conservative theology of
Benedict XVI and the liberal German Cardinal Walter Kasper, who is seen as a
Francis ally and the architect of some of the most progressive measures being
fielded at the synod.
Pell’s comment provoked
a rare public rebuke this week from the German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who
called out Pell by name at a Vatican press conference.
“In the synod, we are not in a battle. We are
not Ratzinger vs. Kasper,” Marx said, using Pope Benedict’s birth surname.“That
is not okay.”
The plot thickened
further on Thursday as an article appeared on a conservative Catholic Web site
claiming to be from “ a very wise, knowledgeable and highly influential cleric”
and entitled “The Failed Francis Pontificate.”
In it, the author
writing under the pen name Don Pio Pace and using insider terminology, argues
that the divided church is now “intrinsically ungovernable” and decried this
“strange synod” for being overwhelming focused on “adulterous couples and
Some have also
denounced the general sense of chauvinism hanging over the debates in which
only male clerics have voting rights.
Maureen Kelleher, an
American nun serving in one of the non-voting roles at synod, told the National
Catholic Reporter that there were "times that I have felt the
condescension so heavy, you could cut it with a knife.”
Speaking of women in
general, she added: "I see a high level of non-acceptance of us as holding
up half the sky.”