Magazine article The Spectator

The Catholic Civil War

Magazine article The Spectator

The Catholic Civil War

Article excerpt

Uncertainty over how much reform Pope Francis wants is splitting his church into factions

'At this very critical moment, there is a strong sense that the church is like a ship without a rudder,' said a prominent Catholic conservative last week. No big deal, you might think. Opponents of Pope Francis have been casting doubt on his leadership abilities for months -- and especially since October's Vatican Synod on the Family, at which liberal cardinals pre-emptively announced a softening of the church's line on homosexuality and second marriages, only to have their proposals torn up by their colleagues.

But it is a big deal. The 'rudderless' comment came not from a mischievous traditionalist blogger but from Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Apostolic Signatura -- that is, president of the Vatican's supreme court. As it happens, Pope Francis intends to sack Burke, whose habit of dressing up like a Christmas tree at Latin Masses infuriates him. But he hasn't got round to it yet. And thus we have the most senior American cardinal in Rome publicly questioning the stewardship of the Holy Father -- possibly with the tacit approval of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

Nothing like this has happened since the backstabbing behind the scenes at the Second Vatican Council 50 years ago. It raises the question: is the Catholic church in the early stages of a civil war between liberals and conservatives, fought not over liturgical niceties (the source of relatively harmless squabbles under John Paul II and Benedict XVI) but fundamental issues of sexual morality?

The October synod was a disaster for Pope Francis. Before it started, he had successfully tweaked the Catholic mood music relating to divorcees and gay people. The line 'Who am I to judge?', delivered with an affable shrug on the papal plane, generated friendly headlines without committing the church to doctrinal change. Conservatives were alarmed but had to acknowledge Francis's cunning. 'Remember that he's a Jesuit,' they said.

Then Francis did something not very cunning. Opening the synod, which would normally be a fairly routine affair, he encouraged cardinals and bishops to 'speak boldly'. Which they did, but not in the way he intended.

The Pope's first mistake was to invite Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican's 81-year-old retired head of ecumenism, to set the agenda for the synod by addressing the world's cardinals back in February. Kasper told them that the church should consider giving Holy Communion to remarried Catholics.

Even if Francis supports this notion -- and nobody knows -- his choice of Kasper was a blunder because the cardinal, in addition to being a genial and distinguished scholar, is leader of a German-led faction that represents, in Catholic terms, the far left of the theological spectrum. In 1993 Kasper, then Bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, co-signed a letter by German bishops demanding that Catholics living 'in a canonically invalid union' should be allowed to decide for themselves whether to receive the Eucharist. The German church is a law unto itself: although its services are empty, it is rich, thanks to the country's church tax, and arrogant. To cut a long story short, this faction -- which had ruthlessly undermined Benedict XVI's authority when he was pope - tried to hijack the synod.

They messed it up. The synod's 'special secretary', the Italian archbishop Bruno Forte, wrote a mid-synod report suggesting that the participants wanted to recognise the virtuous aspects of gay unions. …

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