Pope Francis is one of the most hated men in the world today. Those who hate him most are not atheists, or protestants, or Muslims, but some of his own followers. Outside the church he is hugely popular as a figure of almost ostentatious modesty and humility. From the moment that Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio became pope in 2013, his gestures caught the world’s imagination: the new pope drove a Fiat, carried his own bags and settled his own bills in hotels; he asked, of gay people, “Who am I to judge?” and washed the feet of Muslim women refugees.
But within the church, Francis has provoked a ferocious backlash from conservatives. This summer, one prominent English priest said to me: “We can’t wait for him to die. It’s unprintable what we say in private”. Francis, the first non-European pope in modern times, and the first ever Jesuit pope, was elected as an outsider to the Vatican establishment, and expected to make enemies. But no one foresaw just how many he would make. From his swift renunciation of the pomp of the Vatican, which served notice to the church’s 3,000-strong civil service that he meant to be its master, to his support for migrants, his attacks on global capitalism and, most of all, his moves to re-examine the church’s teachings about sex, he has scandalised reactionaries and conservatives.
The crunch point has come in a fight over his views on divorce. Breaking with centuries, of Catholic theory, Pope Francis has tried to encourage Catholic priests to give communion to some divorced and remarried couples, or to families where unmarried parents are cohabiting. His enemies are trying to force him to renounce this effort. Since he won’t, and has quietly persevered in the face of mounting discontent, they are now preparing for battle. Last year, one cardinal raised the possibility of a formal declaration of heresy. Last month, 62 disaffected Catholics, including one retired bishop, published an open letter that accused Francis of seven specific counts of heretical teaching.
The question is particularly poisonous because it is almost entirely theoretical. In practice, in most of the world, divorced and remarried couples are routinely offered communion. Pope Francis is not proposing a revolution, but the bureaucratic recognition of a system that already exists, and might even be essential to the survival of the church. If the rules were literally applied, no one whose marriage had failed could ever have sex again. This is not a practical way to ensure there are future generations of Catholics.
But Francis’s cautious reforms seem to his opponents to threaten the belief that the church teaches timeless truths. And if the Catholic church does not teach eternal truths, conservatives ask, what is the point of it? The battle over divorce and remarriage has brought to a point two profoundly opposed ideas of what the church is for. The pope’s insignia are two crossed keys. They represent those Jesus is supposed to have given St Peter, which symbolise the powers to bind and to loose: to proclaim what is sin, and what is permitted. But which power is more urgent now?
The Catholic church has spent much of the past century fighting against the sexual revolution, and in this struggle it has been forced into the defence of an untenable absolutist position, whereby all artificial contraception is banned, along with all sex outside one lifelong marriage. As Francis recognises, that’s not how people actually behave. The clergy know this, but are expected to pretend they don’t. The official teaching may not be questioned, but neither can it be obeyed. Something has to give, and when it does, the resulting explosion could fracture the church.
Appropriately enough, the sometimes bitter hatreds within the church – whether over climate change, migration or capitalism – have come to a head in a gigantic struggle over the implications of a single footnote in a document entitled The Joy of Love (or, in its proper, Latin name, Amoris Laetitia). The document, written by Francis, is a summary of the current debate over divorce, and it is in this footnote that he makes an apparently mild assertion that divorced and remarried couples may sometimes receive communion.
With more than a billion followers, the Catholic church is the largest global organisation the world has ever seen, and many of its followers are divorced, or unmarried parents. To carry out its work all over the world, it depends on voluntary labour. If the ordinary worshippers stop believing in what they are doing, the whole thing collapses. Francis knows this. If he cannot reconcile theory and practice, the church might be emptied out everywhere. His opponents also believe the church faces a crisis, but their prescription is the opposite. For them, the gap between theory and practice is exactly what gives the church worth and meaning. If all the church offers people is something they can manage without, Francis’s opponents believe, then it will surely collapse.
