1. The more ‘outgoing’ Church preached by the pope may perhaps end up leaving Rome. Francis has never said as much and probably never will, as it would not be coherent with the imperative of an open and thus incomplete mindset he has adopted as his guiding principle. And yet such an idea cannot be extraneous to him, considering that as an Argentinean Jesuit, and later as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he travelled reluctantly to the Vatican and also confessed to those closest to him how he risked losing his faith when spending time in the curial palaces.
It is not up to us to assess the pope’s teachings; we wish only to decrypt the geopolitical cipher. This derives from the impact of his actions – not always congruent with his intentions – on the institutions for which Francis is the transient helmsman. And vice versa. It is a hyper-complicated equation, concerning a two thousand-year-old historical and spiritual empire based on the pillar of faith that binds the Roman pontiff with varying degrees of power to 1.3 billion Catholics.
It is a bond impossible to dissolve. As a working hypothesis, it could instead be useful to point out the possible outcome of the evangelical radicalism that inspires Bergoglio; the Church’s emancipation from the Vatican, and not just as a metaphor. If the peripheries are the centre, Rome, by definition, is not. If the Church’s mission is not self-celebration but the spreading of the Word of God, well then Roman-centrism is not in the Gospel. It is not a dogma; it is history, and like all history, albeit sacred, compressed between a beginning and an end.
And then, when Francis explains that the future of the Church will be “on the streets” (1) and he diagnoses that the careerists infesting the Curia suffer from a “spiritual Alzheimer’s” (2), how is it possible not to deduce that the pope of the peripheries intends to show his successors a new ecclesiastic topography, outlined more by the lands of mission and the particular Churches rather than by the jurisdictional centre?
Are the choices made to steer clear of the one thousand rooms of the Apostolic Palace and consequent curial incursions making the peripheral (at a Vatican level) Casa Santa Marta, the cramped, protected home from which he exercises his command, added to giving up the dynasty of Roman numbers, the red shoes and other imperial symbols consubstantial to pontifical dignity, not perhaps symptoms of a cultural and psychological intolerance of Vatican pomp and ceremony?
All that the pope cannot or does not wish to state is explained by his theologian of reference, Víctor Manuel Fernández, just recently promoted Archbishop of La Plata, to whom many attribute the founding documents of the current papacy, from the Evangelii gaudium to the Amoris laetitia. “The Vatican Curia is not an essential organisation. The pope could even go and live outside Rome, with a ministry in Rome and another in Bogotá, and perhaps speak with experts of liturgy living in Germany by teleconference (…) Cardinals themselves could vanish, in the sense that they are not essential. The pope and the bishops are essential.. (3) Ubi papa, ibi Roma?
For the Catholic Church abandoning Rome would means emancipating itself from the geopolitical and ecclesial configuration that originated in the Western empire, consolidated during the Early Middle Ages and maintained until now, excluding the Babylonian captivity in Avignon (1309-77) and other brief parentheses. Could the pontifical ecumene escape the Vatican shell in which the Lord gave Peter a mandate to build it without disintegrating? Francis appears to be prepared to run that risk.
The role of a reformer does not apply to the Argentinean pope, if anything his is a prophetic style, exercised at times with merciful violence. Bergoglio may well have discarded the imperial symbols of power, but he has kept a taste for exercising it. Like all good Jesuits, he shuns the principle of non-contradiction, the stringent Aristotelian-Thomistic logic, linear ideas of a rational, enlightened order. He concedes the greatest latitude to his Catholicism of the norm. He is both conservative and a revolutionary.
He is a conservative because he energetically reaffirms the primacy of the Bishop of Rome and the mission of the established Church, hence of the religious empire to be replaced one day by the Kingdom of God. Francis does this by going against those, on the American shores of the Atlantic, who in the name of another empire that cultivates the religion of itself, would like to see the Church reduced to a sui generis NGO.
