Rorate Caeli

Francis Unveiled: An Analysis of His Latest Appointments


Article by Sandro Magister, taken from L'Espresso (July 18, 2023)

The death of his predecessor Benedict XVI, at the end of 2022, was for Pope Francis like the passing of the “katéchon,” of the restraint that held him back from fully revealing himself.

Witness the acts of government that he has chalked up in recent months, in rapid succession.

The latest is the announcement of 21 new cardinals, 18 of whom are of conclave age. Neither the archbishop of Paris nor that of Milan appear on the list, despite the latter’s having been in office for six years. But absent above all is the major archbishop of the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, also guilty of having spoken openly of everything he judges to be wrong in Francis’s conduct regarding the ongoing war.

Two Jesuits appear on the list, Hong Kong bishop Stephen Chow Sau-Yan – back from an official trip to Beijing that for the pope outweighs the humiliations suffered at the hands of the regime with the recent installation of two bishops without the due prior consent of Rome – and the archbishop of Córdoba, Argentina, Ángel Sixto Rossi, a stalwart of Jorge Mario Bergoglio since the years in which the future pope was provincial of the Society of Jesus, in bitter conflict with the majority of his confreres.

Then there is the archbishop of Juba in South Sudan, Stephen Ameyu Martin Mulla, compensated with the purple for the attack he suffered when he was installed in the diocese in 2019, on the part of opponents from a different tribe, who also accused him of immoral acts.

And again there are two appointments deliberately contrary to the conservative leanings of the respective national episcopates: in South Africa the archbishop of Cape Town Stephen Brislin, white of complexion and with ideas similar to those of the German “synodal path”; and in Poland Grzegorz Rys, archbishop of Lodz, the same diocese from which hails the pope’s cardinal almoner Konrad Krajewski, his close friend. Rys is one of the rare progressive voices of the Polish episcopate, while Krakow remains without the purple, governed by a successor of Karol Wojtyla of opposite bent.

But the most striking appointment is not that of the Argentine Victor Manuel Fernández (in the photo) as cardinal, seen as a matter of course, but the previous assignment to him of the post of prefect of the dicastery for the doctrine of the faith.

Here in fact Francis has done what he would never have dared to do while Joseph Ratzinger was alive. That is, the appointment in the key role that belonged to the great German theologian and later pope of a figure who is his complete opposite.

Suffice it to say that his penultimate predecessor in the same office, Cardinal Gerhard L. Müller, years ago accused Fernández of nothing more or less than "heresy" for the incoherent theses he supported. But Pope Francis was not the least bit ruffled. He had indeed appointed to the office of prefect for the doctrine of the faith first Müller and then Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, both of impeccable orthodoxy, but for him this was only a tribute to Benedict XVI while he was still alive. What they said and did mattered little to him, even, at times, blatantly contradicting their rulings, such as for example Ladaria’s veto on the blessing of homosexual couples. The writer behind the key documents of his pontificate, “Evangelii gaudium” or “Amoris laetitia,” has always been Fernández, even down to the duplication of whole passages from his previous essays.

And now it’s up to him, Fernández, to do “something very different” with respect to his predecessors, according to the unusual letter with which the pope accompanied his appointment: to have done with with the “times when, rather than promoting theological knowledge, possible doctrinal errors were pursued,” to let the Holy Spirit bring about the “harmony” of the most diverse lines of thought, “more effectively than any control mechanism.” In short, the triumph of that relativism which was enemy number one for Ratzinger as theologian and pope.

Other significant appointments: those of the participants in the upcoming synod on synodality. Noteworthy among the bishops elected by the episcopal conferences are the five from the United States, all conservative in character, a move that Francis has however redressed by adding among his picks cardinals much closer to him: Blase Cupich, Wilton Gregory, Robert McElroy, Joseph Tobin, and Sean O’Malley, plus Archbishop Paul Etienne and the Jesuit activist James Martin, this latter the troubadour of that new morality which is also among the declared objectives of the true director of the synod together with the pope, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, relator general of the assembly.

Among the “witnesses” without the right to vote Francis has also included Luca Casarini, the anti-globalization activist he has repeatedly praised as a hero of aid for migrants in the Mediterranean, most recently at the Angelus on Sunday July 9.

But in addition to those selected, those whom Francis has excluded from participating in the synod also make news, including the holders of all the Vatican offices that deal with the law.

