One of the most shocking things I encountered in my trip to Italy this autumn was the belief that criticism of Pope Francis over abuse and corruption — especially the Viganò allegations — are fruits of a conspiracy ginned up by rich American Catholics. I thought this was a joke the first two times I heard it, but eventually I realized that no, this is what a lot of Italian Catholics — especially in Vatican circles — really believe.

Lo, today there’s an Italian-language interview out with Andrea Tornielli, the Vatican journalist considered closest to Francis. Here, via Google Translate, is the conspiracy theory in brief, from the mouth of Tornielli:

We know that the Viganò document was well received by the anti-European and American Francis circles. In particular, you stop, rightly, on those Americans. A world made up of collusions between ecclesial environments, politics and great finance. What are their political goals and not only?

These environments do not support the fact that there is a Pope who has become a credible world authority on the issues of social doctrine. Francesco with his speeches and his encyclicals – we think of Laudato si ‘- asked a serious question on the sustainability of the current economic-financial model, asking everyone to consider remedies. He indicated for the first time the close connection that exists between problems usually considered unconnected, such as the environmental crisis and the defense of creation, wars, poverty, migration, the economic-financial system. This is scary, because certain powers do not bear that these questions are raised and prefer to make us believe that we live in the best possible systems, even for the Christian faith, and that at most we must teach people to be honest. Francesco has instead shown how structural problems exist. There are those that John Paul II already in the Sollicitudo rei socialis (1987) called “structures of sin”.

In the book, consider the disturbing “Red Hat Report”. What exactly is it and what purpose does it propose? Who wants to hit?

The Red Hat Report is only one — the most disturbing at the moment — of the phenomena that show how there are laymen and even bishops, unfortunately, that confuse the Church with a corporation thinking that cleaning and combating corruption will come from increasingly precise corporate standards. But this is only the most “noble” part of the operation. There is also an evident intention to pilot the next conclave on the basis of dossiers made public and which have already targeted Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State.

Let me break this down for you. Tornielli is saying that rich American Catholics are using the scandal to go after Pope Francis because they hate him for saying that capitalism bears some responsibility for environmental destruction. I don’t think even the most pro-Francis liberal Catholics in the US would support that line, because it is laughably stupid.

American Catholics, both of the theological right and left — are furious at Pope Francis, as well as the US bishops, because they are sick and tired of the sexual abuse and corruption within the institutional Church. They are disgusted by the case of Cardinal McCarrick, and how he apparently climbed to the heights of power under three popes — two conservatives and one liberal — despite his sexual corruption being an open secret within elite Church circles. They are fed up with the bishops’ inability to reform themselves, and with Pope Francis’s stubborn refusal to take the abuse scandal seriously. His kneecapping US bishops at the start of last week’s USCCB meeting was but one more blow to the pontiff’s credibility.

Whatever role wealthy conservative American Catholics have played in the scandal response, it is not only crazy, but dangerously crazy, to characterize the situation in the Church as a phantom menace invented by shadowy capitalists. I say “dangerously crazy” because believing this self-serving lie — as, I am told, very many Francis loyalists in the Vatican and in the Italian press do — makes it impossible to deal with the actual crisis.

The “Red Hat Report” material is a reference to an American initiative to professionally investigate cardinals and prepare dossiers on them.  The idea came out of frustration with a lack of transparency in the Church’s governance, and the hope that the laity can prevent corrupt cardinals from ascending to power — especially to the papacy. It is certainly unusual, and understandably controversial, for lay Catholics to try to hold cardinals accountable in that way, but “How dare you?!” is not remotely an adequate response in the face of such outrageous corruption as has been revealed — particularly in the Viganò testimonies, which Francis has left unrebutted.

Now, once you realize that what Tornielli is saying here is what many people around Francis, and indeed Francis himself, really believe, you will better understand why the Vatican indulges in inexplicable self-sabotage. Whatever the right way to reform the Catholic Church is, it must be based on actual facts and reliable data. This Tornielli theory is bizarre — but again, it is widely held in Italian circles. Tornielli would do well to come spend a couple of weeks in the United States talking to lay Catholics, both liberals and conservatives, to get a true sense of the conditions on the ground.

In other words, he should be Walter Cronkite circa 1968:

Until 1968, Walter Cronkite believed what his government told him about the Vietnam War. He was an old-school journalist, a patriot, a man who came of age covering World War II as a wire-service reporter and then taking over as the anchor of “The CBS Evening News” at the height of the Cold War. Like most journalists of his generation, he embraced the fight against communism and understood why the United States had intervened in the war raging in Vietnam.

When he’d visited Vietnam on a reporting trip early in the war, he’d been annoyed by the attitude of the young reporters who seemed to be “engaged in a contest among themselves to determine who was the most cynical,” he wrote in his autobiography.

But then, in 1968, the most influential journalist in America went to Vietnam on a reporting trip — and was shocked by what he saw there. He came back to the US and produced a prime time news special:

At the close of the hour, Cronkite, back at his desk in New York, delivers his verdict. He acknowledges that what he is about to say is “subjective.” It’s his opinion.

“[I]t seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate . . . [I]t is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.

“This is Walter Cronkite. Good night.”

That “Cronkite Moment” was a turning point in the war. President Johnson supposedly said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Maybe Tornielli is the only Vatican journalist Francis will listen to. He should come to America, see for himself what’s happening, and report back.