So that’s it, then. Pope Francis finds his voice. In the face of opposition, disobedience and intimidation, Francis has finally confronted the triumvirate of cardinals in the Vatican who are opposing the central thrust of his papacy, the reform of the Catholic Church as proposed by the Second Vatican Council.
The Tablet, a long-established and normally a very careful and very English journal, often almost oblique and good-mannered in its criticism, has taken the unusual course of naming the names: Cardinal Gerhard Muller, Cardinal Marc Ouellet and Cardinal Robert Sarah. Under the provocative heading ‘Francis must put his foot down’, an editorial surmises that even though the three may feel that, with a papacy heading in the wrong direction, foot-dragging is a duty, that does not mean that Francis has to put up with them.
Even though Francis has very publicly told members of the Roman Curia that they often suffered from ‘the pathology of power’ which produced ‘ a superiority complex’ (and the attitude of the three cardinals has once again demonstrated it) he has held back from actually confronting them. But the imperative of his reform programme and the growing unease of his supporters now seem to have persuaded him to take action.
So what’s happening? Cardinal Robert Sarah is in charge of ‘Divine Worship’.
The last great initiative of his department in the Vatican was to push through a new English translation of the Missal. If there’s one thing that most priests agree on (and, believe me, they agree on very little) it’s that the new Missal has been a disaster; sometimes unreadable, because of its long rambling clauses and often inexplicable, because it insists on using words that no one understands, like the word ‘prevenient’. But I ramble . . .
Last week Cardinal Sarah, at a conference in London, suggested that priests would be asked, from next Advent, to say Mass facing towards the east, rather than towards the people, out of respect for a centuries old tradition. This proposal would mean that priests could be facing any which way in their churches (I’d be facing into the sacristy in Moygownagh). It’s an incomprehensible, unworkable and daft suggestion. Sarah also announced that Pope Francis had asked him to begin a study of ‘the reform of the reform’, short-hand for re-traditionalising the way we worship.
After the out-cry that followed the stunned silence in the immediate aftermath of the announcements, Francis made a statement, effectively disciplining the cardinal. He said two things: (i) no, there wouldn’t be any announcement about priests facing east or west or any other way; and (ii) he hadn’t asked Cardinal Sarah to begin a study of the Vatican Two inspired liturgy, and they had agreed (after a meeting) that the cardinal would stop using that formula, ‘reform of the reform’.
It was the most public dressing down of a cardinal by a pope in recent memory. Yes, of course, it was couched in diplomatic language Cardinal Sarah has always rightly been concerned about the dignity of the celebration of the Mass, some of his expressions were misinterpreted, etc, etc but the message couldn’t be clearer. This was a papal rap on the knuckles, if ever there was one.
The reprimand was a long time coming. When Francis wanted to change the rule about women not being allowed to participate in the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday (actually, a practice more honoured in the breach than in the observance) he followed the usual protocols of proposing the change to Cardinal Sarah and his department. After a year when he heard nothing back (they live within a stone’s throw of each other) he just announced the decision himself. In Vatican circles humiliating the Pope and undermining his reforms can sometimes seem to be par for the course.
The difficult truth, for Francis, is that some cardinals are out of control and acting as if they can, separately from the pope and against his better judgement, decide what’s good for the Church. It is as if the Catholic Church was some kind of private club (where the rules can be modified by our betters with a chat over a cup of coffee) rather than a worldwide faith-community of more than a billion members. Sir Humphrey Appleby-types plotting in the background need to be put firmly in their place.
Hopefully this more robust style will send the right messages. Cardinal Marc Oellet is in charge of the appointment of bishops and while the expectation of the Church and of Francis is that new appointees would reflect his approach, as far as bishops appointments go in Ireland none of Cardinal Oellet’s men seem to have what Francis calls ‘the smell of the sheep’ about them. They seem more like Pope Benedict’s appointees, which of course coincidentally the present papal nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown, happens to be. And there’s growing dissatisfaction, indeed exasperation, that Cardinal Muller is out of tune with the Francis approach.
What Cardinals Sarah, Oellet and Muller need to be told is that the present shenanigans in the Vatican are undoing necessary reforms, shaming and scandalising our people and compromising the respect and obedience Francis deserves as the leader of our Church.
Francis has time and again outlined his unhappiness with the ambitions and conspiracies at the heart of the Vatican, flashing the odd yellow card in the direction of some of the most recalcitrant cardinals, like the hapless Cardinal Burke. Maybe it’s time for him to take out the red card and send some of the cardinals for an early bath or better still (as is the tradition of the Church from time immemorial), appointing them to difficult curacies in rural Guinea, downtown Quebec or back home in Mainz.
As Butch Cassidy said to the Sundance Kid all those years ago, Who are these guys?
Fr Brendan Hoban; Western people and ACP website; 18 July 2016
* For non football fans: a referee shows a player a red card to indicate the dismissal of the player from the game after a serious, deliberate and often cynical breach of rules by the player in an effort to gain unfair advantage over the opposing team.