The ideological purge at the Vatican

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jan 25, 2017

For most of us, who are not Knights of Malta, the resignation of the group’s grand master will have little immediate impact. But the unprecedented papal intervention into the affairs of that venerable body fits into a pattern that should, at this point, worry all faithful Catholics. Under Pope Francis, the Vatican is systematically silencing, eliminating, and replacing critics of the Pope’s views.

During the reigns of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, “progressive” Catholics frequently complained about a crackdown on theological dissent. On the rare occasions when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a warning about a wayward theologian’s published works, there were anguished warnings about a reign of terror at the Vatican. Now a crackdown really is occurring—instigated by the Pontiff who famously asked, “Who am I to judge?” And the objects of the current crackdown are not theologians who question established doctrines, but Catholics who uphold the traditional teachings of the Church.

The first and most prominent victim of the purge was Cardinal Raymond Burke, who was exiled from the Roman Curia soon after Pope Francis took office, and given a mostly ceremonial post as patron of the Knights of Malta. It is ironic—and perhaps not coincidental—that the latest incident involves his new charge.

The Pope himself asked for the resignation of Fra’ Matthew Festing, after a disagreement that apparently began with the discovery that the Knights of Malta had been involved in a condom-distribution program. The Vatican jumped into the fray—on the side of the man who was responsible for that involvement. In asserting control over the situation, Pope Francis was not deterred by the argument that the Order of Malta is a sovereign body under international law. Indeed the Vatican announced that the Pontiff plans to appoint a papal delegate to lead the group. “Under international law, what we are seeing is effectively the annexation of one country by another,” remarks canon lawyer Ed Condon.

(Condon goes on to observe that if the Pope goes ahead with his plan, and the Knights of Malta accept his delegate, the precedent thus created will “lurk under the Secretariat of State’s dealings with other governments like an unexploded bomb.” The next time Italian banking authorities demand records of financial transactions at the Vatican bank, or an American attorney for sex-abuse victims seeks to subpoena the dossiers of laicized priests, the Vatican will be in the awkward position arguing that, as a sovereign body, it is not subject to external intervention: the argument that was brushed aside in the rush to bring change at the Knights of Malta.)

But again, the furor over the Knights of Malta is not an isolated incident. Recent weeks have also seen:

  • The wholesale replacement of the prelates on the Congregation for Divine Worship: another unprecedented move, producing an entirely new panel that will be more friendly to the preferences of Pope Francis, and less supportive of the tradition-minded prefect, Cardinal Robert Sarah.
  • The abrupt dismissal of three clerics on the staff of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. No explanation for the firings was given, and according to published reports, the Pope made a point of saying that he was not obliged to give an explanation. But reliable Vatican sources explain that the clerics had been accused of making unflattering comments about Pope Francis—not in public, but in private conversations with colleagues.
  • The contemptuous treatment of the four cardinals who submitted dubia about Amoris Laetitae, by people who are perceived as surrogates for the Pope. And for that matter, the Pontiff’s own studied refusal to answer questions from prelates who should be his trusted advisers.

All these incidents have occurred in a Vatican where the climate has already been formed by the Pope’s tongue-lashings of the Roman Curia, by the blatant manipulation of the Synod of Bishops, by the Pontiff’s daily denunciations of “doctors of the law” and “rigid” clerics. A clear picture emerges: of a Roman Pontiff determined to impose his own will on the universal Church.

In a syndicated column that appeared last week, George Weigel effectively punctured the myth, popular in liberal circles, that Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI imposed ideological control over the Vatican. Those Pontiffs, Weigel points out, regularly promoted men with dramatically different theological outlooks to the College of Cardinals, bestowing red hats on Cardinals Kasper, Marx, Tagle, Mahony, Daneels, Hummes, McCarrick, yes and Bergoglio. The same cannot be said of Pope Francis, who has elevated his potential allies (in the US, Tobin and Cupich) while passing over more senior prelates (Chaput, Gomez, Vigneron, Lori) whose approach did not match his own.

Writing in the National Catholic Reporter last December about the Pope’s bid to pack the College of Cardinals, Father Thomas Reese remarked approvingly that this was “the most revolutionary thing Francis has done in terms of church governance. He is doing everything possible to make sure that his legacy is continued by insuring his successor is someone who reflects his views.” Reese was honest enough to say that if Pope John Paul or Benedict had made the same sort of appointments: “Frankly, I would have been outraged.”

Outrage would have been a reasonable response then, if those earlier Popes had restricted promotions to men who shared their personal opinions. It is a reasonable response now.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: ALC - Jan. 28, 2017 10:03 AM ET USA

    This is a sad and confusing time for faithful Catholics. However, I know that Satan sows the seeds of division and confusion. I am so heartbroken that this current Pope seems to be going out of his way to cause strife. That is not the role of a pastor. He is not being a good shepherd.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jan. 26, 2017 3:41 PM ET USA

    Thank God in His providence that the previous U.S. president did not have the sweeping powers of the Vatican. Thank him as well that the majority of U.S. citizens do not consider obedience to the national leader a matter of religious faith. I may have to start attending parish council meetings to help plan a response to the impending decision by the Vatican to close my parish. Pope Francis has referred to us as "an exception;" it seems only a matter of time before the heavy hand falls upon us.

  • Posted by: shrink - Jan. 26, 2017 4:38 AM ET USA

    A beautifully succinct summary of our plight. Thank you, Phil. I would think that the expression "ideological purge" almost captures the reality that we are now witnessing a coup.

  • Posted by: john.n.akiko7522 - Jan. 26, 2017 1:40 AM ET USA

    It looks for all the world that the Church is self-destructing. If not for my faith in the promise of Our Lord Jesus Christ, I would be close to despair. But I know that the gates of hell shall not overcome. So I wait patiently for Him to act; I just hope it is soon.

  • Posted by: feedback - Jan. 25, 2017 10:11 PM ET USA

    Faithful Catholics are torn between their love and obedience for the Vicar of Christ, and their love and obedience for the teachings of Christ. These are strange times, and we need to keep praying for each other.

  • Posted by: filioque - Jan. 25, 2017 6:54 PM ET USA

    We seem to be on an inexorable march to fulfill the prophecies of Our Lady of Fatima and Akita. May God shorten the time of the purification of His Church.