He is revolutionary in the etymological sense of the word: Francis intends to start the process that will return Catholicism to its beginnings, “following the ideal of the first Christian communities”. (4) Unlike all his predecessors, Pope Francis articulates the word “revolution” with strong positive emphasis. What is more revolutionary than for a pope to invoke the “conversion of the papacy” and the “central structures of the universal Church”? (5) Addressing members of the Curia gathered last December 21st for Christmas Greetings, he also denounced the “unbalanced and debased mindset of plots and small cliques that in fact represent (…) a cancer leading to a self-centredness that also seeps into ecclesiastical bodies.” (6)
The pope still speaks of reform, a word that reminds one of Lutheranism, but he himself appears to not believe it can be applied to the central institutions. He quotes Monsignor Frédéric-François-Xavier de Mérode saying, “Implementing reforms in Rome is like cleaning the Egyptian Sphinx with a toothbrush.” (7)
Hence the pastor speaks directly to his flock, even to those immensely distant, thereby bypassing the Curia. A knight’s move that has so far guaranteed him popularity characterised by inversely concentric circles in the geographical sense; quite modest in the Vatican, tangible in western Europe and in those parts of the United States that dislike Trump, above all in certain of the Third Church’s peripheries.
Within ecclesial circles this popularity is negative in many circles of the high and also the lower clergy, while far more positive among God’s vast number of followers. As far as secularists and progressives, agnostics and “devote atheists” are concerned, their excited fascination with the early Francis appears to have given way to recrimination, typical of those who judge an institution that is both historical and vocationally transcendent on the basis of their own logic and political passion.
The parabola of these five years – almost nothing in the Church’s history, but enough to study the pontifical trajectory – can be best understood by interpreting the “exit” as a farewell, if not to the See, at least to the toxic atmosphere that has compromised it. The pope has moved from an improbable reform of Vatican structures to bypassing them, confiding in the wisdom of the “people”, the alpha and the omega of the theology that has inspired Francis throughout his life.
Were Francis a mere reformer, if the main objective were the updating of the structures of the Church’s Roman government that had crushed his cold but learned predecessor, his balance sheet would be significantly in the red. In the sacred palaces the pope’s authentic supporters are a minority. The apparatuses oppose aphonic – at times noisy – resistance. Sacrificing themselves in public to Francis’ simplified and imaginative colloquial speech, what is privately abhorred as a shattering of the authoritativeness of the Petrine language.
Some of the princes of the Church attack him openly. The American Cardinal Raymond Burke, a representative of a Church that at the conclave had supported Bergoglio only to soon regret this, has warned that the Pontiff may be the object of a “formal correction” from the College of Cardinals because of his alleged ambiguity concerning Holy Communion for the divorced. The cardinal even said, “the pope must, as a duty, be disobeyed” if he exercises his power in a sinful manner. (8) The Polish priest and theologian Edward Staniek prays for “his quick passage to the Father’s House”. (9)
Sharper criticism has come from Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former Prefect for the Doctrine of the Faith, dismissed on the spot by the pope, “Beware, should it be perceived that the Roman Curia has been unjust, this could almost through inertia spark schismatic dynamics that would be difficult to then salvage. (…) The history of Martin Luther’s Protestant schism should above all teach us what mistakes to avoid.” Müller denounces “the pope’s magical circle”, in which “they worry above all about spying on supposed opponents.” And he mentions the “vice of pride” that Francis attributes to intellectuals, which instead the German cardinal sees in him. This is not an oblique mention related to Pope Francis’ authoritarian and suspicious temperament that results in the pope appearing “more as a sovereign of the Vatican State that the supreme teacher of the faith.” (10)
In a Church wounded by never-ending sexual and financial scandals, marked by the resignation of a pope who has not ceased to call himself such, albeit “emeritus” – evoking a virtual diarchy for which Benedict XVI provides no public aspects but on which Bergoglio’s enemies rely to delegitimize the reigning pope – the threat of a schism sounds like the sinister announcement of devastating days of reckoning. It is understandable that Monsignor Marcello Semeraro, who Müller might include in the “pope’s magical circle”, found it necessary to warn that Francis “thinks above all not of a reform of ecclesiastical structures, but rather and above all of reform affecting the lives of Christians and able to change them.” (11) However, “the pope himself does not consider himself truly a ‘reformer’”. (12)
In the senile hierarchy of the Holy Roman Church, many have taken literally the provocative words spoken by Francis, when on the beach of Copacabana he exhorted the young acclaiming him to “stir things up”. (13) Rejection of the principle of non contradiction has turned into a triumph of the principle of contradiction; against the pope himself. The shock that Bergoglio intends to inflict on the tree of Catholicism so as to lead it back to its revered roots arises from eschatological optimism – as paradoxical as it is intrinsic to his mission – concerning the conditions of Catholicism.
Francis seems to overlook the fact that dry branches do not flower, they break. When he sees danger he contradicts himself with agile pragmatism. He zigzags. Perhaps this is inevitable, considering the tribal sabbath that plagues the universal Church, the tolerance for “parallel Churches” that induces Francis to follow a parallel slalom between their divergent, autistic issues. Tribalism in which Massimo Faggioli, one of the most acute analysts of the current papacy, catches a glimpse of a “para-schismatic mentality.” (14)
More than a schism, the Church should fear fragmentation. History proves that one can coexist with schisms, while disintegration is ungovernable. It is not a given that Rome will forever be the centre of Catholicism. However, there has not ever been an empire without a centre. One must therefore wonder whether the ecclesial building will survive the traumas that shake it, whether it will change, or vanish.
The state of the Church calls into question the State of the Church, hence of the only Church that has a state, the Vatican City, of which the pope is the absolute monarch. The Vatican State’s canonical function is to protect the sovereignty and independence of the Holy See – strictly speaking, the Roman pontiff – as the Catholic Church’s supreme governing body. More than its independence, it de facto establishes the inter-dependence of the papal empire with other state subjects, superiorem non recognoscentes, thereby ensuring its rank as the unique lead player on the global geopolitical stage.
It remains to be seen whether in the current crisis, the Holy See will remain the guarantor of papal teachings and an active geopolitical subject in the power games played at a global level. If yes, in what manner? If not, with what consequences, above all for the Italians? An attempt to answer these questions implies starting from the beginnings.
2. Francis wants a global missionary Church. A Church emancipated from clericalism: “This is a sin committed by both sides, like the tango! Priests want to clericalise secularists and secularists ask to be clericalised because it is easier”. (15) This happens when priests create God in their own image and likeness, and lay people believe it.
It is therefore necessary to convert mentalities and institutions, moulded by almost two thousand years of Eurocentric Catholicism, marked by Constantinism. Bergoglio is the first pope in history to integrally reject this consolidated geopolitical and theological system, founded on legitimisation and reciprocal manipulation between political power and ecclesiastic power. It is a model attributed to Constantine the Great, who reigned over the Roman Empire from 306 to 337 A.D..
The Roman Church’s imperial stigma, displayed prior to Francis even with the vestments worn by the Roman pontiff, exalted its prominence in European and universal history. It was a parabola that started with Constantine’s dream (in hoc signo vinces), which attributes to the “supreme God” his victory in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge against Maxentius (October 28th, 312). This continued with the Edict of Milan (313), a rescript of tolerance of Christianity signed by the imperial leaders, Constantine for the West and Licinius for the East; greater detail was contained in the Edict of Thessalonica issued by Gratian, Theodosius I and Valentinian II (February 27th, 380), which determined that Christianity was the religion of the Roman Empire.
This all culminated with the Donation of Constantine (Constitutum Constantini), a fake edict attributed to the first (alleged) Christian emperor and on which, during the Middle Ages, Canon doctrine was based, establishing the pope as the real emperor, lord of all the creation: dominus naturalis omnium. A mysterious apocrypha considered the expression of greedy papal temporalism, but one that recent studies set within the context of attempts to reform the empire in the 9th century. In this false edict, a fake Constantine conceded to the Bishop of Rome, Pope Sylvester, primacy over the four most important Episcopal seats – Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria and Constantinople – as well as the Lateran in Rome, the empire’s Italian and western provinces (16). Whatever the source of this fake may have been – already obvious to Niccolò Cusano in 1433, certified in 1440 by Lorenzo Valla – the Church was to occasionally make use of it until the dawn of the modern era to confirm the legitimacy of its assets. Above all it legitimised its statehood, already effectively exercised in Byzantine Italy as a sort of Republic of Saint Peter’s that, according to its greatest scholar, the Catholic historian Thomas F.X. Noble, has survived until our times, albeit “in new forms”. (17)
Constantinism was so consubstantial to Catholicism (and remains so for its relevant fringes), that it resulted in Valla’s philological razor being consigned to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. As far as Dante’s political-theological criticism was concerned – he labelled the document invalid because the emperor cannot embark on acts going against the empire’s interests and the pope cannot violate the evangelical rule of poverty – it never echoed in the sacred palaces. Only Francis, overcoming the ambiguities of the Second Vatican Council, has disavowed Constantine’s legacy; an apologia of the Christian state.
