Two characteristics of the papacy of Jorge Mario Bergoglio emerged more clearly as a result of his brief visit to Ireland, neither of them encouraging. One was the local hierarchy’s relative powerlessness to influence what went on. Over the dashed hopes that he might come North, they talked like onlookers in the crowd. This goes flatly against all I ever assumed about the pledges of collegiality with local bishops after Vatican 2.
The second is the relative powerless of the Pope himself, exposed not only in the starting departure from the usual deference in the call for him to resign by the former nuncio to the US, but in his inability so far to clean out the stables of those whom he equally startlingly called “caca” or human filth.
This phrase emerged intact from his meeting with the victims and survivors of all sorts of clerical abuse. Naively perhaps, you might have expected Francis to be fully briefed on the subject. On the contrary, the Irish Times’ account of his meeting with victims and survivors tells us that although foreshadowed, it was utterly improvised at the last minute, as if the captive Pope had escaped for a moment from those who were his minders and even tormentors. We may conclude that a tremendous battle went on behind the scenes for anything more than a Papal blessing to happen at all..
The eight were sitting in a circle. The pope sat in front of them. Fr McCafferty noted the informality of it, but the atmosphere was far from relaxed.
“We thought there would be 100 survivors in a room. We thought he would just give us a blessing,” said Ms Malone.
Mr O’Farrell said he had written his questions on a cue card believing that he would get no more than a minute or two of the pope’s time.
The group expected a half an hour maximum, but the pope heard them out for an hour and a half. Each of the eight survivors spoke in turn. The process was slow as it all had to be translated back and for
The pope threw in the odd English word. He would also use the word caca the Spanish equivalent of “poo” to describe those who cover up abuse.
Ms Malone started by asking the pope to tell birth mothers who had been in mother-and-baby homes it was not a mortal sin that they went looking for their children. The pope’s interpreter wrote it down and the pope duly obliged during the papal Mass the following day.
Mr Redmond followed and told the pope that 100,000 mothers and babies from such homes had been involved in adoptions in Ireland. The pope asked for clarification on the figure.
“He put up his hands to his head and started shaking his head,” Ms Malone recalled…
Fr McDonald is one of the biggest critics of the Catholic Church, having penned the book Why the Irish Church Deserves to Die. He decided not to bring a copy of the book and instead handed the pope another provocative title, Five Years to Save the Irish Church.
He raised the issue of “clericalism” in the church, the notion that those bent on promotion in the Vatican were more interested in protecting the institution than getting justice for abuse survivors.
The pope responded by stating that cardinals, once they become corrupted, stay corrupted. He referenced several scandals in the church including that of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who resigned as a cardinal after multiple allegations of abuse (this was before Pope Francis was implicated in the scandal in a letter from a former American papal nuncio after the meeting) and also the long-running tumult in the Catholic Church in Chile over the cover-up of clerical abuse.
Fr McDonald said the pope looked like he was “bowed down” by the scale of abuse and could hardly believe what he was hearing.
Pope Francis is therefore under pressure from both the right and the left, as today’s Big Read in the FT recounts. .
“The enemies of Francis and his reforms are using Viganò’s ‘testimony’ to support calls for Francis to resign”, says Brendan Walsh, editor of The Tablet, the British Catholic weekly. “They are manipulating the child abuse scandal — which has devastated so many lives — for their own political purposes.”
Famously, or infamously from a traditionalist standpoint, he has called for an inclusive, non-judgemental tolerance towards homosexuality. “If someone is gay and is looking for the Lord, who am I to judge him?” he asked early in his papacy. Revealingly, until Archbishop Viganò’s letter the traditionalists had concentrated their fire on an apostolic exhortation called Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) in which Francis enjoined priests and bishops to adopt a “merciful” approach to divorced and remarried people wishing to take communion. In one sense, this merely aligned the Vatican with existing reality. To conservatives it decentralised doctrinal judgment.
Cardinal Burke, for instance, who keeps company with figures such as Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former strategist, and Matteo Salvini, Italy’s far-right interior minister, regards all this as motive for insurrection. At a Rome conference on “the limits of papal authority” this spring he said that a pope who has “deviated from the faith. . . must, as a duty, be disobeyed”.
Francis has not changed core doctrine. But he has cast orthodoxy in a new light. He has reordered priorities — calling for a missionary Church of the poor and telling bishops to be shepherds who “smell more like the sheep” — and made the theology that interprets Catholic teaching more dynamic and open. With his trademark beaming smile — and his more than 40m Twitter followers @Pontifex — he has caught the imagination not just of the disillusioned Catholic faithful but many people of other faiths or, indeed, no faith.
Archbishop Viganò himself is accused of burying evidence against another US prelate in 2014 when he was nuncio. Yet his faction is now trying to conflate homosexuality with rape and paedophilia to undermine Francis.
While Pope Francis has said he would “not say one word” on the Viganò allegations, inviting journalists on his plane back from Dublin to draw their own conclusions, he will sooner or later have to respond. If a disgruntled former employee alleges that “you deliberately covered for a pervert and serial abuser, and that your close associates have succumbed to a mafia-like conspiracy organised by a network of homosexual clergy . . . to refuse to dignify the accusation with a response might seem to show almost saintly restraint”, says Mr Walsh, the newspaper editor. “But if there’s one thing the Church should have learnt in recent years it’s that when serious allegations of misconduct or the covering-up of abuse are made, there should be an independent and transparent investigation. They should get on with it.”
So far, investigation has been thwarted. In Ireland, mainstream Catholic reaction to the visit takes refuge in the belief that the Irish system for investigating old abuses and preventing new ones is as robust as it can possibly be.
Will this be enough to halt the slide? The authority of the papacy was weakened by a development that suddenly ended its rare authority as a position of power in the modern world, the decision of his predecessor Benedict ( Josef Ratzinger) to resign. It was a move that otherwise would have met with the approval of progressives. But is there only anarchy to be found in the evolution from a monarchical Supreme Pontiff and a collegial presiding figure?
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London