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A group of the Catholic Church’s most notorious far-left dissenters has issued an open letter and petition attacking any questioning of the statements and actions of Pope Francis. The controversy was touched off by an article appearing over the holidays in Italy’s daily Corriere della Sera by the country’s most senior Vatican specialist, Vittorio Messori, who spoke of Pope Francis’s “perplexing” habit of apparent contradictions between his actions and statements, with which he is “disturbing the tranquility of the average Catholic.”

The petition calls for a “Stop on attacks on Pope Francis.” It says, “At first, the chatter on the ‘strange Pope’ starts quietly, then gradually becomes more and more obvious before the openings of Pope Francis having to do with families.” Before mentioning Messori, it targets the “five cardinals… (Müller, Burke, Brandmüller, Caffara and De Polis), including the Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith, who have strengthened the face of opponents who see Pope Francis as a ‘danger’ that must be stopped at all costs.”

The comment is directed at those cardinals who vigorously defended the Church’s teaching and practice against those at the 2014 Synod on the Family who were demanding a change over communion for those in “irregular” sexual situations. That group included Cardinal George Pell who is a sitting member of Pope Francis’s own private “council of nine.”  

Pope Francis, the petition says, is seen by such people as “dangerous because he proclaims the Gospel, sharing the Second Vatican Council, for too long frozen.”

“We cannot be silent and we cry with strength to take the side of Pope Francis. Our appeal is to women and men of good will, without distinction of any kind; we want to create around him a circle of support and prayer, affection and convinced solidarity.” Among the signatories is the Italian branch of “We are Church,” the grandfather of left-liberal campaign groups and the Italian Base Communities that work to implement Marxist theories in the Church.

A lead voice against Messori is the notorious Brazilian former Franciscan priest and radical theologian, Leonardo Boff, a key figure in the ongoing internal struggle over the secularization of the Catholic Church. On his blog, Boff wrote that Messori “has tried to damage this joy [of Christmas] for the good shepherd of Rome and the world, Pope Francis. But in vain, because he does not know the meaning of the mercy and spirituality of this pope.”

“Behind the words of compassion and understanding, [Messori] brings a poison. And he does so in the name of so many others who are hiding behind him and did not dare to appear in public.” Such Catholics, Boff added, are “cultural Catholics accustomed to the figure of a Pharaonic Pope with all the symbols of the power of the emperors Roman pagans.” Their theological shortcomings include “the near absence of the Holy Spirit.”

Boff is best known as one of the leaders in the liberation theology movement, a project wedding Catholic theology to Marxism that has gone mainstream throughout the Church in Latin America. When Cardinal Ratzinger, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, silenced Boff in 1985 over some of his theories, the Brazilian accused the future Pope Benedict XVI of “religious terrorism.”

In his attack on Messori, Boff took particular exception to the former’s mention of the “beloved” Pope Benedict XVI and other popes of this type. “Unfortunately, it was this vision [of Pope Benedict’s] that has made the Church a citadel, unable to understand the complexity of the modern world, isolated in the midst of other Churches and the spiritual paths, without dialogue and learn from each other, they also enlightened by the Spirit.”

In 2012, Boff signed, along with a who’s-who list of 200 radical feminist and extreme left theorists, to a document calling for the “democratization” of the papacy and the Church. Other signatories of the “Catholic Scholars' Declaration on Authority in the Church,” included the leading names of the 1970s radical liberal movement in the Church, Hans Küng and Gregory Baum, as well as the radical feminist writers Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sandra Schneiders, and Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza.

Boff has been one of Pope Francis’s most enthusiastic supporters, on whose election in March 2013 he said, “I am encouraged by this choice, viewing it as a pledge for a church of simplicity and of ecological ideals.”

Another prominent voice to take exception to Messori’s questions was the director of the Italian bishops’ newspaper Avvenire, Marco Tarquinio, who dedicated two pages to the controversy. Messori’s “bitter caricature of the Pope” has failed, Tarquinio wrote. “Christmas is not ‘marked’ by a new harsh (and unrecognizable) hypothesis messoriana…There is no doubt that the article by Messori is a means to excite divisions.” This has been followed by a flurry of editorials and posts to widely-read blogs echoing the accusations of “malice” from Tarquinio.

Messori, who made his fame with the landmark 1985 book-length interview The Ratzinger Report, wrote on Christmas Eve, “My evaluation of this papacy oscillates continually between adhesion and perplexity.” The changeable Francis, he said, has even caused “some of the cardinals who were among his electors to have second thoughts.”

“I was among those who expected a South American and a pastoral man, [with] daily experience of government, [an] almost admirable balance of a professor, a theologian far too refined for some palates, which was the beloved Joseph Ratzinger.” 

Such a pope was “not unexpected,” he said. “But now, since that very first ‘good evening,’” on the night of his election in 2013, Pope Francis “has proved unpredictable.” In an ecclesiastical atmosphere that encourages Catholics simply to “follow the pope” without thinking too much about their faith, Francis has caused problems with his wide swings between opposed ideas, Messori said.

On the one hand, Pope Francis often appears in some of his homilies at Santa Martha as an “old fashioned parish priest, with good advice and wise sayings, even with insistent warnings not to fall into the traps of the devil that we tend to.”

The next moment, he said, Francis is calling Jacinto Marco Pannella, the leader of Italy’s Radical Party, one of the world’s most virulently anti-clerical and anti-Catholic organizations “and wishes him ‘buon lavoro’ [‘good work’] when, for decades, the ‘work’ of the radical leader has consisted and consists of preaching that true charity is in the fight for divorce, abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality for all, the theory of gender and so on?”

Messori noted a parade of contradictions that have been noted by many others. He highlighted Francis’ Christmas speech to the Vatican’s Curia, in which the pope followed Pope Pius XII and St. Paul by defining the Church as the “mystical body of Christ.” But Messori noted that this followed his first interview with Italy’s notoriously anti-Catholic atheist Eugenio Scalfari, in which Francis “ridiculed those who thought that ‘God is Catholic,’ as if the divine Trinity and one, holy, apostolic, Roman Ecclesia was an optional accessory to hook [onto] or not, depending on your personal taste.”

“Is the Argentine Pope,” Messori asked, “conscious, from direct experience, of the drama of Latin America that is poised to become a formerly Catholic continent, with the shift in the mass of those peoples to Pentecostal Protestantism?”

“[C]ertain pastoral choices of the ‘bishop of Rome,’ as he prefers to be called, convince me, but others leave me puzzled.” Messori added that he is “perhaps suspicious of populism” that risks being “superficial and ephemeral.”

The vitriolic backlash against Messori’s editorial, wrote Riccardo Cascioli, editor of the Catholic opinion paper La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, has resembled a “media lynching” for which the petition from Boff and the radical left of former Catholic writers was only the culmination. Cascioli wrote that it has resembled a Soviet-style “people’s court,” in which daring to question the pope is regarded as “a declaration of war,” and “a warning of the mafia.”

“Those who live by ideology lose the sense of the ridiculous,” Cascioli commented. Those who have not read Messori’s article, he said, “would be inclined to think that there are contained some kind of terrible criticism of Pope Francis,” when in reality his were mild compared to that of Antonio Socci, the Italian journalist who authored the best-selling book, “He’s not Francis” calling into question the validity of the 2013 Conclave. 

“In a very Catholic way,” Messori has done what is perfectly admissible in the Church in having expressed “reservations or concerns about certain behaviors or actions (what however also provided by the Code of Canon Law), still in humility and respect.”

“The real reason why we witness the assault on Messori,” Cascioli said, is that these are “the same ones who threw mud hand over fist at [Francis’s] predecessors.” 


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