The title “Dictator Pope” is the name of a book that appeared Monday in English (after earlier publication in Italian) by a writer who has assumed a grand Renaissance pseudonym: Marcantonio Colonna (an admiral at Lepanto). He evidently could not publish under his real name, for fear of reprisals. But the case he lays out is largely convincing: that Pope Francis has carefully cultivated an image in public as the apostle of mercy, kindness, and openness; in private, he’s authoritarian, given to profanity-laced outbursts of anger, and manipulative in pursuing his agenda.
This is hardly news, least of all in Rome. This volume, however, is far more probing and detailed than anything that has previously appeared. It sometimes stretches evidence, but the sheer amount of evidence it provides is stunning. About 90 percent of it is simply incontrovertible, and cannot help but clarify who Francis is and what he’s about.
The parts of this story I know best – the Synods on the family that I reported on daily from Rome for TCT – are absolutely reliable. We know, for example, that Pope Francis was quite willing to openly manipulate the Synods by personally appointing supporters of the Kasper Proposal and that he even intervened personally at key points, changing procedures and instructing the bishops about where their deliberations should start – and end.
When Francis cares about something – as Colonna shows – he makes it happen, whatever the opposition (at the Synods, it was considerable). There’s a clear pattern of behavior, whatever uncertainties remain. On the divorced and remarried, the environment, immigrants, “Islamophobia,” the poor, the pope is relentless. But he was not elected to revolutionize marital doctrine or “discipline.” Nor was he chosen to be a player in international politics. He was elected to be a “reformer” who would mainly clean up Vatican finances and deal with the gay lobby, two things that played a role in Benedict’s resignation.
On the financial front, there was a strong start: The council of cardinals, Cardinal Pell’s effort to inject Anglo-Saxon transparency, a new special secretariat on the economy, hiring PriceWaterhouseCoopers to do an external audit. The momentum stalled as the old guard slowly regained control over Vatican finances – and oversight. A series of Vatican Bank presidents, officials, accountants, etc. – probably getting too close to the truth – have been fired without good explanations. (Something similar played out in the Knights of Malta controversy.) Pell had to return to Australia to deal with sexual abuse charges from forty years ago that, suspiciously, resurfaced after being earlier examined and dismissed.
And where was the pope during all of this? He didn’t seem very interested. If he had been, he’d be at least as dogged in dealing with financial reform as he is, say, about global warming. Austen Ivereigh, a British writer and papal fan, entitled his biography The Great Reformer, in part because of Jorge Bergoglio’s alleged role in curbing abuses in Buenos Aires. Colonna doubts the truth of that account, and not only because of Francis’s lack of action in Rome. He thinks the Argentinian stories should be re-examined.
Then there’s the gay mafia. People forget that the occasion for Francis’ famous remark “Who am I to judge?” was not a general comment about homosexuality. It was in response to a question about Msgr. Battista Ricca, who was involved in several notorious homosexual scandals, some right across the river from Buenos Aires in Uruguay. Nonetheless, right after the 2013 papal election, he became the pope’s “eyes and ears” at the Vatican Bank and director of the Casa Santa Marta, where Francis resides.
And then there’s the troubling, casual resurrection of figures like Cardinal Gottfried Daneels, once thoroughly discredited for his support for contraception, divorce, gay marriage, even euthanasia and abortion – and outrageous mishandling of priestly abuse. But he stood with Francis on the balcony of St. Peter’s right after the conclave and read the prayer for the new pope at his inauguration. He was also one of the ringers Francis personally invited to bolster his case at the Synods.
Then there’s the appointment of another radical, Archbishop Paglia, to head the “reformed” John Paul II Institute on Marriage and the Family. In a remarkably naked authoritarian move, the pope substituted himself for Cardinal Sarah for the institute’s opening academic address in 2016, and spoke of “a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage.” You have to believe that Cardinal Marx was expressing the truth when he said, at the end of the synods, that it was just the beginning.
The least satisfactory part of this book for me is the account of how the “St. Gallen Group” – one of its own members called it a “mafia” – which met to plan opposition to St. JPII and Joseph Ratzinger, identified Jorge Bergoglio as a future papal candidate. He had no global visibility until he gave the concluding address at the 2001 Synod on the role of bishops. NYC’s Cardinal Edward Egan was supposed to do that but stayed home because 9/11 had just happened. The address impressed the synod fathers for its fairness to both sides. Colonna reveals, however, that it was entirely the work of a Synod secretary/speechwriter, Msgr. Daniel Emilio Estivill. We need to know more about how things went, from then to now.
Colonna also weakens his credibility somewhat by repeating rumors that Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin convinced Francis to use money from Peter’s Pence to support Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. No footnotes appear to support this claim, nor does Colonna offer a plausible account of how and why Rome would think Mrs. Clinton – Hilary Clinton? – worth such a risky bet and potential scandal.
Despite a few lapses, the most disturbing element remains: the abundant evidence – confirmed by many particular instances now over years of this papacy – that the pope has little use for established procedures, precedents, even legal structures within the Church. These are not mere trivial rules, Pharisaic legalism, resistance to the Holy Spirit, etc. They are the means by which the Church seeks to be clear, fair, and orderly – and to address unjust actions or abuses by those in power.
When the head of the Church himself does not much feel bound by the tradition or impartial laws he has inherited, what then? That the question even has to be asked is disturbing. Any answer will have to reckon with the eye-opening material in this compelling book.