At this moment, when Christianity is celebrating the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, the news that draws our attention is related to the worldlier and more political aspect of the Catholic Church and its major internal ordeal that shows a division so profound that, for some, it appears to foreshadow a schism. For those like me who have studied Church history for years, the internal factions and parties are not anything new, but the current situation appears radically different from the past because of three fundamental factors:
- An unprecedented alliance between ‘populist/nationalist’ political forces from different countries in the world and the more conservative and reactionary ecclesiastic fringe against Pope Francis.
- An open opposition within the College of Cardinals with four of them having expressed serious doubts on the Pope’s will to welcome back to the Church remarried divorcees. Pope Francis ignored their doubts, meanwhile two of them have died, while the American Raymond Burke and the German Walter Brandmüller are alive and actively fighting.
- The unprecedented existence of a “Pope Emeritus” figure inside the Vatican that, given the manner of his resignation and his not quite silent presence, is considered the legitimate Pontiff by many ultraconservatives.
It is well known that one of the most important strategists for Trump’s victory in the 2016 Presidential Elections, the ultraconservative Catholic Steve Bannon, has been in Europe for some time, where he is looking to form a coalition of different populist/nationalist parties, and movements of the old country. The Italian situation is particularly close to Bannon’s heart, and his political reference point there is Matteo Salvini, leader of the right wing anti-immigration League. A few days ago, the English daily Guardian published the news that Bannon met with Salvini and explained to him that Pope Francis is the enemy and that it is urgent to begin attacking him directly. Up until now, Salvini has moved rather carefully in his attacks on Francis, maybe due to calls of caution by the most “Catholic” component of the League, but he did not hesitate to be photographed while holding up a T-shirt that says “Benedict is my Pope.”
Now, according to American press sources, Bannon has taken up residence in the Trisulti monastery not far from Rome, where the Dignitatis Humanae Institute has its headquarters. Cardinal Burke, who presides over the Institute, announced that Bannon will play a fundamental role in the monastery’s formation school. Immediately after the June 2018 elections, Salvini met with Cardinal Burke for the third time (also according to The Guardian). Even though the content of their meeting was not leaked, it seemed very suspicious to some attentive observers that a vice premier would meet with a cardinal in open dissent with the Pontiff before the new President of the Council of Ministers made the ritual visit to the reigning Pope.
If you have not yet become lost in this labyrinthine sequence of meetings and events, in which traditionalist cardinals, unscrupulous spin doctors, and rising right-wing politicians intertwine, you may perhaps be wondering what motivates their aversion to Pope Francis, possibly one of the most beloved and admired Popes of the contemporary age.
It’s enough to just Google some photos of Cardinal Burke to understand that he is at the antipodes of Francis’s style (and substance). His wardrobe (comprised of gloves, a cloak with a train, plenty of lace, and jewelry worthy of a queen) reflects his rejection of modernity and his disdain for the Second Vatican Council, which had eliminated a good portion of these paraphernalia. The Church, according to him, should still be an institution that teaches, punishes, and excommunicates. The ecumenical dialogue and each opening up to the outside world are signs of weakness to be avoided.
Bannon, perhaps rightly, sees Francis as the only world leader able to stop the populist/nationalist wave, and, even though he’s Catholic, he believes that no effort should be spared to stop the Pope. Francis’s pressing call to welcome immigrants, to protect the environment in order to slow down global warming, and to create a society with a more just distribution of resources are the exact opposite of the Trumpian political agenda that Bannon brought to power in the U.S. And Salvini? For the moment, he looks more like a pawn in the hands of the other two than an autonomous player in this dangerous game.
However, the real surprise of last week was the long letter that Ratzinger sent to the German monthly Klerusblatt, in which he expresses his position on the reasons for the endless scandal of the sexual abuse of minors within the Church. It is an old position shared by the most conservative prelates, with Burke being the first among them. Ratzinger maintains that the responsibility of the abuses lies in the moral laxity of the 60s and 70s, reflected in some way by the moral relativism of the post-Conciliar Church. A position that demonizes modernity and forgets that abuses existed before, but were systematically hidden. However, beyond the specific topic of the letter, the most notable novelty is that Ratzinger came out into the open with a position that is the opposite to that of his successor. Considering that at the time of his resignation he announced that he would withdraw to a life of silence and prayer, it seems evident that he must have rethought his role.
I certainly do not want to argue that Ratzinger is part of the conspiracy that seems to have come out against Francis. In the letter itself, he said that he asked permission from the Pontiff and his Secretary of State, so the form is saved. Beyond the text of the letter that is full of contradictions and historical inaccuracies that don’t conform to the precision of Professor Ratzinger, the fact remains that we find ourselves in front of a kind of never-before-seen diarchy.
How long can Francis accept cohabiting not with a Pope Emeritus but with another Pope? The answer to this question might be found in the facial expressions of the two popes in their last photo, released a few days ago, on the occasion of Francis’s visit to Ratzinger on his birthday. It says more than any words.
Translated by Emma Bass