This was a strategic deed. Its reach stands out in the comparison with the striking continuity of Constantinism in the papacy’s history and traditions. Even in modern and contemporary times. One should consider, for example, concordats entered upon in the 19th and 20th centuries, ranging from the Terracina Concordat (1818), which assigned to Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies the power to appoint bishops, in exchange for sanctioning Catholicism as the only religion in the Bourbon kingdom; to the concordat entered with Poland (1925), which imposed on bishops the obligation to swear loyalty to the republic; to the pact entered with Fascist Italy (1929), adopted also in Article 7 of the Republican constitution (1948) and renewed again in 1984, of which one cannot sufficiently underline the geopolitical importance of Article 2 comma 4, in which the Italian Republic “acknowledges the particular significance that Rome, the Episcopal See of the Supreme Pontiff, has for Catholicism.” Hence the unicum of a capital of a national state that hosts as a separate sovereign entity the city state of a universal religion of imperial origin – and with it, its immense property holdings.
As far as the Second Vatican Council is concerned, what applies is what the Dominican theologian Yves Congar wrote in his diary on October 11th, 1962, when the Council began. “I feel the entire never denounced burden of the times in which the Church had close ties with feudalism, held temporal power, and popes and bishops were lords who held court, protected artists, demanding magnificence similar to that of the Caesars. The Church of Rome has not repudiated all this; abandoning the Constantine era has never been part of its plans.” (18)
And on November 17th, 1961, Pope Paul VI praised Constantine saying, “this emperor, nowadays so opposed by those same people who defend religious freedom, which he inaugurated!” (19) To Benedict XVI, who in 2012 in Lebanon spoke of how “the emperor Constantine the Great, whom you venerate as a saint. (…)
A month from now we will celebrate the seventeen-hundredth anniversary of the appearance to Constantine of the Chi-Rho, radiant in the symbolic night of his unbelief and accompanied by the words: “In this sign you will conquer!” This so as to speak of the Edict of Milan with which Constantine “could bear witness and bring Christians forth from discrimination.” (20)
Francis must therefore demolish 17 centuries of Constantinism, taking care, however, not to undermine the foundations of the institution entrusted to his transient leadership. It is an acrobatic feat, which certainly cannot be completed in the time of one papacy, but for which the Argentinean pope want to at least sow the seeds. He is doing this against the backdrop of a dialectic interpretation of the Church’s history, in its three acts, that is beginning to appear in these early years of a new millennium: the first three “good” centuries before Constantine were followed by 1,650 years of “darkness”, and then half a century that was once again “good” after the Second Vatican Council. (21)
The danger for this anti-Constantinian pope comes from the United States. It is in that geopolitical quadrant that trans-denominational promiscuity is maturing between evangelical fundamentalism and Catholic extremism. It is a neo-Constantinian mix that postulates the urgent need to conform the state to the Bible removing all literalism, in the apocalyptic frenzy that by prophesising an imminent Armageddon turns believers into God’s fighters.
Against all this Civiltà Cattolica whose editor-in-chief is Antonio Spadaro, a heeded exegete of the papal teachings, has developed an anti-narrative centred on the Franciscan style of mercy, with clear geopolitical implications because it refuses to align the Church to the super-power presided over by “Trump, the new Constantine”. (22) Furthermore, “Francis wants to break the organic link between culture, politics, institutions and Church.” The pope “radically rejects the idea of activating a Kingdom of God on earth as was at the basis of the Holy Roman Empire and similar political and institutional forms, including at the level of “political parties.” (23)
The outgoing Church is leaving the West. Catholics following the ultra-Franciscan rituals abhor papacies acting as chaplains to Atlanticism, as they believe was the case throughout the Cold War and beyond. They repudiate euro-centrism, with national Churches often funded by the state (Italy and Germany docent), an impediment to the global mission. Francis’ more adventurous supporters envisage a revolution that will return the Church to polycentrism.
The model is the rather idealised ancient patriarchy, pentarchy, when, in the geopolitical framework of late-imperial territories, the patriarchs of Rome, Jerusalem, Antioch, Constantinople and Alexandria envisaged – on paper – a collegial management of the Christian ecumene. This with the Bishop of Rome “presiding in mercy”, as Francis said just after being elected, recalling Saint Ignatius of Antioch. Nothing very new.
The Swiss missiologist Walter Bühlmann had already proposed the return of the patriarchal pentarchy in 1974, moving it from the five territories to the five continents (24). Such an hypothesis was not unknown to Ratzinger. Such a reconfiguration would sanction the elevation to the patriarchate of the presidents of the continental Episcopal Conferences. Some like to see a first sign of this in the otherwise sterile, cacophonic Council of Cardinals (C9), invented by Francis just after his election.
Those sceptical and critical of Bergoglio denounce in his anti-Constantinian controversy the spectre of an Anglican drift, an excessively lax communion for those still attuned to Gregory VII’s Dictatus papae (1075), according to which the “Only the Pope can with right be called "Universal" and therefore “He alone may use the Imperial Insignia.” (25)
It is the pope’s duty to find a balance, or force one using his own authority. Better still, a future Council. This is unthinkable nowadays, not only because the audience of Council fathers would, according to non-varying rules, be immense and ungovernable, but because very probably it would end up spilling salt on the wounds instead of healing them. The clash would focus not on the renewal of the faith and methods of evangelisation, but more on jurisdiction, hence on the Church’s current institutions, which, according to some of Francis’ interpreters, hide rather than express the forma Christi.
The order of business would be the liquidation of the Vatican as a state entity, as suggested by one of the best highly cultured Italian theologians, Severino Dianich. It is his opinion that “the pontifical state, for example, in other eras could have been perceived as appropriate for the nature of the Church, while nowadays no one would consider it such. Let us also say that if the Church had noticed this in time, many things would have gone better as far as faith’s fate is concerned. Therefore, listening to history’s lessons, should a similar reflection perhaps be embarked upon nowadays regards to the Vatican City state?” (26)
The dispute concerning Constantinism remains a very open one. A great deal will depend on choices made by Francis, choices that are however conditioned by his anything but unambiguous flock. In order to imagine future developments, it will be prove useful to compare the papal forma mentis and the forma ecclesiae. By Church, following the Second Vatican Council, one means the entire people of God.
3. It is Bergoglio’s biography that speaks more clearly than anything he has written. A pastor more than a theologian, he likes the simplicity of words and detests intellectualisms and this leads his critics to label him as simplistic, if not ignorant. In governing, he has always been unwilling to delegate, intolerant of obligations and etiquette. Barricaded in the bunker of Santa Marta, whenever possible he tries to leave the Leonine Walls, be it incognito for a few hours of freedom, be it to embrace his immense flock from which he draws comfort and courage.
He cannot stand the diffidence of the de-doctrinarians that fill the Vatican. It is to them that his friend Guzmán Carriquiry Lecour, vice president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, refers when observing how these gentlemen “remain holed up in an old Europe (…) that nowadays generates nothing.” (27) And worse, “They are like those ‘doctors of Law’ who wondered whether any good could ever come from Nazareth, from the ‘son of a carpenter’. In this case Nazareth stands for the world’s Southern Cone.” (28)
This is the decisive route; a geopolitical and not only ecclesial match is playing out around Francis, between westernised clericalism – both old-European and neo-Constantinian – and the “globalising” Third Church, between the North and the South of the world, between the United States of America and Latin America.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio is innately Argentinean and Latin American, even if his philosophical and theological training, in the colossal shadow of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, owes a great deal to French Jesuit teachers and German classics; with Hegel above all, revisited in light of the Jesuit-like open antinomian dialectics of Gaston Fessard, a friend of Alexandre Kojève. Nor should his Italian origins and fluency in our language mislead one, as they do not means he has a special interest or love for the peninsula, let alone for Rome, of which he is also the bishop.
His vision of the world is marked by his porteña biography, marked in the political and geopolitical sense by the Peronist period. It was, in particular, marked by that of Evita and the early Perón, close to the social doctrine of the Church and the standard bearer of the people as an organic community, for which Bergoglio experienced a strong “cultural affinity”. (29) One of the memories of his youth that has remained most vivid is the massacre carried out by the Argentinean Air Force on June 16th, 1955, when they bombed a Peronist protest in Plaza de Mayo. Over three hundred civilians were killed. There was a cross and the words “Cristo vence” painted on the fuselages of the military aircraft. Perhaps Bergoglio’s anti-Constantinism started on that day.
During the military regime, this never meant adhering to the guerrilla counter-violence that involved various priests trained in the theology of liberation of which Bergoglio rejected the Marxist-like ideology and the use of arms. He did however appreciate some of the social and spiritual reasons in the teachings of Gustavo Gutiérrez, theoretician of this militant theology, reasons that were later expressed in a ramification of that doctrine, the theology of the people, for which Bergoglio was to become an icon, first as Archbishop of Buenos Aires and finally as the pope. It is a people whose language he speaks, also as the head and the leader of the Church, irritating members of the Curia, intellectual priests and conceited brothers at the Gregorian University.
