Blame the messenger: in this case Cardinal Burke
A bizarre conspiracy theory has arisen, suggesting that the mounting tensions within the Church are the result of a right-wing conspiracy against an innocent Pope. The theory involves inaccurate characterizations of three people: in one case absurd, in another case delusional, and in the third case vicious.
The first error lies in the idea that Steve Bannon, White House strategist in the Trump administration, has expanded his political sights to include a campaign against the Pope. As I explained earlier this week, this idea is based entirely on a meeting between Bannon and Cardinal Raymond Burke that occurred nearly three years ago—long before anyone (including Bannon, I suspect), had dreamt of a Trump presidential campaign, let alone a job for Bannon in the White House. In a Washington Post column, E. J. Dionne strings out the absurdity to imply that Bannon—a man mostly unknown in Church circles until a few months ago—is now a lead player in a dramatic struggle “to define the meaning of both Americanism and Catholicism.” If you are prepared to believe that a single friendly meeting is enough to serve as evidence of conspiracy, I doubt that I’ll be able to change your mind. But it’s absurd.
The second error is the notion—now being assiduously promoted by some of the Pope’s most avid supporters—that Pope Francis is unusually serene, tolerant of disagreement, and ready to respond to his critics. That characterization flies in the face of the stories that the Pope has called Church officials on the carpet to scold them for disagreeing with him, axed Vatican staff members for the same reason, and given fiery speeches to the Roman Curia and the Synod of Bishops, denouncing those who have resisted his proposals. It contradicts the many reports that Vatican officials are working in a climate of fear. Above all it contradicts the Holy Father’s clear and evident refusal to answer his critics on the most controversial issue of this pontificate: the four cardinals who submitted dubia about Amoris Laetitia. The spate of recent stories from Rome, emphasizing the Pontiff’s supposed serenity, seem deliberately designed to counteract the impact of the Pope’s admittedly impetuous nature.
But the third aspect of the conspiracy theory is by far the nastiest: the attempt to smear Cardinal Burke, to present him as an extremist, a hater, a palace revolutionary. The most grotesque example of this tactic is again Washington Post piece, this time by Emma-Kate Symons, who aims a full stream of vitriol at the American prelate. She describes Cardinal Burke as a “renegade cleric,” a “rebel prince,” who is “using his position within the walls of the Vatican to legitimize extremist forces that want to bring down Western liberal democracy.” The intemperance of her language is truly remarkable:
Burke is unrepentant and even defiant, continuing to preside over a far-right, neo-fascist-normalizing cheer squad out of the Holy See.
Where is the evidence for those wild, sensational charges? The sum total of evidence is this: Cardinal Burke has met with Bannon, and with a prominent Italian conservative politician. He has expressed public concern about the influence of radical Islam. And he has defended traditional Catholic teaching about the indissolubility of marriage—in the process questioning the teaching of Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia. Again the evidence does not come anywhere near supporting the charges.
But there’s something even more insidious about the vilification of Cardinal Burke. Take note, please, that among the various counts in the indictment against him, the only one that involves any conflict with Pope Francis is the debate over Amoris Laetitia. The meetings with conservative political figures are irrelevant to that debate, and the discussion of Church teaching on marriage has very little to do with Bannon’s political aspirations. So why are journalists making such an effort, stretching so very far, to invent a connection between the political debate and the theological discussion?
Let me offer an answer to my own question. The three-pronged conspiracy theory is being promoted by the Pope’s most ardent defenders. (If you doubt me, sign up for the Twitter feed of Father Antonio Spadaro, and notice how often he makes or encourages cheap shots at Cardinal Burke.) From there it is picked up by secular journalists, who do not understand the Catholic controversy and are much more comfortable framing issues in political terms. The goal of the conspiracy theorists is to discredit Cardinal Burke—in this case exploiting the negative image of Bannon and using guilt-by-association to transfer that image onto the cardinal. And why discredit Cardinal Burke? Because Pope Francis cannot and/or will not answer his questions.
There is serious discord within the Catholic Church today. That is undeniable. Who is causing it? If the blame cannot be foisted off on Bannon and Burke, it becomes difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Pope himself is the source of division.
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