For the Pope who is fond of talking about the “God of surprises”, the recent and extraordinary appearance of unflattering posters both in picture and word plastered all over Rome must have come as a real surprise for him. Beneath an image of the Pope looking not very happy, there was written in the Roman dialect: “Ah, Frankie, you have taken over Congregations, removed priests, decapitated the Order of Malta and The Franciscans of the Immaculate, ignored Cardinals….but where is your mercy?” (My translation.) Those in the know in Rome say that the Vatican has given the Italian Secret Police the mandate to find who is behind this insult to the Pope. With that cast of characters, one demurs at predicting what the chances of the perpetrators being caught are. There has been no naming of the perpetrators to date.
Shortly after Pope Francis was elected, I was in Rome. On the drive from the airport to the city I like to talk to the taxi drivers and get the pulse of what is happening. I asked the driver what he thought of the new Pope. He hesitated for just a few seconds and then said: E furbo. I was quite taken aback by the adjective he used to describe Papa Francesco. Furbo is not easy to translate, but it means clever, stealthy, sly, cunning. Its etymology includes the Latin word fur, which means a thief. I tried to get more out of the taxi driver, but that is all he would say about that topic, so we moved on to the endless opera buffa of the Italian government.
The taxi driver’s assessment certainly rings true given Papa Francesco’s modus operandi since his election. He established his image as a humble man of the people who eschewed the trappings of Catholicism by his “Buona sera” on the balcony to the crowd after his election, by his abrupt refusal of the apostolic stole, by paying his bill in person at the Clerical Residence in which he had been staying, and then by refusing to live in the Apostolic Palace and taking up residence in the guest hotel on the Vatican grounds. Predictably, the liberal press, especially in this country, immediately saw in this man the hope that he would transform the Catholic Church into something that fits in much more with their view of the world and the agenda they saw as being on the right side of history. His famous “Who am I to judge?” interview on the flight from Brazil to Rome, made him the darling of all those who see the Catholic Church as the last hold out against that inevitable playing out of history, carried out with the iron hand of a paternalism that invoked the rights of the people to be whoever they think they should be. The Bishop of Rome became known as the bishop of mercy, invoking mercy in countless sermons and speeches and even official papal documents. His description of the Catholic Church as a field hospital, with its imagery of the Good Samaritan and Mother Teresa shimmering under the words of mercy, and yet shorn entirely of any talk of the need for conversion and the deadly effects of sin—another brilliant move in the establishment of his image in the “world” as well as in the Church that would enable him to carry out the program that he believes will change the Church into something that fits his vision.
What is his vision? When Francis was elected, I said to my friends: “It’s back to the future”. It’s back to the 1960s and the revolutionary fervor of liberation from the constraints of the past in every sphere of life: political, moral, social, ecclesial. It is no accident that those churchmen who espoused the spirit of revolutionary progressivism went underground during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Both of these popes tried to re-ground the Church in the mandate left to her by her Founder, Jesus Christ, and to look to the Tradition of the Church as the means whereby the illusions of the 1960s progressives would be laid on the dust bin of history. But then came Francis. And they all reappeared: a little older, a little grayer, but just as filled with the bell-bottom trouser theology that confused God’s justice with human justice and that turned Jesus into a revolutionary fighter for the poor, the poor defined in their own terms. They came back like the cast of “Hair” in a bad revival on Broadway and took out their 8 track tapes of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and started mooning over Mary Magdalene singing: “I don't know how to love him. What to do, how to move him. I've been changed, yes really. “
Once the image had been established and applauded by much of the secular world, then the program could be begun and carried out. The first signal: the appointment of Cardinal Walter Kaspar to deliver the speech announcing the Synod on the Family. Kaspar was and is the grand old man of the “reflowering” of the Church in the 60s. With that, It became quite clear that the purpose of this Synod would be to change the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family by urging a praxis that did not officially change the official teaching embedded in the Tradition of the Church but which would undermine it so deeply that the doctrine would be empty words on a piece of paper.
The history of the Synod and its aftermath is well known. Francis gave the image of keeping aloof from the obvious dissension between the bishops on the moral issues involved and the understanding of marriage, but he did allow himself some allusions to the “hermeneutic of conspiracy” to disparage those who opposed his program. When the final document was published it was apparent that no doctrine was changed and that was interpreted as a defeat for the Pope. But the furbista knows that words on paper in the end mean nothing in this world of paperless communication. The furbista also knows that he can never be seen as getting his own hands dirty.
So the Pope wrote an Encyclical called Amoris Laetitia, a lengthy treatise on the joy of love as understood by the Christian. Its length gave even the most ardent fans of the Pope pause, and the question of parts of it being ghost written still lingers. But the infamous chapter 8 on the question of whether divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Holy Communion is the heart of the matter. And that heart is not a clear heart, and, on purpose, it can be interpreted in ways that are traditional and in ways that seem to break with the Tradition. Four Cardinals, now famously, asked the Pope for a clarification of points in chapter 8 that could be taken as denying the Church’s teaching on the Sacraments and the meaning of marriage. The Pope has been silent doe months. . He refuses to answer and to clarify. And lately, using his sermons in Santa Marta like a Twitter account, he is taking the spotlight away from the marriage question by turning to another of his targets of reform: traditional Catholics. He fulminates in his daily homilies against traditional religious orders and labels them all as rigid and taking refuge in a false security, having all the answers.
On the marriage issue: stalemate--until several weeks ago when Cardinal Coccopalmerio was supposed to have a press conference upon the publication of his newest book that is a commentary on Amoris Laetitia. In a section of the book the Cardinal is quite clear what the interpretation of Chapter 8 of AL should be. And it definitely is that praxis can go completely against the Traditional teaching on marriage without that teaching officially changing. But the Cardinal never showed up for the press conference, claiming a mix-up in his diary. This shows that furbismo is spreading. To dissociate yourself from what you have written in a just published book by not appearing and yet promising to hold a press conference sometime to clarify what you have said is quite furbo. And this puts Pope Francis at yet another level of remove from the whole situation. And when the Vatican puts out the word that what Coppopalmerio says in his book is just his own private opinion and not official, furbismo rises to new levels.
Cardinal Ouellet is said to have said that the posters directed at the Pope in Rome were works of the devil. That’s pious silliness. The poster event is very Roman and goes back to ancient Rome . The Romans are experts at being furbo. All they want is some honesty about what is really going on. If I could I would post a poster and this is what I would say:
‘MMbeh, France’. Purchè stai facenno ‘este cose? Noi Romani stanno esperti ar furbismo. Nun pói compéte con noi. Volémo amáte. Tu lo fai così difficcile!
(My translation: Come on, Frankie. Why are you doing these things? We Romans are experts at furbismo. You cannot compete with us. We want to love you. But you make it so difficult!).