The first of those excluded is Cardinal Dominique Mamberti, prefect of the supreme tribunal of the apostolic signatura and until recently, by statute, also president of the court of cassation of Vatican City State, together with two other cardinal members of the supreme court, all jurists and canonists of proven expertise.

But in the spring of this year Francis promulgated a new fundamental law of Vatican City State and completely changed the criteria for appointing the members of the court of cassation, reserving the selection of each one to himself.

And who are the four cardinals he has appointed? As president of the new court the American Kevin J. Farrell, and as members the Italians Matteo Zuppi, Augusto Lojodice, and Mauro Gambetti. None of whom has the slightest legal expertise. Gambetti, for example, has recently distinguished himself instead with the sensational fiasco of a pretentious show with singers and thirty Nobel prize winners brought from all over the world in the name of brotherhood, in a desolately empty St. Peter’s Square.

Among canon law scholars, the new fundamental law promulgated by the pope was immediately made the target of severe criticism. But it is known that Francis does not have the slightest respect for the rule of law, given how he has so far tampered with, for example, the trial underway at the Vatican over the the London property debacle. Or how he has had Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu pilloried, long before he was duly tried and without even saying why.

Returning to the appointment of Fernández, it should be added that he immediately stated that he was not fit to deal with the cases of sexual abuse that are among the main tasks of the dicastery entrusted to him, and that he had brought this to the attention of the pope, who however supposedly dispensed him from dealing with such cases in the future, leaving this task to the specialists of the same dicastery.

Not only that; Fernández has also admitted that he acted unbecomingly, again due to lack of preparation, in dealing with a case of abuse as bishop of the archdiocese of La Plata.

But hasn’t Pope Francis repeatedly stated that sexual abuse is a capital issue for the Church? So why entrust it to the responsibility of an incompetent?

The fact is that on the thorniest and still unresolved case, that of the Jesuit Marko Ivan Rupnik, it was Francis himself who laid out a protective cover, first revoking in a matter of a few hours the excommunication that the congregation for the doctrine of the faith had imposed on the Jesuit, and then having the same congregation shelve a subsequent trial via the statute of limitations.

It then fell to the Society of Jesus to open a new investigation against Rupnik, substantiated by numerous new charges, all judged credible upon first examination. But the Jesuit always sidestepped this investigation until he was expelled from the Society and thus found himself even more free than before, waiting to be incardinated in the diocese of a friendly bishop, and always under the pope’s shield.

Then, fishing among the minor decisions Francis has made in recent months, there too some revealing ones are found.

For example, the creation of a commission for new martyrs and witnesses of the faith, Catholics and of other Christian confessions, practically handed over by the pope to the already ubiquitous – in the Vatican – Community of Sant’Egidio, with founder Andrea Riccardi as vice-president and as secretary Marco Gnavi, pastor of the basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, and among the members Angelo Romano, rector of the basilica of San Bartolomeo all’Isola, the epicenter of the newly formed commission, and Professor Gianni La Bella, all part of the Community.

Or the unforeseen appointment, as rector of the major Roman pontifical seminary and as auxiliary bishop of Rome, of Michele Di Tolve, until recently a parish priest in Rho and before that, from 2014 to 2020, rector of the major archiepiscopal seminary in Milan.

Curiously, Di Tolve’s credentials as seminary rector are anything but brilliant. During his rectorship in the Ambrosian archdiocese the number of seminarians plummeted and his management methods were highly criticized. A scholarly statistical investigation into the future of the Milanese clergy has produced disastrous predictions.

Yet Francis wanted him in Rome as rector and bishop. And he explained why last March 25, in an audience at the Vatican with the faithful of the parishes of Rho. In these exact words:

“I greet your parish priest, whom I have known for many years and whom I thank for his words. I met him as soon as I was created cardinal: I had gone to visit a cousin of mine and she spoke to me about an exceptional deputy priest they had there: ‘Look how that priest works!’ ‘Really? Let me meet him, but don’t tell him I am a cardinal.’ ‘No, I won’t tell him.’ I took my ring off, we arrived at the oratory and he was going from one place to another, he was moving like a dancer with everyone. That is how I met him. And he has stayed that way all his life: one who knows how to move, who does not wait for the sheep to come and look for him. And as the rector of the seminary, he did a great deal of good, for the youngsters who are preparing for the priesthood, a lot of good, and therefore I would like to bear witness to and thank him in front of you all, for what he is doing: thank you, thank you!”

In Milan, no one wept over Di Tolve’s summons to Rome. But many of Francis’s appointments are made this way.