Has Pope Francis declared war on the Vatican? By Damian Thompson

6 Min Read
Don’t be misled by the cheery smile… (Photo: AFP/Getty)

To round off his first Midnight Mass at St Peter’s, Pope Francis will stop to pray at a nativity scene drenched in gaudy colours that wouldn’t look out of place in Disneyland. On the surface, little will have changed since Pope Benedict did the same thing last year.

But what will be going through the minds of the prelates and Vatican officials surrounding the pontiff? Some will be excited by the change of regime. Others will be queasily asking themselves: will I still be in Rome for Christmas 2014?

While the outside world marvels at the humility and explosive soundbites of Time’s Person of the Year, the tubby monsignori who run the Church’s dicasteries, or departments, are spending three-hour lunches picking disconsolately at their Saltimbocca alla Romana. The Holy Father has wrought a miracle that defies the known laws of the universe: he has taken the edge off their appetites.

Put simply, the Pope has declared war on the Vatican – or, at least, on the sclerotic Curia (bureaucracy) that he inherited, in which the only thing that moves beyond a snail’s pace is rumour.

One of Francis’s first acts was to appoint a “kitchen cabinet” of cardinals to advise him on reforms that will begin next year. What form these will take, no one knows. But every one of those cardinals is, to some extent, a Vatican outsider.

Only one senior official has had the nerve to stick his head above the parapet and protest. Cardinal Raymond Burke, who heads the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura – there’s a classic curial job title for you – has said that the Roman bureaucracy “has to be respected”. He lamented “a kind of unpredictability about life in Rome these days”.

Well, life has just got a little more unpredictable for Cardinal Burke. This week he was removed by Francis as a member of the influential Congregation for Bishops, which puts forward candidates for promotion. In fact, there was quite a shift in its membership: our own Archbishop Vincent Nichols joined it, which means his long-delayed red hat is in the bag and also squashes the chances of English traditionalist priests becoming bishops.

“Don’t panic!” comes the cry from the more optimistic traditionalists. Actually, they should have panicked long before Francis was elected, when it was clear that even superficially loyal liberals (such as the English bishops) were ignoring any bits of Benedict XVI’s teaching that didn’t take their fancy.

The world’s media think Francis is “doctrinally conservative” because he won’t ordain women or permit abortion. But no Pope would ever do either. There are clues, however, that he wants to fine-tune the Catholic line on homosexuality – he backed civil unions in Argentina – and favours the use of condoms to prevent disease. Also, he’s come down like a ton of bricks on a small order of Franciscans who were too fond of the Latin Mass and pre-Vatican II spirituality. Meanwhile, he’s reached out to ex-priest Leonardo Boff, a liberation theologian silenced by John Paul II. The Pope seems to be moving Leftwards as he gets older.

None of this should detract from Francis’s unique ability to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, as the saying goes. Traditionalists had their unexpected moment in the sun, under Benedict, and achieved little. Perhaps they should shut up while a new man tries a different approach.

But they won’t. The next few months will make or break Francis, depending on the shape and popularity of his reforms. Either way, Catholics are in for a noisy year.

Oliver Cromwell was no Stalin

I bet more than a few Irish heads were nodding when Vladimir Putin said this week that Joseph Stalin was no worse than Oliver Cromwell. The latter is still a monster in Ireland: children are taught that he “slaughtered the entire population” of Drogheda in 1649. It’s not true, though. As the Irish historian Tom Reilly has pointed out, not one person in Drogheda or Wexford “left written details of the deaths of even one unarmed civilian”. That said, Cromwell was a vicious anti-Catholic bigot who created an Iranian-style theocracy and engineered the judicial murder of a foolish king. He was no Stalin – but no hero, either.

Bring back the good old days

For a moment I thought The Guardian was sending itself up. “Christmas TV, before Thatcherism ruined it” is the headline on a piece by Neil Clark. But no. They don’t “do” self-mockery over there.
Says Clark: “Appropriately as it turned out, the last year before neoliberalism [1978] was seen out with a special edition of The Good Old Days with guests including Roy Castle…” Good old days, geddit? (Actually, they hadn’t quite ended: Labour’s winter of discontent was just beginning.)

“Gentle, unthreatening fare” before Mrs T’s “elbow society” is how the Guardian describes such material. In that case, why doesn’t it bring it back in an online special? La Toynbee flashing her petticoats while she warbles salt-of-the-earth cockney ballads would brighten anyone’s Christmas.


Continue reading @Telegraph

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