LAST week the wrestling sensation in the Catholic Church was Becciu vs. Pell. This week, it’s Zen vs. Parolin. If this keeps up, Vince McMahon could emerge as a favourite for the next papal conclave. It would be very difficult to find any equivalent to the righteous tirade unleashed by Cardinal Zen in the modern history of the college of cardinals; by that I mean since the late 1700s. (Of precedents where a Prince of the Church falsely associates a pet project with a former pope – as Cardinal Parolin has done regarding China policy – examples do abound). Likewise, I can think of no modern parallel to the published accusation that one cardinal sought to pervert the course of secular justice to frame and take out another. But the now ex-cardinal Becciu allegedly did just that to maintain control of a bank whose venality would embarrass Tony Montana. For his purported sins, Becciu was reportedly dismissed from the cardinalate on the spot during an audience with the pope – an historically brutal sentence. In the midst of all this fraternal warfare, Pope Francis has published a new encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (Brothers All) which, in the circumstances, was both spectacularly ironic and morally dead on arrival. The pope, however, is not the innocent in these crises. He is their ultimate cause.
Written in Spanish rather than Latin, the Italian title of the encyclical – already widely mocked – is likely to be the only thing anyone remembers about it in years to come. Running to 43,000 words, the letter is longer than the book of Genesis by several thousand words. Probably fewer than fifty Australian Catholics will ever read it. St John Paul’s 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (On Preserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone) set forth an infallible doctrine for all time using 1089 words. Why, then, was Tutti Frutti – as it’s being called – even written? It has no catholic audience, answers no questions and presents none but the most disreputable and fatuous of ‘teachings’? The answer: publicity.
Work began on the encyclical prior to the emergence of coronavirus. Its original purpose was to imbue the so-called Abu Dhabi Declaration signed by Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb (the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar) in February 2019 with a wholly contrived Catholicity. The latter document speaks of the shared spiritual values of Christianity and Islam as “anchors of salvation for all” and encourages the world’s leaders to learn from them to build a “culture of tolerance.” Only this will end war, save the environment and arrest “moral and cultural decline.” Notoriously, it also declares that religious pluralism and “diversity” are God’s will. This is what caused such angry commotion in the ranks of Catholic commentators. Prima facie, it is an unauthorised – in point of fact, impossible to authorise – repudiation of the constantly expostulated doctrine on the centrality of Christ in salvation history.
If the Abu Dhabi project and the weirdly named entity it founded – the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity – constitute heretical syncretism, they also represent the misuse of papal prestige and its weighty instruments of communication to advance a broader twofold agenda. First (this pre-dates Pope Francis), to seek sanctuary in Islam so as to partake of its special immunity from substantive criticism in the media and its exalted voice in world forums. Second, to force on Catholics a new ‘understanding’ of what the Church itself is via that familiar mixture of condescension and thuggery so beloved of ‘progressives’: the phony fait accompli. If the pope signed a “declaration” and later wrote about its themes in an encyclical, they must not only be true but Catholics must now be obliged to accept them. Right?
Cardinal Zen is only the latest senior church leader who brawls – not begs – to differ. That the Holy See alone should choose bishops for China even if that means the underground church continues to suffer was immovable doctrine beyond haggling. Like the Abu Dhabi novelty, the new agreement between the Vatican and Beijing is an act of weakness so egregious that a peculiar malice towards the power of Rome itself seems to have actuated Francis to formalise it. He has repeatedly conflated institutional capitulation with personal humility. Cardinal Parolin’s attempt to wrangle the moral authority of Benedict XVI to underwrite a dalliance with the Chinese Communist Party is a sure sign Francis has debased this coinage a few times too often.
Another example was his peremptory alteration of the Church’s millennia-old teaching on the permissibility of the death penalty in some circumstances. The predictably illogical corollary in Fratelli Tutti is Francis suddenly declaring a thousand years of doctrine about military conflict obsolete: “[I]t is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a just war.”
Consider for a moment how disturbing it is for a pope who aligns the Church with Islam and Beijing to then claim (without evidence or authority) that national – let alone hemispherical – self-defence may no longer be licit. Dangerous bordering on treacherous, it will be welcomed in China’s foreign ministry and in maddrasas everywhere. But this isn’t the only ANTIFA-like claim in Fratelli Tutti. The pope also asserts – falsely – that “Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable.” Yes, we are obliged to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s but this in no way extinguishes private property rights.
At some stage of the encyclical’s composition, the pope and his top ideological advisers evidently decided the arrival of a pandemic was an opportunity not to be wasted: themes were united into a cumbersome treatise. To ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’, ‘Do as we say but not as we do’ and ‘War: what’s it good for?’ was added the sophomoric anti-capitalism Francis had already expounded in earlier documents. In 2015 he described market capitalism as the “devil’s dung” – which is not a technical term. The end result is a kind of daffy anti-Veritatis Splendour. It is a paean not to the splendour of truth, as John Paul The Great’s magisterial 1993 encyclical was, but the splendour of subjectivism and cocking a snoot. The pope’s argumentation in economics – like his case-making in theology – is here characteristically lazy, cynical and vaccuous:
Blaming markets for the magnitude of COVID-19 is like blaming greengrocers for the perniciousness of genital herpes and is, in my opinion, the most idiotic polemic ever published by a pope. Were it not for capitalism, the death toll would already be several times larger and millions would not have been successfully treated. They’d be dead. Governments would not have had the revenue streams to do anything ameliorative and food shortages would already be hastening the disintegration of civil order. No ‘neo-liberal’ economist believes that markets solve all “societal problems” (whatever they might be) and none have ever sought to repudiate Christ himself on ‘resolving’ inequality (cf. Matthew 26:11). This straw man vaudeville is an embarrassment to the Church. Never before have a pontiff’s ‘moral teachings’ rhymed so exactly with the sloganeering of American street gangs or the Chinese politburo.
THE 20th of September 2020 was the 150th anniversary of the Risorgimento, a nastier and bloodier event than many aficionados of contemporary European history might think. For several decades thereafter the pope was described as “A Prisoner in The Vatican.” The sobriquet was abandoned with the Lateran Treaty of 1929 but it wasn’t for another 60 years that the world saw and experienced a globe-trotting Bishop of Rome. John Paul II was no stay-at-home. A crisis of self-understanding in the papacy has arisen largely because his successors have only been able to shoulder one half each of the Pole’s inimitable oeuvre. Benedict has the intellect but not the front, Francis the front but not the intellect. Providence might be telling us it’s time for a new, older form of shepherding. More homely and less travelled. More contemplative and less immediate. Something more like the mystique of those prisoner popes.