While in conflict with neo-Peronist leaders of his country, in his own way Bergoglio never ceased to admire Perón. To the extent that this is possible for a mystic and a priest – far more than people tend to believe – he remains passionately involved in the political sphere. He confesses this as pope in the Evangelii gaudium: “Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good.” (30)
The treatment reserved on February 27th, 2016, to his president, the neo-liberist Mauricio Macri, received and liquidated in the Vatican after just a few minutes of cold audience, and the care he takes to avoid visiting his greatly beloved homeland, well-aware that he would expose himself to the most brazen political manipulations, bears witness to the leading role he plays from afar in Argentinean public life.
So much political participation is reflected in his geopolitical formation. Marked by the philosopher Amelia Podetti, a creative interpreter of Hegel, whose euro-centrism in his allegedly universal interpretation of history she opposes as well as his remaining “within the dimensions of the Roman Empire and its borders.” (31). With Podetti, Bergoglio shares “the idea of Latin America’s incursion in history as modernity’s fundamental event.” (32) According to the future pope, this results in the planet’s re-centralisation around the American continent, the only one to have expressed a Christian civilisation from its very first interlocution with universal history.
As Podetti states, “The discovery of the ‘New World’ in reality represents the discovery of the world in its totality.” (33) The centrality of the periphery is part of Amelia Podetti’s philosophical ideas. It is a moving of the axis on the basis of which Latin America assumes a universal spiritual and geopolitical mission, the opposite of occidentalist and hyper-technicist universalism incarnated by the North American empire and its decadent Old-Continent appendixes. Bergoglio’s spiritual-geopolitical vision was completed by an encounter with the Uruguayan Alberto Methol Ferré, a profound and audacious personality and one of the most influential Catholic philosophers and geopolitical analysts of recent decades. It is his opinion that the Latin American Church must catalyse the entire sub-continent of the Patria Grande, in a global context in which only continental or transcontinental empires display the size to compete.
A supporter of Peronism, an upholder of the Second Vatican Council as the synthesis and overcoming of Protestant reformation and enlightenment, a theoretician of the Church of the people, Methol Ferré would contribute to persuading Bergoglio of the historical need for the Patria Grande. This consists of a route to be travelled in stages. First: unite around Argentina the other eight South American countries of Castilian origin so as to balance the Brazilian continental super-power. Second: combine Portuguese-speaking Brazil with the group of nine led by Argentina. To this South American ensemble, Carriquiry Lecour proposes to also add Mexico, rejected instead by Methol due to its North American integration as set out in NAFTA. (34)
Hence the largest Catholic continent in the world finally united in the sign of José de San Martín and Simón Bolívar – and above all its Church – as a counterweight and a challenge to “imperialist globalisation”, the bearer of “hedonistic nihilism”. For this Bergoglio invented the metaphor of the “perfect, clean sphere” in which “all people are merged in a uniformity that annuls the tension between diversities.” It is a sphere that is the symbol of American hegemony, to which the future pope opposes the polyhedron, the image of Christian globalisation “in which every aspect (the idiosyncrasy of peoples) preserves its identity and peculiarity”, all aimed towards the “common good”. (35)
The Latin American episcopate already converged on the Patria Grande as a geopolitical and religious objective at the Puebla General Conference (1979) and then in Aparecida (2007). It is an effective utopia that will perhaps remain a mirage. And yet it retains a powerful irradiance in Latin American Catholicism and contributes to outline its place in global geo-ecclesiastic equilibriums.
4. Before Francis’ sensational advent, little of the theology of the people and its geopolitical ramifications was understood by the Curia and even less by the euro-centred Catholic ecumene. Hence the bewilderment of hierarchies and the faithful, soon polarised by the Argentinean pope’s charismatic figure and his direct and disconcerting manner of speaking.
Already unsettled by the trauma of Benedict XVI’s resignation, Catholics must address the spreading scandals shaming the clergy, regardless of the responsibilities of individual priests. Not even Francis has managed to get to the bottom of this. This has revealed the Church’s inability to prevent, educate and select, instead of occasionally reacting if not even covering up the worst crimes of unscrupulous priests. This has had invalidating effects in the episcopates, the clergy and lay members of the Church, which have spread to Rome, involving the pope himself, obliging him to contradict himself when faced with the mass resignation of Chilean bishops because of sexual abuse crimes attributed to them, which an ill-informed Francis had initially minimised to then apologise and very belatedly punish some of them.
