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As The Vatican Turns

Deputy Italian Prime Minister Matteo Salvini is a bad Catholic by objective standards, but he has more credibility with many Catholics than does Pope Francis (Kal Pycco/Shutterstock)

OK, one last post before I go pack my bags. The Italian journalist Mattia Ferraresi has a powerful piece of political and cultural analysis on the NYT’s op-ed page today, titled “How The Catholic Church Lost Italy.” It’s about Italy’s deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, and how despite being a bad Catholic by any objective standard, he has reinvented himself as a hero to many Italian Catholics by adopting nationalist positions and rhetoric — this, in contrast to the Pope and the Italian bishops. Salvini is head of the party now calling itself the League. Excerpts:

The League’s embrace of Christianity is a recent addition, however. In the years following its founding in the 1990s, the party was often in tension with the Vatican hierarchy: It largely took up a libertarian outlook on issues like family, abortion, end-of-life questions and religious freedom, rarely putting them at the core of its agenda.

And yet speaking in Milan a few days before the European Parliament election in May, Mr. Salvini invoked the names of the patron saints of Europe. “We entrust our destiny, our future and the peace and prosperity of our peoples to them,” he proclaimed, and then became more intimate. “Personally, I entrust Italy, my life and your lives to the immaculate heart of Mary, who I’m sure will lead us to victory,” he said, gripping a rosary in his right hand. When the League obtained more than 34 percent of the vote, becoming the leading political party in Italy, Mr. Salvini thanked “the one who is up there” and kissed the rosary during a news conference. A few days later, in a magazine interview, he expanded on his devotion to the Virgin Mary and announced his wish to walk the Way of Saint James, a popular pilgrimage route, one day.

If all this seems opportunistic, writes Ferraresi, that’s because Church leadership under Francis has surrendered the Church’s natural position in Italian politics (which, note well, is very different from what we’re used to in America). Ferraresi writes:

But for some believers, the Francis model has simply been disorienting. The Vatican is now sending ambiguous messages on issues that were considered crucial only a few years ago. Many Catholic voters complain the church is not vocal enough in condemning abortion and L.G.B.T. rights, and upholding Italy’s Christian identity, while it emphasizes immigration, social justice and environmental issues.

Mr. Salvini is targeting Italian Catholics who either are refusing to follow the new path or just miss the days in which the church offered straightforward political guidance. In doing so, he has followed the lead of other right-wing European leaders like Viktor Orban in Hungary and Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland, politicians in countries with large Catholic populations who present themselves as champions of a Christianity under siege.

Mr. Salvini is a parody of a religious leader. His theology is virtually nonexistent; his motives are doubtful. His blatant appropriations of Christian slogans are clumsy; in his mouth, even the most solemn of Pope Benedict’s quotes sound like they came out of a fortune cookie. And yet, his message has been effective among Catholics because he has occupied a space that the church left unguarded.

Read the whole thing.  Ferraresi’s point is that not only are Francis and the Italian bishops pushing a very unpopular immigration line, but they also have more or less abandoned the field on abortion and LGBT. Into this gap steps Salvini, to the horror of Church leadership.

Meanwhile, Francis has done something that has left some of this blog’s Catholic readers in deep shock: given away some relics of St. Peter to the (Orthodox) Ecumenical Patriarch. More:

Archbishop Job of Telmessos, who headed the official delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, said that after the papal Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on June 29, Pope Francis invited him to accompany him to the tomb of St. Peter under the main altar.

The archbishop said that after the two prayed together at St. Peter’s tomb, the Pope told him he had a “gift for the Church of Constantinople.” The Pope invited the archbishop to accompany him to the Apostolic Palace. There, in the private chapel of the popes, Francis took the reliquary and gave it to Archbishop Job.

“When we entered the chapel,” the Orthodox archbishop said, “Pope Francis explained to me that Pope Paul VI wanted to keep a part of the relics of St. Peter from the Vatican Basilica in his private chapel.”

Pope Francis told him: “I no longer live in the Apostolic Palace, I never use this chapel, I never [celebrate] Holy Mass here, and we have St. Peter’s relics in the basilica itself, so it will be better if they will be kept in Constantinople.”

“This is my gift to the Church of Constantinople,” the Pope added, as he handed over the relics. “Please take this reliquary and give it to my brother Patriarch Bartholomew.”

“This gift is not from me, it is a gift from God,” he said.

Admitting to being somewhat taken aback by the Pope’s decision, Archbishop Job said: “This is an extraordinary and unexpected event that we did not expect. The relics of the Holy Apostle Peter were always kept in Rome where they were the purpose of pilgrimages.”

“The Orthodox Church has never asked for them since they never belonged to the Church of Constantinople,” the archbishop added. “This time, we do not speak of a return of relics to their original place. This time, the relics are being presented as a gift. This prophetic gesture is another huge step on the path to concrete unity.”

