“You ought to be a model of justice, a mirror of holiness, an exemplar of piety, a proclaimer of truth, a defender of the Faith, the terror of the wicked, the glory of the good, the rod of the mighty, the hammer of tyrants, the father of kings, the moderator of laws, the God of Pharaoh…” — Saint Bernard of Clairvaux to Pope Eugene III
Have you noticed how quiet Pope Francis has been lately?
Maybe he has a lot on his mind. The coronavirus is still raging in Italy. His old friend Donald Trump is up for reelection in less than six months. And I guess he did find time to weigh in on the death of George Floyd.
Still, there hasn’t been a peep about women deacons or married priests. There’s been nary a whisper about neo-Pelagians or their saturnine headgear. What gives?
As I wrote in these pages back in March, I think the fallout from the Amazon Synod made Francis realize that he’s being used. After failing to endorse married priests and female deacons in his post-synodal exhortation Querida Amazonia, the Holy Father was inundated with abuse from frustrated, impatient progressives—fifth columnists from the City of Man—who were already peeved with the Supreme Pontiff for ordering the German bishops to cancel their synodal journey.
If I may quote myself (a cardinal sin among journalists!),
In his closing address to the Amazon Synod, a visibly irritated pontiff urged Catholics not to get bogged down in “intraecclesiastical matters—meaning, say this side won or that side won.” Yet surely nobody was playing politics more baldly than Claudio Cardinal Hummes, the Brazilian radical he appointed to lead the synod. That, I think, was the moment Francis realized that his friends weren’t really his friends, that they didn’t share his desire for reform, and that they were only pretending to love the poor and downtrodden as an excuse to ram through their own heterodox agenda.
Maybe I’m wrong. But, while the Pope’s many off-the-cuff statements to reporters and obscure, rambling encyclicals are full of confusion and contradiction, he was at least consistent in one sense: he was always talking. Now, he has fallen silent.
Vatican politics, in a way, seems to mirror American politics: center-left “reformists” are being drowned out by far-left, out-and-out revolutionaries. The question is, will those reformists realize their error and join with conservatives to stave off their erstwhile allies, or will they fall into line with their extremist comrades?
Mr. Pentin—as I’m sure Crisis readers know—is the Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Register and, for my money, the best Vatican reporter in the business. (I have his author page in my bookmark bar and check for updates daily.) The discussion, which was hosted by his publisher, included four other Catholic media luminaries: Ross Douthat of The New York Times, John Allen of Crux, and Roberto de Mattei of Corrispondenza Romana; journalist Diane Montagna served as moderator.
It’s the most varied forum of its kind, compassing an extraordinary range of views, from the traditionalist Professor de Mattei to the progressive Mr. Allen. And the conversation is as notable for its civility as for its informativeness.
Mr. Allen himself asked the $64 million question: “What is Francis’s impact going to be on the next papal election?” His answer? “The primary impact a pope ever has on a papal election is that he appoints the electoral college”:
By now, Pope Francis has appointed a little over 60 percent of the voting age cardinals. Presumably, if this papacy goes on another five to ten years, it will be well over 2/3rds, which is the number you need to elect a pope… It would be unreasonable to expect that a college of cardinals largely appointed by Francis will elect anyone who will be clearly seen as a repudiation of the Francis Legacy.
Well, yes—to a point. But let’s come back to that. Mr. Allen continues:
There is always an X-factor in every conclave. If there are going to be 120 cardinals voting in a conclave, you can start usually with at least half of those guys… You feel you’ve got a pretty solid read on, you know where they’re coming from. You can guess who they would be willing to support, who would be outside their comfort zone. Then you have to worry about the other half.
This time, I think it’s going to be more like, We’ll have that sense about maybe a third of the College. The other two thirds are going to be wild cards.
That’s the significance of the post-Querida fallout. The battle lines are being redrawn; the factions are shifting beneath the cardinals’ feet.
Professor de Mattei’s contributions were, to my mind, the most impressive. Following on Mr. Allen’s remark concerning the correspondence between successive papacies, he remarked:
The real problem today does not seem to be the relationship between one pontificate and another, but the relationship of the next pope with Vatican II, because all the popes since 1965 have referred to Vatican II positively, albeit of course with some differences. But it seems to me that a strong historical revision of Vatican II is underway, as is evident for example from the recent interventions of Archbishop Viganò and Bishop Schneider, who don’t come from traditionalism, but who have honestly faced a theological and cultural debate that seems necessary to me. And, so, the relationship with Vatican II will be a key point in the next pontificate.