This confirms two infirmities that disfigure the nature of the Church; widespread corruption in the institutions responsible for its government, and not only the central ones, and the cultural and ideological rift that devours Catholicism from within. The first issue consists of simony, clericalism, at best introversion, while the second is called sectarianism. This annouces de facto and/or legal schisms. These are also fostered by the decline of the clerical lingua franca, de facto a slang-like residual Italian that does not facilitate exchanges and in-depth analysis of the most varied ideas and issues. With Latin being decommissioned, ill-treated by Benedict XVI when he announced his resignation to the cardinals – many of whom, after listening to him, asked one another what on earth he had said.
The approximate figures that assign to Catholicism about 1.3 billion souls, the majority of whom only occasionally participate in liturgical life, must first of all be broken down and set in certain cultural and geopolitical contexts. At a continental level about half of the faithful (631 million) live in the Americas, and over five-sixth of these in the Southern Cone, with Brazil still in the lead (173 million) in spite of a steep decline.
Old Europe follows (with almost 300 million, of which 57 million are baptised Italians), Africa is increasing were it only due to its tumultuous demography (about 230 million); then comes Asia, Christ’s continent where only 3% of the population (over 140 million) is Catholic – but apart from the 85 million Filipinos and consistent numbers of Vietnamese and South Koreans, the rest is almost desert. Finally there is Oceania, with 10.5 million Catholics, an abundant 25% of its inhabitants. It is thus that the Church’s statistical centre of gravity, established in the year 33 AD as Jerusalem, at the end of this century will be in Nigeria, while in 1900 it was set in an extremely Catholic Spain (36).
Choosing Bergoglio in the 2013 conclave would, if nothing else, appear to be coherent with the number of Latin American faithful. It was also reparation for failing to elect him in 2005, when the quite Romanised Bavarian theologian Joseph Ratzinger prevailed over the Argentinean Jesuit pastor when electing Wojtyła’s successor. This inaugurated a papacy that would end up leading Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini to state on his deathbed, six months before Benedict XVI’s resigned, that, “The Church is 200 years behind the times”. (37) Never would Martini have imagined that the man who would attempt to spark the recovery of this two-century-long delay would be his Jesuit porteño brother, not particularly respected by him, so much so that he chose to vote for Ratzinger in the 2005 conclave.
The fact that the ‘fishing’ of an Argentinean cardinal seemed miraculous to Catholic public opinion, and was not expected by the Curia, measures the distance that separated and continues to divide Rome from the vital peripheries of the faith, even if only regards to reciprocal information. It is no surprise that Francis’ vigorous impact on the customs, mentalities and curial bureaucratic habits reminds one of the noise made by sandpaper on ossified skin. From both an ecclesial and a geopolitical viewpoint, the current temperature of the papacy and the entire Church is best measurable on four fronts: the United States of America, China, Russia and the “Global South” (a per se conflicting media Synecdoche unless one considers South the name of another planet in honour of Amelia Podetti).
The epicentre of the clash is the one that seen from the Southern Cone can be described as the norteamericano, gringo, yanqui context, not in an admiring sense. The Latin American Church, so sensitive to conspiracy theories, is rightly persuaded that the spreading of neo-Protestant sects in its own sub-continent was encouraged by the CIA to oppose the Communists and the pro-Soviets hidden among the militants of Liberation Theology. As far as the Church’s social doctrine is concerned, Rome has branded the entire United States as the champions of hyper-financialised capitalism, the herald of “spherical” globalisation denounced by Francis.
More in depth, in a Catholicism marked by Protestant and neo-Evangelical inclinations, as American Catholicism is and remains, the pope is challenged by culture warriors. According to these extrovert extreme supporters of American Catholicism, close to Trumpism or to devotedly conservative Republican circles, the sooner the excessively Latin and liberal parenthesis opened by Francis is closed, perhaps with his resignation (improbable for as long as the other pope lives), the better. And Italians can go to hell with him, especially those diplomats such as Vatican Secretary of State Parolin, lingering followers of Agostino Casaroli, the heinous strategist of the Ostpolitik providentially liquidated by the powerful Polish-Hapsburg styled anti-communism of John Paul II.