As an Orthodox Christian, I suppose that I am grateful that an Orthodox patriarch now has relics of St. Peter, also venerated by us, in the Orthodox Church’s possession. Note well that these aren’t all of the Petrine relics, just some of them. Most of them remain buried under St. Peter’s Basilica.

But I have to say that no Orthodox patriarch would ever even think about surrendering such relics to the Church of Rome. It’s hard to think of a parallel case from the Orthodox side — an Eastern saint who holds the symbolic power in the Eastern church that St. Peter has in the Roman church. It does feel strange to me that the relics of St. Peter aren’t all gathered in Rome. I very much don’t share the alarm of this Catholic reader who wrote to me, but if I were Catholic, not Orthodox, I probably would:

Really breathtaking. I am cut to the quick, actually choked up. To watch this man, step by step, as if by demonic design, drain away the special graces and prerogatives of our Church is becoming unbearable. Month after month. Synod after synod.

“I no longer live in the Apostolic Palace, I never use this chapel…”

In short: “I.” The man thinks it all belongs to him.

Yes, I believe the Orthodox Church is fully valid and true. Nonetheless, and I think you would agree, the relics should not move: they should not be in Istanbul. Period.

What are we going to do? As a Catholic who lives in Taiwan, where people I love are under constant threat from communist China, watching this man forge ahead with a deal handing his Chinese bishops over to Xi Jinping’s government was sickening. The very government that has reinstated the persecution and torture of Christians we last saw during the Mao era. Against the pleas of Cardinal Zen, the liberals and homoclerics in Team Francis threw the Chinese Church under the bus.

I need not reiterate the countless instances of doctrinal slide. It is never ending. This man who thinks he can rewrite lines in the Lord’s Prayer.

But giving away Peter’s relics—it is a gestural summing up of the whole flippant circus that is FrancisChurch (TM).

Millions of faithful Catholics, who see what is happening, they want to wait out this papacy, praying for a more papal leader in Francis’ successor. It is I suppose what we must do. Nonetheless the situation keeps going from bad to worse. We are witnessing what should be literally impossible: the Vatican in schism from the Catholic Church.

In other news, the WaPo reports that lay Catholics in the Diocese of Wheeling, W. Va., wrote for years to higher-ups — including Archbishop Vigano, the pope’s ambassador in Washington — to complain about the reckless spending of their bishop, the now-disgraced Michael Bransfield. Excerpt:

In March 2013, Pennington, who had earlier written to Lori, sent Viganò a short letter about “the life of luxury, self-centeredness, & abuse of power by Bishop Michael Bransfield, Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia.”

“To verify my facts, below is a news article from the Charleston, Gazette (WV) outlining the beginning of a ‘spending spree,’ ” she wrote.

The article’s headline reads: “Renovations to Bishop’s House Top $1 Million.”

“West Virginia’s Catholic diocese has spent well over $1 million this year on renovations to houses for Bishop Michael Bransfield, including the addition of a 13-foot-long sunken bar and a 100-square-foot wine cellar,” says the article’s first sentence.

In May, Viganò received a blunt but less detailed letter from Joanna Brown, a parishioner at Our Lady of Fatima Church.

“Bishop Bransfield has been enjoying a self-indulgent lifestyle,” Brown wrote in a letter that was copied to two other clerics in Rome. “I want to know why this is being allowed when Pope Francis is preaching the opposite.”

In a letter that same month sent to Viganò and copied to cardinals in Rome, parishioners Robert and Virginia Hickman echoed Brown’s complaint.

“There are so many ‘stories’ about the lifestyle of the hierarchy of our Diocese that one should investigate for themselves to verify facts,” the Hickmans wrote. “Your inquiry and review of all matters in the DIOCESE OF WHEELING/CHARLESTON would be a blessing for all parishioners.”

In July 2013, during the flurry of letters, Viganò joined Bransfield in Mount Hope, W.Va., to celebrate Mass at a jamboree attended by 10,000 Boy Scouts. Viganò told The Post that he had been stranded at an airport in Charlotte on his way to the event and called Bransfield to let him know. Bransfield sent a chartered jet to pick him up.

Church documents and flight records show a seven-seat Learjet was dispatched to pick up Viganò in North Carolina, flying him 35 minutes to Charleston, W.Va. The flight cost the diocese $7,687, church financial records show.

Viganò said in a statement to The Post that he had no reason to suspect the private jet travel was improper. He said he assumed “a generous benefactor” had paid for the jet, citing Bransfield’s role as president of a nonprofit group that raises millions of dollars from prominent laypeople, the Papal Foundation.

“Given these facts, there was no reason for me to investigate or report anything to the Vatican,” Viganò said.

