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William Oddie FAITH MAGAZINE September-October 2013

Pope Francis and the Devil

In my last article for Faith magazine, I reported the alacrity with which traditional enemies of the Church had pounced, only days after the election of Pope Francis, on a new scandal for a new Pope. “Argentina ‘Dirty War’ accusations haunt Pope Francis” announced the BBC website (with barely disguised satisfaction) two days after his election as Pope.

Even the BBC, however, had to report the words of the Argentine Nobel Peace prize winner, Adolfo Perez Esquivel (who was himself imprisoned and tortured), who told the BBC World Service: “There were some bishops who were in collusion with the military, but Bergoglio [was] not one of them.”

I predicted then that the secular media now had a new bone between its teeth and would hang on to this slur as a way of discrediting the new Pope; but it turned out that I was wrong: the “Dirty War” story proved not to have what journalists call “legs”, and it soon fizzled out. But they were, of course, on the lookout for something else, though the new Pope’s unexpected popularity wasn’t making it easy for them. After three months, the media got to the 100-day mark at which some kind of assessment is usually produced; and Pope Francis really didn’t seem to be giving them much to go on.

Some insiders, including Vaticanologists like Sandro Magister, were more critical, pointing out that Francis’s pontificate, so far, had had almost no doctrinal or political substance, in the sense of a positioning of the Church vis-à-vis the surrounding culture and unfolding events. This, they pointed out, was a deliberate policy. The recent case, for instance, of the assumption by the Catholic Church, and in particular by the admirable Cardinal Archbishop Vingt-Trois of Paris, of the leadership of an impressive national coalition of intellectuals and political leaders of different (and by no means all Catholic) views, against the looming threat of the legalisation of homosexual marriage (now unhappily achieved, as it has been here, though without any semblance in England of such a feistyarchiepiscopal struggle against it), is a notable example of Francis’s papal leadership policy.

He was expected to say something in support of the action of the Church in France, but even when on 15 June he received at the Vatican French MPs belonging to the “Group of friendship France-Holy See”, he said nothing at all about it, even in passing. The previous November, Pope Benedict had made his views on the position of the French Catholic Church regarding the threatened new legislation absolutely clear.

But Francis has made a point of not intervening to support national Churches in their local political struggles. “It is to be expected,” commented Sandro Magister, “that in the future Francis will continue to adhere to this reserve of his on questions that concern the political sphere.

“There is much that is risky,” continued Magister, “in this delegation, given the pessimistic judgment that Bergoglio has on the average quality of the bishops of the world…. But it is a risk that Francis is not afraid to face, convinced as he is – he has said so – that if the bishop is unsure, ‘the flock itself has the scent in finding the way’.”
The trouble is that when there is no episcopal leadership, the flock looks to the Pope for leadership. And the danger surely is that there is, at least for the moment, the appearance that a cognitive dissonance may be developing between the doctrinal and the pastoral functions of the Holy See. But we shall see: it is early days.

And certainly, pastorally everything looks fine. John L Allen, often an acute observer, writes: “Around the world there are anecdotal accounts of spikes in Mass attendance and demand for Confession, which many attribute to a “Francis effect”. Polls, such as a mid-April survey in the United States by the Pew Forum, show overwhelming approval ratings, and the global media remains fascinated well beyond the customary honeymoon period…. In other words, Vaticanology and the vox populi are at odds.”

The Vaticanologists concur. The continuing secular popularity of Pope Francis, thought Sandro Magister, had a good reason, which “explains better than any other the benevolence of worldwide secular public opinion toward Francis… [and that is] his silence in the political camp, especially on the minefield that sees the greatest opposition between the Catholic Church and the dominant culture. Abortion, euthanasia, homosexual marriage are terms that the preaching of Francis has so far (he was writing in July) deliberately avoided pronouncing.”

There was, however, one thing the secular media thought peculiar, and definitely promising as a source of anti-papal copy, and they dived in, as some Christian observers – not necessarily Catholics – noted with some annoyance.

“The mainstream media is at it again,” wrote one Bethany Blankley in the (Protestant) Christian Post Opinion website: “ ‘The Pope And The Devil: Is Francis an Exorcist?’ an Associated Press (AP) headline reads.” Ms Blankley’s own headline expressed well the obvious rebuttal: “No, Pope Francis is not ‘Obsessed with Satan’, He’s Just a Christian who Believes in the Devil”.