Bear in mind, “Vatican II” doesn’t just mean the Novus Ordo vs. the Tridentine Mass. It doesn’t even necessarily mean the documents of the Second Vatican Council themselves. It means the whole spirit of accommodationism that characterized (and continues to characterize) the post-conciliar Church.
“The smoke of Satan has entered the Church of God,” warned Pope Saint Paul VI, who closed Vatican II. That is why the post-conciliar era has brought us the most precipitious drop in Mass attendance in the history of Christendom, a total collapse in catechesis, a near-fatal dearth in vocations to the priesthood, a proliferation of heterodoxy among the clergy and religious, and the proliferation of sexual sins among the clergy and laity alike. Not since the reign of Diocletian has the Catholic Church faced such concerted and overwhelming opposition.
Now, we needn’t necessarily conclude that Vatican II must be reversed in its entirety. But so much of the hierarchy has spent the past six decades acting as though the Second Vatican Council was a moment of “renewal” for Holy Mother Church. In fact, it was anything but. It was (to again quote Paul) a moment of “doubt, uncertainty, unrest, dissatisfaction, confrontation.” Professor de Mattei is right: whether he wants to or not, the next pope will preside over a complete re-evaluation of the merits of the Second Vatican Council. But, again, more on that in a moment.
Ross Douthat gave a level-headed breakdown of how the various tendencies within the Sacred College are likely to coalesce behind certain candidates. As he explained,
The sort of conventional view would be that there’s sort of an institutional candidate that would be someone like [Pietro] Cardinal Parolin, who would represent continuity with Francis but perhaps a more institutionalist bent. There’s a vision that would favor someone like [Luis Antonio] Cardinal Tagle of the Philippines, who would represent the sort of furthering of the Francis “Pastoral Revolution” that tests the boundaries of orthodoxy, you might say, in pursuit of pastoral goals. And then in theory there should also be a sort of conservative candidate.
Mr. Allen agreed. “I think probably Parolin is the safe bet,” he said, adding: “I think, for the—whatever you would call it, the ‘continuity camp,’ the more progressive camp—certainly Cardinal Tagle probably would be their bet.”
He’s right. Cardinal Parolin, as Secretary of State for the Holy See, is tremendously powerful within the Curia, despite commanding little affection among the laity. The architect of the Vatican’s concordat with communist China, it’s also likely that he is connected with the recent scandal over the Secretariat’s dubious investments in luxury English real estate.
The fact that he has yet to be prosecuted in the international courts is a testament to his extraordinary influence within the Vatican. Yet it also belies his flagrant disregard for popular opinion.
I wonder how many cardinals will be willing to vote for such a baldly “political” candidate.
Speaking of continuity, a Parolin papacy would symbolize a triumph of the bureaucracy following a pope who emphasized the “pastoral” aspects of the papacy above all.
On March 13, 2013, in his first speech upon being elected Supreme Pontiff, as he loomed over Saint Peter’s Square, Pope Francis repeatedly addressed the Diocese of Rome. It was as though he couldn’t conceive of serving as chief pastor to a worldwide flock: the Universal Church. Conversely, Cardinal Parolin would be the worldliest of Saint Peter’s 266 successors.
Cardinal Tagle, meanwhile, is not so much unpopular as he is totally obscure. Those who follow the inner machinations of the Vatican know that he has been aggressively promoted by Francis to high-level positions in the Holy See—most recently, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. He is obviously Francis’s appointed successor.
And yet, when even Pope Francis appears uncertain about his own position within the hierarchy, a “more-Francis-than-Francis” candidate may not be as appealing as one might otherwise assume. A pope willing to question the legacy of Pope Francis—like the legacy of Vatican II—may be exactly what the cardinal-electors are looking for.
Which brings us to the next question: who will be the “conservative” candidate?
John Allen doesn’t think the most obvious candidates really have a chance:
For the more conservative bloc in this conclave goes in knowing they’re not going to get a Burke or a Sarah… So, what they’re looking for may or may not exactly be in their camp, but someone with whom (if I can use this kind of language) with whom they think they can do business, who at least understands where they’re coming from and is not going to go too far too fast. But, meanwhile, it has to be somebody who is also acceptable to that 2/3rds-plus faction in the college that was appointed by Francis and doesn’t want to be seen as throwing all that out the window.
Yet Mr. Allen’s suggestion is, perhaps, even more unlikely: Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, an elusive and ambitious Austrian with a gift for making friends and then disappointing them. “That’s either going to make him a man without a country or a consensus favorite,” says Mr. Allen. I suspect it’s the latter.
