In their contempt for Pope Francis, radical anti-Bergoglio Catholics even avoid mentioning him by name. The Pope becomes “the Argentine of Santa Marta”: Francis is the “Argentine,” just as John Paul II was the “Pole” and Benedict XVI the “German shepherd” (as if he was some breed of dog). These forms of clerical racism, especially common in Italy, remind us that contempt for the pope has often been the case; for the last few, especially.
Paul VI, the pope of Vatican II, was the object of continuous attacks from the political right, often the target of satirical cartoons and mockery. Many of today’s conservatives remember him only for his speech about the “smoke of Satan” entering the post-conciliar Church and for Humanae Vitae, which restated the Church’s restrictions on abortion and contraception. His social documents, beginning with Populorum progressio, are barely remembered.
John Paul II shared the same destiny. He was praised on the political front by those who considered him a bulwark against Soviet-style communism and the figurehead of Poland’s fight to rid itself of its dictatorship. He was equally lauded by those who thought his correctives to Marxist-derived liberation theology were necessary to maintain the faith. After 1989, however, many of those who had enthusiastically supported him fell away. His criticisms of capitalism were not appreciated, and many considered his 1986 meeting in Assisi with representatives of the world’s religions to be a surrender to relativism. Nor did they like his request, on behalf of the universal Church, for forgiveness of its past mistakes and sins during the Great Jubilee of 2000. In the conservative mindset, the Church is exempt from mistakes and sins, and therefore ought never to submit itself to the judgement of the world.
The starkest opposition, however, was in 2003-2004, at the dawn of the U.S. war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. An old and ill Pope raised himself as a lion against President George W. Bush and his Western Christian crusade against the (Islamic) “Axis of Evil.” On that occasion, many of those who had supported and lauded the young John Paul II’s fight against communism abandoned him. It seems that they had been by his side only because of their own political leanings. It was due to these very same leanings that they then abandoned him.
To quote an article I wrote in 2003, “That world, otherwise zealous in defending the right to life and rights of the family, finds itself defending Bush–whom they consider the best interpreter of the Kingdom of the Good–against the Pope. They blur the position of John Paul II in order to see him not as a ‘pacifist,’ but a ‘soldier Pope’; they demarcate the boundaries of the ‘just’ autonomy of the kingdom of Caesar with respect to that of God. Ultramontanism then becomes the substance of a separation of church and state in which the Christian conscience represents the moral legitimization of worldly power.”
Catholic conservatives–who anointed John Paul II their champion for opposition to Marxism and in their fight against abortion and in defense of the family–turned their backs in the decisive hour. Political ideology, in this case that of the theocons, is what determined their distance or closeness to the Pope.
This same ideology explains the initial sympathies toward Benedict XVI. This sympathy later became disappointment when Ratzinger did not prove to be the “German shepherd” that many had hoped for. During the last days of his pontificate, figures in the conservative and right-wing media were palatably critical. This is not even to say anything about Benedict’s resignation, an unheard of gesture, unpardonable for those proponents of “Ratzingarianism” as an ideology.
Starting in 1978, the year of Paul VI’s death, a conspicuous part of the Catholic world, disappointed by and afraid of the problematic results of the Second Vatican Council and much of the Marxist-inspired, and socially-engaged, theology of the time, began judging pontiffs based on their vicinity to Republican led-U.S. administrations — the incarnate power of the Western order. It is this behavior, rather widespread today, that expressed itself in the National Conservatism Conference held in Rome at the beginning of this month. For those present, such as Viktor Orbán, Georgia Meloni, and Rod Dreher (author of The Benedict Option), the John Paul II that deserves to be remembered is the one who worked closely with the U.S. of Ronald Reagan in its fight against worldwide communism. And from Reagan, this mindset then looks to the Bushes, both senior and junior, and then to Trump, skipping over Clinton and Obama. In this mindset, secular power precedes the Pope, and it is by this model that the successor of Peter is judged.
As a result what we see is a Caesaropapism, historically a characteristic of the Eastern Church, root itself in the West. Western, and westernizing, Catholics today label Francis an “Obamian,” a pawn out of place, a wavering and destabilizing figure. What separates Francis and their ideology is his attention to the poor and migrants, a social question that demands political judgments. Beginning with a political evaluation and influenced by an overtly conservative orientation, the “religious” opposition to the Pope is born. The political critique precedes and provides the basis for the religious critique. For those with a right-wing political vision, this Pope is disliked. In the same way that those with left-wing visions often criticized John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
The primacy of political judgments over religious ones leads to a moat being dug between one part of the Catholic world and the Popes. This primacy is caused by political theology, a formula that indicates the successful secularization of faith. It’s ironic that today, those who accuse the Pope of relativism and modernism represent–in actual fact–the expression of a metamorphosed sensus fidei: from the primacy of the religious to the primacy of the political. Catholic conservatives denounce, without relenting, this process of secularization and the effects it has. And they believe the Pope himself bears part of the blame. They don’t realize that they themselves are products of this secularization; they are being toyed with by an adversary who has proven more skilled and strong than their own beliefs.
Cloistered in a Church under siege, in a perpetual war against the world, those of this mindset become functional cogs in the broader mechanisms of power. Their place is on the side of the U.S. and–regardless of the policies of their own governments–in support of the State of Israel. They call themselves sovereignists, and therefore opposed to the supposed globalism of Francis, yet they do not recognize that the degradation of Europe corresponds to the plans of other world powers. They are against Europe and, at the same time, loyal soldiers of today’s U.S. government. Those who are against the Pope, as it has always been, do not serve the Church — despite what they say — but secular power. Caesaropapism is just as rampant in the West as it is in the East. Those who do not realize this, and who believe to be simply fighting for the triumph of religion, are nothing but puppets in the hands of world powers.
This is a WPI translation of the original essay, published in Italian by Il Sussidiario. Used with permission.
Photo Credit: Adobe Stock.
Massimo Borghesi is professor of moral philosophy at the University of Perugia. He is the author of several books, including volumes on Augusto del Noce, Luigi Giussani, and political theology. More recently, he is the author of The Mind of Pope Francis: Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s Intellectual Journey.