And indeed, belief in Satan, for Catholics certainly, is not an optional extra, as we can see from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (articles 391 and 392). Back to Sandro Magister again, since quite a few writers spotted and quoted from a piece on his website entitled “Francis and the Devil”, which begins: “He refers to him continually. He combats him without respite. He does not believe him to be a myth, but a real person, the most insidious enemy of the Church.”

Magister went on to point out how rarely we hear of the subject, despite its centrality to the biblical witness: “In the preaching of Pope Francis,” he wrote, “there is one subject that returns with surprising frequency: the devil. It is a frequency on a par with that with which the same subject recurs in the New Testament.”

In early July, in what was surely a striking and dramatic papal act, Pope Francis positioned one of his most important priorities as Pope – the reform of the Roman Curia – directly in the context of this unremitting combat against the Devil. He placed the Vatican City state and all who live and work there under the protection of the Holy Archangel Michael. |

This is part of what he said (my italics): “Michael – which means ‘Who is like God?’ – is the champion of the primacy of God, of His transcendence and power. Michael struggles to restore divine justice and defends the People of God from his enemies, above all from the enemy par excellence, the devil. And St Michael wins because in him, it is God who acts …. In consecrating Vatican City State to St Michael the Archangel, I ask him to defend us from the evil one and banish him.”

For the Pope to place the Vatican City itself under the protection of the Holy Archangel, and to pray that he will banish the evil one from its purlieus, is an act, surely, of immense significance given his personal beliefs. Pope Francis sees that there is, unfolding in that place, an intense struggle between good and evil. As he put it himself: “… it is difficult. In the Curia, there are also holy people; really, there are holy people. But there also is a stream of corruption; there is that as well, it is true… The ‘gay lobby’ is mentioned, and it is true, it is there… We need to see what we can do….”

“We need to see what we can do.” The Holy Father clearly does see the banishment of the evil one from his little kingdom as a major priority. That reminds us that one of the eight Cardinals the Pope has chosen to help him in the reformation of the Roman Curia, the only one actually resident in Rome, is Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, governor of the Vatican City State; and it should remind us, too, that the reform of the Roman Curia isn’t just a matter of cleaning up its functional disorganisation: it’s a matter of driving out actual evil, the “stream of corruption” which in the end overwhelmed the pontificate of Pope Benedict.

Pope Francis also prayed, in dedicating the Vatican City State to St Michael’s protection, that the Holy Archangel would intercede to help “make us victorious over the temptations of power, riches and sensuality” and keep Vatican employees strong in “the good fight of the faith”.

It is clear that this pope sees the corruption that has infiltrated his administration as inspired by the evil one: and now, in consecrating the Vatican to the Holy Archangel’s protection and in asking him “to defend us from the evil one and banish him”, he has invoked, on the entire process of Curial reform, the archangel’s active and by no means necessarily peaceable help.

For the fact is that this is going to – needs to – get rough. Heads need to roll. The Pope speaks of a “stream of corruption” and of a “gay lobby”: and these people are it seems already fighting back. Who can the Holy Father trust? As part of an attempt to clean up the Institute for the Works of Religion, the Vatican bank, he appointed a new papal representative or “prelate” to the bank, only to discover that he had been misinformed about the character of the man he had appointed, who turned out to be, precisely, a member of the “gay lobby” he had been told about, a man whose CV had been cleaned up precisely in order to deceive him into making this appointment.

The Pope has now been undeceived, and the new man at the Vatican Bank removed: but how often is this going to happen? What the Pope needs is someone who knows the Roman Curia but is not of it, preferably an Italian, someone committed to reform, someone who can actually sweep the place clean.

We need a Godly hit man. That “gay lobby” for instance: someone must know who these people are: why can’t they just be fired? The trouble seems to be that there is nobody on the spot with the authority, the knowledge and the will actually to do so.

The obvious person to do all this on the Pope’s behalf is his Secretary of State. The present incumbent, Tarcisio Bertone, is generally thought to be a part of the problem, and is on his way out. Who will replace him? It will be a key decision in all this, perhaps the key decision: and perhaps, by the time these words are in print it will have been made.

One name being bandied about as I write is that of Cardinal Angelo Scola, who was supposed to be the papabile the Curial Cardinals least wanted to be elected Pope, precisely because of his apparently rather fierce views on Curial reform. Whoever is appointed will be central to the Holy Father’s struggle. May he, in particular, be protected and helped by the Holy Archangel Michael: he is going to need it.

Faith Magazine

September - October 2013