Sinking ships

Is Pope Francis taking his own supporters down with him

The Vatican has just renewed its secret provisional agreement with China. It is clear high-ranking prelates in Vatican’s inner circle felt the need to defend the agreement which has been controversial from the beginning and which has come under additional scrutiny as Cardinal Zen is facing a political trial in Hong Kong while China’s totalitarianism and threats are only increasing.

But it wasn’t just Francis’ controversial right-hand man Parolin who defended the deal, Cardinal Tagle, former prefect of the congregation of the Evangelization of peoples (appointed by Francis in 2018) and now pro-prefect of the dicastery of evangelization, and considered by many to be the most likely candidate to become the next Progressive pope.

That Francis’ biggest prospective successor (at least till recently) has now officially defended the ever more disputed agreement with China might really complicate the situation for a new conclave, which is getting closer every day. Much speculation about Francis’ health and the Vatican’s poor responses as well as the increasingly erratic nature of Francis’ policies and public utterances have added to the feverish speculation regarding an impending conclave and now the strongest candidate to become Francis the second has openly linked himself to one of the most contested elements of Francis’ papacy, even amongst Francis’ supporters.

Tagle´s own predecessor as prefect for evangelization, Cardinal Filoni, recently came out defending Cardinal Zen, even though Filoni was not seen as part of the group of loud anti-Francis cardinals.

Tagle had already faced some criticism in his own country do for being too partisan political and not handling certain abuse cases properly.

For possible future Progressive popes to not distance themselves a little from Francis seems dangerous. Cardinals need to get two thirds of the votes of the other cardinals to be elected. Because of this it generally helps when a cardinal is:

• Not too openly ambitious

• Experienced and respected in various Church fields

• Not too controversial or out of touch with a majority of bishops and specifically cardinals

Francis and his inner circle have been piling on controversies recently. It are no longer just Reactionaries who oppose them. Even Progressives who liked Francis initially, who support the general course of his papacy and who hope he will achieve more before he goes don’t really like his government of the Church any more.

Conclave speculators have consistently spoken off how appearing too close to Francis and his every decision could be disadvantageous to progressive cardinals. Yet during this year, nearly all Leftist cardinals have done things to turn away Centrist and moderate Conservative cardinal voters. Tagle’s defense of the agreement with Xi is just the latest part of this trend. The appointment of an atheist abortion supporter to the pontifical academy of life founded by Pope John Paul II has proved a huge controversy while the Vatican’s mishandling of abuse by Bishop Belo shows the Vatican under Francis will never deal consistently with accusations of sexual misconduct. Francis’ friends will get everything, his enemies will get the (canon) law.

But it seems like an even worse liability for Tagle to be linked to Francis and Parolin’s controversial China deal considering one of his biggest selling points was that he would be the first Asian Pope. China is a rather controversial issue people in neighboring Asian countries, including some Cardinals like Cardinal Bo from Burma. Tagle already had some possible Asian contenders, Ranjith for example, and if many Asian cardinals don’t vote for him on the first ballot, his prospects might immediately vanished as happened with Cardinal Scola in 2013 when several of his fellow Italian cardinals did not vote for him.

Nearly all of the progressive cardinal candidates, whether Francis 2.0’s or alternative progressives like Zuppi are Western European. The only well-known exception is Cardinal Tagle from the Philippines. Roche, the recently appointed cardinal and prefect of the dicastery of divine worship is from the UK, Grech the secretary of the synod is from Malta, the previously mentioned Zuppi is Italian and president of the Italian’s bishop conference, Gambetti is also Italian and even the occasionally mentioned Mendonça very recently made prefect of the dicastery of education and culture is from Portugal.

Most of the cardinals lack any kind of broad appeal that could easily build consensus support for them.

Gambetti is extremely close to Francis and has no experience leading a diocese as bishop or a curia department. Mendonça was never bishop and until recently was only the head librarian in the Vatican, his real curia experience having only just started. His main experience is as a poet. I am honestly confused why either of these 2 men are sometimes mentioned.

Roche does have experience as both a bishop and now as a prefect. He has obediently carried out Francis most heavy-handed policies, his attacks on the Tridentine mass (which has been resisted by a supermajority of bishops even Progressives). Beyond this he has little specific charm or theology beyond recently pushing a more radical interpretation of Vatican II. An interpretation that seems to be contrary to John Paul and Benedict XVI and to be used by a radical minority currently pushing extreme change within the Church.

This is the real issue, Francis’ ambiguity and his unwillingness to actively restrain Far Left fellow travelers has made many of his ideas and reforms suspect. They increasingly appear to encourage an outright break with his still living predecessor and to threaten schism within the Church.