Maybe so. Or maybe this was just business as usual with the episcopal leadership class. But jeez, Bransfield. Reminds of of the Bishop Of Bling — ‘memba him? — who failed upwards after Pope Francis booted him out of his German see for spending $43 million on renovating his house. Guess where he is now? According to Crux’s John Allen:

In “The Simpsons,” the annual Halloween episodes are known for their spoofs of the supernatural. Back in 1993, one of my favorites featured a vision of Hell, where the legendarily donut-loving Homer has been assigned to the “Ironic Punishment Division.” He’s tethered to a chair as a machine force-feeds him pastry after pastry.

(Homer appears delighted, mumbling “more please!” after each mouthful, leading a frustrated demon to say: “I don’t understand it … James Coco went mad in 15 minutes!”)

I thought of that episode this week, speaking to a visiting clergyman who was astonished to discover that German Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van-Elst – better known to the world as the “Bling Bishop,” whose exuberant spending in the Diocese of Limburg in 2013 caused such a furor that he was granted a “sabbatical” by the newly-elected Pope Francis – is actually now a Vatican official.

My cleric friend recently attended a meeting in the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, where Tebartz-van-Elst led the discussion. He said he spent a few minutes trying to figure out where he’d heard the name before, until realization dawned: “My God, he’s the bishop of bling!”

Welcome to the “Ironic Employment Division” in Pope Francis’s Vatican.

Allen writes about other prelates who failed at their jobs, but received positions in the Curia, including an accused Argentine sex abuser whom Francis promoted to Vatican service to get him out of Argentina. And this:

Another fitting for-instance is Monsignor Dario Edoardo Viganò, who was forced to resign as the Vatican’s communications czar in March 2018 after attempting to pass off a doctored letter by Pope emeritus Benedict XVI as the real thing and getting caught. For presiding over such a PR fiasco, Francis moved Viganò to a different post – not as prefect of the Dicastery for Communications but its “assessor,” meaning to this day he’s still in a position to shape the communications operation.

Further back in time, there’s Monsignor Mario Salvatore Battista Ricca, who was confirmed by Francis as prelate of the Vatican Bank in 2013 despite revelations in the Italian media that during his previous service as a papal diplomat in Uruguay, he’d been involved in a couple of scandalous situations involving homosexual activity – one in which Battista Ricca was apparently beaten up after leaving a gay bar, and another in which he was trapped in an elevator at the papal embassy in Montevideo with a young man and had to be rescued by the fire department.

Despite that, Francis confirmed Battista Ricca in a sensitive post at an institution which, at the time, was also trying to shake off a well-earned reputation for scandal.

Read it all.

Finally, Archbishop Vigano — brother of Mons. Dario Vigano — says that Pope Francis is ignoring serious, documented allegations of sexual abuse against one of his Curial allies. Excerpts:

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former papal ambassador who has accused Pope Francis of covering up sex abuse, has stated that the Vatican’s third most powerful prelate, Archbishop Peña Parra, was never given an “open and thorough investigation” for troubling accusations of sex abuse that date back decades. Archbishop Viganò said the high-ranking prelate was not investigated despite the existence of what he calls a “terrifying dossier” sent to Pope Francis that gives names and dates regarding his alleged misbehavior.

Archbishop Viganò told the Washington Post in an unpublished section of an interview that was recently obtained and published by LifeSiteNews that Pope Francis “essentially ignored” the dossier on Archbishop Peña Parra while appointing the Venezuelan to a top position in the Vatican.

Viganò states that one accusation, involving Peña Parra seducing two candidates for the seminary in 1990, was reported by the alleged victims’ parents to the police, and the veracity of the accusations were confirmed in writing to the Secretariat of State by both the rector of the major seminary and by seminary’s spiritual director. Viganò told the Post that “I have seen these documents with my own eyes,” and the documentation as well as that of other accusations should still be on file in the Holy See, “if it has not been destroyed.”

More, including names and details, all of which is checkable:

Although the accusations were “grave,” writes Viganò, “not only was Peña Parra not required to face them, he was allowed to continue in the diplomatic service of the Holy See” – an accusation that would apply to the curia of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict. Viganò considers the case of Peña Parra to be so bad that it “might even be a scandal surpassing that of McCarrick,” and notes that the archbishop is a close associate of the scandal-ridden Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, Archbishop of Tegucigalpa, and the cardinal’s now-disgraced former auxiliary bishop, Juan José Pineda Fasquelle, having formed a strong friendship with the latter while serving in the apostolic nunciature in Honduras from 2003 to 2007.

Viganò writes that these accusations were reported to the Secretariat of State in 2002 by the then apostolic nuncio in Venezuela, Archbishop André Dupuy, and they have remained on file both in Venezuela and in the Vatican ever since, accessible to high officials of the Holy See. Viganò names “the Cardinals Secretaries of State Sodano, Bertone, and Parolin and the Substitutes Sandri, Filoni, and Becciu,” among those with access to the information, “if it has not been destroyed.”

Read the whole thing. 

Consider why a bad Catholic like Matteo Salvini has more credibility in the eyes of many Italian Catholics than the Pope and his episcopal team.



about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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