No one foresaw this when Francis was elected in 2013. One reason he was chosen by his fellow cardinals was to sort out the sclerotic bureaucracy of the Vatican. This task was long overdue. Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was elected as a relative outsider with the ability to clear out some of the blockage at the centre of the church. But that mission soon collided with an even more acrimonious faultline in the church, which is usually described in terms of a battle between “liberals”, like Francis, and “conservatives”, like his enemies. Yet that is a slippery and misleading classification.
The central dispute is between Catholics who believe that the church should set the agenda for the world, and those who think the world must set the agenda for the church. Those are ideal types: in the real world, any Catholic will be a mixture of those orientations, but in most of them, one will predominate.
Francis is a very pure example of the “outer-directed” or extrovert Catholic, especially compared with his immediate predecessors. His opponents are the introverts. Many were first attracted to the church by its distance from the concerns of the world. A surprising number of the most prominent introverts are converts from American Protestantism, some driven by the shallowness of the intellectual resources they were brought up with, but much more by a sense that liberal Protestantism was dying precisely because it no longer offered any alternative to the society around it. They want mystery and romance, not sterile common sense or conventional wisdom. No religion could flourish without that impulse.
But nor can any global religion set itself against the world entirely. In the early 1960s, a three-year gathering of bishops from every part of the church, known as the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, “opened the windows to the world”, in the words of Pope John XXIII, who set it in motion, but died before its work had finished.
The council renounced antisemitism, embraced democracy, proclaimed universal human rights and largely abolished the Latin Mass. That last act, in particular, stunned the introverts. The author Evelyn Waugh, for example, never once went to an English Mass after the decision. For men like him, the solemn rituals of a service performed by a priest with his back to the congregation, speaking entirely in Latin, facing God on the altar, were the very heart of the church – a window into eternity enacted at every performance. The ritual had been central to the church in one form or another since its foundation.
The symbolic change brought about by the new liturgy – replacing the introverted priest facing God at the altar with the extroverted figure facing his congregation – was immense. Some conservatives still have not reconciled themselves to the reorientation, among them the Guinean cardinal Robert Sarah, who has been touted by introverts as a possible successor to Francis, and the American cardinal Raymond Burke, who has emerged as Francis’ most public opponent. The current crisis, in the words of the English Catholic journalist Margaret Hebblethwaite – a passionate partisan of Francis – is nothing less than “Vatican II coming back again”.
“We need to be inclusive and welcoming to all that is human,” Sarah said at a Vatican gathering last year, in a denunciation of Francis’s proposals, “but what comes from the Enemy cannot and must not be assimilated. You can not join Christ and Belial! What Nazi-Fascism and Communism were in the 20th century, Western homosexual and abortion Ideologies and Islamic Fanaticism are today.”
In the years immediately after the council, nuns discarded their habits, priests discovered women (more than 100,000 left the priesthood to marry) and theologians threw off the shackles of introverted orthodoxy. After 150 years of resisting and repelling the outside world, the church found itself engaging with it everywhere, until it seemed to introverts that the whole edifice would collapse to rubble.
Church attendance plummeted in the western world, as it did in other denominations. In the US, 55% of Catholics went to mass regularly in 1965; by 2000, only 22% did. In 1965, 1.3m Catholic babies were baptised in the US; in 2016, just 670,000. Whether this was cause or correlation remains fiercely disputed. The introverts blamed it on the abandonment of eternal truths and traditional practices; extraverts felt the church had not changed far or fast enough.
In 1966, a papal committee of 69 members, with seven cardinals and 13 doctors among them, on which laypeople and even some women were also represented, voted overwhelmingly to lift the ban on artificial contraception, but Pope Paul VI overruled them in 1968. He could not admit that his predecessors had been wrong, and the Protestants right. For a generation of Catholics, this dispute came to symbolise resistance to change. In the developing world, the Catholic church was largely overtaken by a huge Pentecostal revival, which offered both showmanship and status to the laity, even to women.
This is the first section of a very long article. You will find the full article at: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/oct/27/the-war-against-pope-francis