Most cardinals at this point will likely view a return to the style and content of John Paul II and Benedict XVI as a return to stability, sanity, clarity

The more moderate Left Zuppi, who has supported James Martin’s controversial book, but also supported more Conservative groups promoting chastity to homosexuals seemed like he could present himself as a moderate Progressive. Pastoral, but not a doctrinal revolutionary. Possibly acceptable to the centre-Right. Yet a few months ago he suddenly allowed an unofficial blessing of a married gay couple in his archdiocese, just after being elected president of the Italian bishops’ conference.

Yet this did not go as far as Cardinal Grech’s recent antics, even though he was until recently viewed as a possible compromise Centrist candidate. Grech was a Conservative bishop in Malta under Benedict XVI, then turned seemingly moderate (but heavy-handed) progressive under Francis after Labour won big in his country. He was criticized by local Catholics but acted like a nodding yes-man under Francis. Was appointed cardinal and secretary of the synod and said little for a couple of years. He was involved in a financial scandal involving a care-home for the elderly that did not actually help the elderly in his country. But suddenly a few months ago, as the synod of synodality off which he is secretary seemed to have become a deflating balloon and Germany’s synodal path became ever more controversial, Grech removed all ambiguity and firmly aligned himself with the Progressives. He criticized the more than 100 bishops (including at least 2 cardinal electors) who had criticized Germany’s radical synodal path (even though several cardinal electors in Rome added their own attacks on the synodal path). Appealing almost exclusively to Progressive Western prelates, he suggested an opening for loosening priestly celibacy and even possible openness to blessing gay couples.

He founded his own press office separate from the Vatican and seemed to chart his own (and more openly radical) course off the synod, possibly anticipating Francis’ near future departure.

Then Francis suddenly extended the synod by another year, adding more uncertainty and stretching out any revolutionary momentum Grech may have been trying to channel.

Zuppi at this point ironically once again seems like the most moderate of the Progressive candidates by default. But he would be the first Italian Pope Since John Paul I. This seems less likely now that the percentage of Italian cardinals has shrunk significantly further under Francis. He also has no curia experience. His rapid rise amongst the Italian bishops was first enabled by him appearing close to Francis, then by taking a more autonomous decision as Francis became more controversial. His political signaling and support from political factions betray pretty clear ambitions and he is relatively young.

In the end, a rather young, clearly ambitious Italian cardinal has probably ruined his chances by allowing and then lying about the first clandestine gay blessing in all Italian Catholic churche. This will probably be a deal-breaker for African and Eastern European cardinals. While he has shown himself friendly to the Tridentine mass this won’t sway truly Reactionary cardinals to overlook the homosexuality stuff, and the old mass is less of a pressing issue to moderate Right and Centrist cardinals then the issue of whether to condone practicing homosexuality. Especially with the Flemish bishops have enflamed the controversy with their recent (totally not a) gay blessing ceremony, the synodal path in Germany and stories about homosexual cardinals enabling child abuse, along with general opposition to Western values being pushed in the second and third world.

Ouellet, the moderate Conservative Canadian prefect of the dicastery had been accused by a Canadian woman of inappropriate conduct more then 10 years ago. This has weakened his chances also but the accusation was also kept secret and mishandled by Francis for which Francis’ was also criticized by his most supportive friends in the media.

The only real cardinals in between the orthodox and Progressive factions now appear to be Cardinal Turkson from Ghana Africa and recently appointed Cardinal Goh from Singapore Asia.

Considering the fact that Francis increased the percentage of African cardinals from 9 to 11 % and the percentage of Asian cardinals from 11 to 17 %, they seemed worth analyzing.

Turkson was already a candidate in 2013. Before Francis he defended laws criminalizing homosexual practices. Under Francis he became one of the most moderate African cardinals on this issue. He openly supported Greta Thunberg. Was made prefect for integral development by Francis but then replaced and honestly seems like a Green African Centrist but just not very competent for curia work, not very inspiring on any theological level.

Goh in this sense has the least baggage, and would appear like the most logical compromise candidate. He has hinted a different stance on China, is from a multireligious and multi-racial state, has promoted interreligious dialogue but not relativism, defended Church teachings on sexual ethics yet praised Francis’ inclusivity towards those who could not live up to the Church’s  teachings just after being nominated cardinal, while his archdiocese quickly changed its stance regarding the repeal of the anti-sodomy law in Singapore from opposition to neutrality (on the condition that gay marriage would be constitutionally banned). He also indicated that he had totally not expected to be made cardinal and had hoped to gracefully finish his term as archbishop and retire. He showed himself definitely not ambitious.

I believe he wants to be the next Pope but is more subtle in his ambitions. He might be the dark horse candidate.

Ramon Giralt

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *