Remember this from January?

The serpent in the Garden of Eden hissed the first fake news to Eve and it all went downhill from there, Pope Francis wrote in a major document about the phenomenon of fake news released on Wednesday.

“We need to unmask what could be called the ‘snake-tactics’ used by those who disguise themselves in order to strike at any time and place,” the pope wrote in a message ahead of what the church has designated as its World Day of Social Communications, in May.

Arguing that the “crafty” serpent’s effective disinformation campaign to get Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge “began the tragic history of human sin,” he added, “I would like to contribute to our shared commitment to stemming the spread of fake news.”

Well, well, well:

Stung by accusations of spreading “fake news,” the Vatican on Saturday released the complete letter by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI about Pope Francis after coming under blistering criticism for selectively citing it in a press release and digitally manipulating a photograph of it.

The previously hidden part of the letter provides the full explanation why Benedict refused to write a commentary on a new Vatican-published compilation of books about Francis’ theological and philosophical background that was released to mark his fifth anniversary as pope.

In addition to saying he didn’t have time, Benedict noted that one of the authors involved in the project had launched “virulent,” ”anti-papist” attacks against his teaching and that of St. John Paul II. He said he was “surprised” the Vatican had chosen the theologian to be included in the 11-volume “The Theology of Pope Francis.”

“I’m certain you can understand why I’m declining,” Benedict wrote.

Along the lines of what Matthew Schmitz said, the contempt Pope Francis and his regime have for the thought and legacies of Benedict XVI and John Paul II is breathtaking. In the Czech Republic last week, I talked to a devoutly Catholic woman — one with an advanced religious education — who told me that this Pope actually frightens her, because of the confusion and instability surrounding him. “From day to day, we don’t know what’s coming next,” she said.

As Ross Douthat puts it in his column today:

But there is no sign as yet that Francis’s liberalization is bringing his lapsed-Catholic admirers back to the pews; from Germany to Australia to his native Latin America, the church’s institutional decline continues. And sustaining a for-the-time-being Catholicism, as his immediate predecessors did, is not an achievement to be lightly dismissed. Whereas accelerating division when your office is charged with maintaining unity and continuity is a serious business — especially when the eventual resolution is so bafflingly difficult to envision or predict.

It is wise for Francis’ Catholic critics to temper our presumption, always, by acknowledging the possibility that we are misled or missing something, and that this story could end with this popular pope proven to be visionary and heroic.

But to choose a path that might have only two destinations — hero or heretic — is also an act of presumption, even for a pope. Especially for a pope.

By the way, Douthat’s new book on Pope Francis and his times, To Change the Church, will be published in just over a week. I highly recommend it. I try to follow this stuff in the Catholic Church fairly closely, but I learned a number of things from Douthat’s book that I didn’t know. The crisis is much more serious than I previously thought. If you have even a passing interest in Catholic affairs or the religious history of our era, you really have to read this book. It’s going to be big. Richard Rex’s review in First Things indicates why: because Douthat understands the theological stakes. Excerpt:

It looks as though the position for Catholics in the West may become more difficult in the near future. There are already calls in Britain and Europe to exclude from the medical professions persons who are unwilling to perform abortions or to collaborate in their organization or provision. A number of Catholic charities in Britain found they could no longer lawfully provide adoption services on account of their incapacity, for reasons of conscience, to offer children for adoption by same-sex couples. The exclusion of Rocco Buttiglione from high public office in the European Union in 2004 on grounds tied directly to his religious beliefs is indeed unlikely to be repeated—for who would be so foolish as to propose what we might call a “public” Catholic for such a public office again? That is how discrimination works. Subaltern groups learn their allotted position in society, and a degree of complicity in it can become the condition of their continued tenure of that position. The fact that such discrimination, were it to arise, would be carried out in the name of equality and nondiscrimination would lend it not only piquancy but almost irresistible social power and legitimacy.

In such a world, it would be for Catholics to learn from the counsel and example of Thomas More. If you cannot achieve the good, as he said in Utopia, then you can at least try to secure the least harm. For him, participation in public life was all about advising the sovereign, the king. And that could mean showing some tact and diplomacy. Today, the people are sovereign, and participation in politics therefore means advising the people. It turns out that the people en masse are as willful and prone to flattery as any Tudor monarch. In such a world, we should also remember More’s example. We don’t need to go looking for trouble. We can let it come to find us, and hope it passes us by. But if and when it does find us, then we have to look to conscience and steer by the stars of justice and truth.

What we might bear in mind, if we are disturbed by the policies of the leaders of the Church in such a situation, is that the duties of conscience apply just as much to our relationship with the Church as to our relationship with the state. If our leaders fail, then we should criticize, appropriately and helpfully. If they need to be reminded of the truths that have been entrusted to them, then it is our duty to remind them. There may well be, there certainly will be—as there certainly have been only too recently—abuses within the Church and failures by its leaders. Faith in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church requires us to soldier on, minding our consciences, upholding the truth out of love, and avoiding evil and false doctrine.

If, however, the Catholic Church were indeed to abandon or reverse the almost total opposition to divorce that it has maintained across two millennia, then its claim to be the privileged vehicle of divine revelation on moral issues would be, quite simply, shattered. The position of the Church on the indissolubility of marriage is among the most consistent of its traditions. Its scriptural basis is, frankly, stronger than that for the doctrine of the Trinity, for the observance of Sunday as the day of rest, or for the real presence in the Eucharist. To all intents and purposes, it is a mark of the Church. Nor should this claim be theologically surprising. Marriage, as Paul taught, symbolizes the union of Christ and his Church (Eph. 5:31–32). For Christians, the indissolubility of marriage is integral to its symbolic—that is, its sacramental—place in the economy of salvation. If it is terminable, then it can no longer symbolize that perfect union between the head and the body of Christ.

If, after all, marriage is not a divine union of male and female in one flesh, dissolved only by the inevitable dissolution of that flesh in death, then the Catholic Church has, in the name of Christ, needlessly tormented the consciences of untold numbers of the faithful for twenty centuries. If this teaching were to be modified in the name of mercy, then the Church would already have been outdone in mercy not only by most other religions but even by the institutions and impulses of the modern secular state. Such a conclusion would definitively explode any pretension to moral authority on the part of the Church. A church which could be so wrong, for so long, on a matter so fundamental to human welfare and happiness could hardly lay claim to decency, let alone infallibility.

Or, to put it more piquantly:

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I had never thought of it this way, but maybe Catholics in particular need the Benedict Option to preserve the legacy of Benedict XVI — and, in turn, the Catholic tradition — through this confusing time of crisis within their Church. I certainly did not write the book in opposition to Pope Francis, who doesn’t appear in the text. But it’s becoming ever more clear with Father Spadaro, Cardinal Cupich, and others in Francis’s inner circle hate the book, and the idea. And it’s becoming clearer why the Vaticanist Sandro Magister called the Benedict Option idea “a matter of global import.” I saw this with my own eyes the past few days in Hungary and the Czech Republic: Catholics who care about their own tradition are profoundly unsettled by what’s going on in both the world and their Church. They are accustomed to regarding the Church, and the papacy, as a center point in an ever-moving world. But it is no longer so. That’s why The Benedict Option urges all Christians (including Catholics) to anchor themselves deeply in Scripture and Tradition, and into small communities that are so anchored, so as not to be carried away by the tide of faddish liquid modernity. Catholic Ben Op communities will hold on to what their Church has always taught, and will not be confused.