The Pope faces his adversaries
Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of the Grand Master of the Order of Malta with whom he had been in conflict for more than a month. This marks a new chapter in the opposition to the Argentine pontiff.
Nicolas Senèze, Rome
January 26, 2017
By obtaining the resignation on Wednesday of the Grand Master of the Sovereign Order of Malta, Pope Francis has made an important point to those who call into question the deep reforms he is undertaking in the Vatican and the Church. Not that Brother Matthew Festing is a personal enemy of the pope, but the conflict between Francis and the Knights of Malta represents the sum of all the opposition he is encountering in his will to reform.
The chronology of events is perplexing. In early December, the Grand Master of the Order demanded the resignation of Grand Chancellor Albrecht von Boeselager, who is accused of being "a liberal Catholic, unfaithful to the teachings of the Church."
Present at this discussion, was Cardinal Raymond Burke, the pope's representative to the Order and one of his main opponents, who led a public attack against the exhortation Amoris laetitia, on possible access to the sacraments by divorcees who remarry. With three retired cardinals, he asked the pope to clarify certain points, to force him to return to the text - something that no pope had done for at least two centuries - and to lessen the magisterial scope of the Vatican.
Within the Order of Malta, the attacks against von Boeselager, who was accused of having allowed the distribution of condoms by the Order in Burma in 2005, was a moral issue. The German explained to the grand master that the matter had been settled and refused to resign. Supported, at least in silence, by Cardinal Burke, Matthew Festing insisted that it was "the will of the Holy See."
Ten days later, von Boeselager's own brother, Georg, was appointed to the superintendency of the Institute for Religious Works (known as the IOR), or the "Vatican bank". With two other bankers, he replaced officials of the IOR who, defending the idea of creating a Vatican investment fund in Luxembourg opposed by the Pope, had to resign in May. Seen against this backdrop, the attacks against von Boeselager appear more and more as a challenge to the reform of the Vatican’s finances and those who are implementing them.
Already, under Benedict XVI, it was on the issue of its finances that the Vatican was most violently attacked. The VatiLeaks affair, the leaking of documents from the Pope's office, began shortly after the German pope had begun a vast clean-up of the Vatican's finances, including the IOR where scandals were multiplying.
Even if the IOR has not been a questionable structure as such, shady businesses have clearly used personal ties with naive prelates to hide their shady dealings under the seal of Vatican banking secrecy. Warned of this, Benedict XVI had courageously tried to put an end to these practices but, as he progressed, the obstacles multiplied.
Still, more than the mafia-type dealings, it is the financial system itself that has obstructed the popes’ efforts. As early as 2009, in his encyclical Caritas in veritate, where he began to call into question the capitalist system, Benedict XVI was criticized by American conservatives. This discourse from the German pope was to be significantly developed and amplified by his successor. In his exhortation Evangelii gaudium, Francis directly opposed the "trickledown theory", one of the liberal dogmas in the United States. And in many of his speeches, he tackled the misdeeds of an unruly capitalism, the "silver god" that "corrupts", the economy that "kills".
In the United States, such talk which challenges the foundations of American free enterprise goes down badly. Francis has been described as a "Marxist" pope. His encyclical Laudato struck also against the discourse of climate change denial pushed by the petroleum giants.
Currently, the most severe attacks against the pope are coming from the United States. At the Order of Malta, the case of the Burmese condoms was put forward by the "Lepanto Institute for the restoration of all things in Christ". This ultraconservative organization specialized in the denunciation of "gays” entering the Church and in attacks on the major development associations that question unfettered economic liberalism.
One of its leaders is the president of the Republican Party in Virginia. Another, a well-known American conservative activist, also leads the “Alliance for the Common Good”, chaired by Keith Fournier, deacon of the diocese of Richmond and a member of the Catholic support group formed by Donald Trump during his campaign.
The US-based Breitbart website, founded by Steve Bannon, now Trump's strategic advisor, was also very influential in the presidential campaign and does not hide its hostility towards the pope. In an interview with the New York Times, its correspondent in Rome recently explained that his bosses strongly encouraged him to write about the pope’s opponents, notably Cardinal Burke, "a friend of Mr. Bannon" who himself "distrusts" Francis.
One of the issues in the upcoming media battle will be to convince middle-class Catholic Americans that Francis, already portrayed as an enemy of the foundations of American economic power, wants to attack its most sacred value, the family. (The pope gets 87% favorable opinions, according to a study published last week by the Pew American research center.)
Hence the virulent speech aimed at discrediting Amoris laetitia. This no doubt explains why Bishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the “Pontifical Academy for Life” and one of the favorite targets of the ultraconservatives, has just been sent by the pope to the United States on a long mission.
However, even if they have powerful support, the pope’s opponents are few in Rome. Those closest to him say that Francois is not worried about their actions. It must be added that he had other opponents when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires. He also enjoys the effective support of his secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who discreetly and courageously has suffered many attacks in the pope’s place.
The mastery with which Francis has shown in handling the crisis with the Knights of Malta, which will now be managed by a pontifical delegate, thereby isolating Cardinal Burke a little more, shows the extent of his serenity in dealing with events.