Magazine article The Spectator

The Plot against the Pope

Magazine article The Spectator

The Plot against the Pope

Article excerpt

It is no secret in Rome that several cardinals want Francis to step down

On the first Saturday in February, the people of Rome awoke to find the city covered in peculiar posters depicting a scowling Pope Francis. Underneath were written the words:

Ah, Francis, you have intervened in Congregations, removed priests, decapitated the Order of Malta and the Franciscans of the Immaculate, ignored Cardinals... but where is your mercy?

The reference to mercy was a jibe that any Catholic could understand. Francis had just concluded his 'Year of Mercy', during which the church was instructed to reach out to sinners in a spirit of radical forgiveness. But it was also a year in which the Argentinian pontiff continued his policy of squashing his critics with theatrical contempt.

Before the Year of Mercy, he had removed (or 'decapitated') the leaders of the Franciscans of the Immaculate, apparently for their traditionalist sympathies. During it, he froze out senior churchmen who questioned his plans to allow divorced-and-remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion. As the year finished, the papal axe fell on the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, Fra' Matthew Festing, who during an internal row over the alleged distribution of condoms by its charitable arm had robustly asserted the crusader order's 800-year sovereignty. Francis seized control of the knights. They are sovereign no longer.

Damian Thompson and Dan Hitchens discuss the plot against Pope Francis:

So the sarcasm of asking the Pope about his 'mercy' is pretty obvious. But Italians noticed something else. 'A France'... ma n'do sta la tua misericordia?' is local dialect -- the Romanesco slang in which citizens taunted corrupt or tyrannical popes before the fall of the Papal States in 1870.

Although the stunt made headlines around the world, it is unlikely to have unnerved the Pope. There is a touch of the Peronist street-fighter about Jorge Bergoglio. As his fellow Argentinian Jesuits know only too well, he is relaxed about making enemies so long as he is confident that he has the upper hand. The posters convey impotent rage: they are unlikely to carry the fingerprints of senior churchmen.

In any case, it is not anonymous mockery that should worry the Pope: it is the public silence of cardinals and bishops who, in the early days of his pontificate, missed no opportunity to cheer him on.

The silence is ominous because it comes amid suspicion that influential cardinals are plotting against Francis -- motivated not by partisan malice, but by fear that the integrity and authority of the papacy is at stake.

Antonio Socci, a leading conservative Vatican-watcher, says that cardinals once loyal to Francis are so concerned about a schism that they are planning to appeal to him to step down. He predicts that the rebellion will be led by about a dozen moderate cardinals who work in the curia.

Their favoured candidate is understood to be Cardinal Pietro Parolin, a veteran diplomat who serves as the Pope's secretary of state, a post that combines the duties of prime minister and foreign secretary. Parolin is unusually powerful because the Pope indulges him. Power has drained from other Vatican departments towards the secretariat of state. It is Parolin who is pushing the church towards an accommodation with Beijing that, critics say, would betray faithful Chinese Catholics; it was also Parolin who moved against the leadership of the Order of Malta, which had sacked one of his well-connected friends.

The argument for replacing Francis with Parolin rests on the latter's administrative skills: unlike the current Pope, he is not given to wildly impulsive decisions which he then reverses without bothering to tell anyone.

But even if a group of cardinals are determined to elevate Parolin, what chance do they have of succeeding? It's true that when Pope Benedict resigned, he created an extraordinary precedent: that popes can choose to stand down. …

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