Mr. Douthat said that he shares “some of [Mr. Allen’s] doubts about the papabilté of the most prominent conservative figures profiled in [Mr. Pentin’s] book, whether it’s Cardinal Raymond Burke or Cardinal Robert Sarah.”
I don’t agree. I think Cardinal Sarah is most likely to succeed Pope Francis.
Now, hear me out.
One can’t emphasize enough just how much uncertainty was introduced by the fallout from Querida. Even those churchmen who are loyal to Francis—who share his vision for reform and renewal—are also doubting the Pope’s alliance with radicals in the German bishops’ conference and liberation theologians like Cardinal Hummes.
And remember that, while the Pope may have appointed a supermajority of cardinals, he doesn’t know all of them personally. They’re not all necessarily clones of himself. After all, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was appointed by Pope Saint John Paul II.
In other words, many of them won’t only succumb to the post-Querida uncertainty. They won’t merely question the legacy of Francis’s papacy. They’ll question the entire paradigm of modern progressivism. They’ll begin to wonder if the Church hasn’t been ill-served by drawing too close to the City of Man. Their minds will begin tripping over long-forgotten reservations about the Second Vatican Council. They’ll begin to question the logic of the entire post-conciliar era. So much for Cardinal Tagle.
They will also grow disillusioned with the Holy See’s own craven politicking. They’ll cast a skeptical eye upon our Holy Mother’s alliance with hostile institutions like the United Nations and the Communist Party of China. Like Chesterton, they’ll cry: “We do not want a church that will move with the world. We want a church that will move the world.” So much for Cardinal Parolin.
More than anything, they’ll want a Church with some credibility.
The last two years have been humiliating for Rome. Lately, the Vatican has spent half of its time alienating pious Catholics by fomenting doctrinal confusion, and the other half trying to prevent utter ecclesial anarchy being released by avant-garde churchmen in Germany and South America.
To root the Church in her native soil, they’ll seek a man of great solemnity and inner strength—one deeply immersed in both Catholic tradition and Catholic spirituality. They’ll demand a teacher, but also a mystic: one able to assure the world that the Church is ultimately grounded in Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.
As Professor de Mattei said, “I believe in the Holy Spirit. And for this, I think that the cardinals should choose a pope, not to be political or worldly, but authentically religious—or, more precisely, holy.”
Imagine that: a religious pope—even a holy pope! A pope who believes that the Church’s duty is to engender supernatural faith in the laity! Whose first and only goal is to ensure that “the heart of Jesus, in the Most Blessed Sacrament, be praised, adored, and loved with grateful affection, at every moment, in all the tabernacles of the world, even to the end of time”!
It’s such a wholesome desire: a simple “reset” in the life of the Church. Forget all the intrigue and controversy. Throw off the desire for power and privilege. Turn your gaze to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of the Virgin Mary.
Cardinal Sarah has also long striven to restore a spirit of reverence to the Holy Sacrifice. As prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, he has not only fervently supported communities that wish to celebrate the Extraordinary Form: he has also encouraged liturgical norms that lend a deeper reverence to the Ordinary Form, such as celebrating Mass ad orientem, kneeling for Communion, and reception on the tongue.
Still, a Sarah papacy wouldn’t be a repudiation of Francis’s papacy. On the contrary: he has always been adamant that nothing he says contradicts the Holy Father. As he said in a powerful interview with the Corriere della Sera last year,
The truth is that the Church is represented on earth by the vicar of Christ—that is, by the pope. And whoever is against the pope is, ipso facto, outside the Church.
Those who place me in opposition to the Holy Father cannot present a single word of mine, a single phrase or a single attitude of mine to support their absurd—and I would say, diabolical—affirmations. The devil divides, sets people against each other.
I would add that every pope is right for his time. Providence looks after us very well, you know.
To retain the best of Francis’s pastoral solicitude, but to confront the dangers that have evolved grown out of the Vatican II era: there is no option but Robert Cardinal Sarah.
What man may be so readily called a model of justice, a mirror of holiness, an exemplar of piety, a proclaimer of truth, and a defender of the Faith? Who else may we trust to be the terror of the wicked, the glory of the good, the rod of the mighty, and the hammer of tyrants?
He may seem like a long-shot. But, like Professor de Mattei, I believe in the Holy Spirit. I believe that the hearts of our princes may be opened to a man of such extraordinary piety and plain reason: a faithful son of our Holy Mother Church and a true father to the laity in this time of crisis.
May the Lord Jesus not give us the pontiff we deserve, but the pontiff we need.
Saint Peter, ora pro nobis.