Their objective is to return the Roman Church, which has even established a dialogue with Cuba and Venezuela, to the heart of the West. This is because Catholicism must return to be above all the religion of white people in Europe and North America. Religious integralism, clericalism and geopolitical Westernism merge in the Gothic-styled vision of bringing back a medieval christianitas. The next pope will have to be a sub-emperor, hence the only Caesar, grand priest and soul supplement of the only Augustus, seated on the White House’s throne (America First also applies to Rome).
Francis’ match in China is strictly linked to his relationship with the United States. The Pope intends to normalise relations with Beijing and obtain full freedom of worship for his faithful in China – at least tens of millions according to current estimates – opening to the Gospel the most colossal market of souls there is, in a country-continent in which his credo is challenged by neo-Protestants and syncretic sects with vaguely Christian characteristics (perhaps 200 million). Under Pope Francis, negotiations with the Chinese government started by his predecessors have found new vigour, also thanks to Parolin’s mediating skills.
The Holy See, which in reality can rely on the loyalty of the bishops of the patriotic Church approved by the People’s Republic, as well as on its more or less clandestine flock, is prepared within certain limits to compromise on the appointment of bishops, so as to legitimise its mission in the Middle Kingdom, following in the footsteps of Matteo Ricci. If necessary to the point of breaking off diplomatic relations with Taiwan. This is pulling wool over the eyes of the United States, busy with the full frontal challenge with Beijing aimed at suppressing any vain ambitions of grandeur.
The Vatican’s appeasement of Xi Jinping added to abandoning Taiwan – the highest moment of attrition in Chinese-American relations – is not acceptable to Trump or to the majority of American Catholics. Xi Jinping in turn would like Francis to use his power to induce American believers to agree to a dialogue with Beijing, going against Trump. But while Bergoglio’s authority over American Catholics is limited – without taking into account the possibility that he may be succeeded by a (pro)- American and anti-Chinese pope – the agreement reached with Rome may no longer suit the Chinese dictator. Thus the almost stalemate status of Chinese-Vatican negotiations.
The Holy See’s relationship with Moscow is part of a similar triangle with Washington at its top. Francis has established a relationship of trust with Putin, while he has returned intensity to the difficult dialogue with the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Kirill. He is opposed by sectors of his own clergy who are severely anti-Roman, led by the charismatic Metropolitan of Pskov and Porkhov, Tikhon (whose real name is Georgij Aleksandrovič Ševkunov), considered the Russian president’s “spiritual advisor”. From Syria to Ukraine, Francis has challenged Washington, moving closer to Moscow’s requests. While American apparatuses continue to treat Russia as a permanent enemy, Vatican diplomacy has resumed negotiations with the Kremlin, where for the first time since the days of the Tsar there is a president/emperor who says he is a Christian.
Finally there is the “global south”, in common speech the former (?) Third World. Here the pope from the south, and therefore anti-west, is playing a home match, at least in Latin America. However, in these immense places with low geopolitical impact and a robust demographic rise (especially in Africa), the dual challenge consists of Islamic penetration and the spreading of Pentecostalism.
Hence that of a myriad of independent churches that vigorously practice an expansive and mobilising Christianity of emotions. These are sects that are inspired by apocalyptic and pneumatological traditions, merging them with local beliefs, while intertwined with thaumaturgy, exorcisms (the thrill of being cured) and glossolalia. Theirs are rituals that encourage submission to charismatic authoritarian figures and seduce with the para-theology of success. The result is that there are over half a billion neo-Pentecostal faithful, second in the Christian galaxy after the Catholics and ahead of traditional Protestantism (340 million) and Orthodoxy (200 million). (38)
The roots of Pentecostalism are to be found in Tennessee (Memphis) and in Kansas (Topeka), between the end of the 19th and the early 20th centuries, to then spread to the whole of the Americas – Brazil in primis – to Africa, especially the west and the south, to various Asian regions with its epicentre in South Korea and increasingly also in China. There are also some followers in Japan. This expansion has even affected Europe, once Catholicism’s stronghold, Italy included. Pentecostal sects incubate the seeds of fissiparous inclinations, hence reproduction based on schisms. A horror for the Vatican.
Some wish to see in Francis, above all in his anything-but-grandiose language, the beginnings of an anti-Pentecostal Catholic counter-offensive. If it exists, it has yet to bear fruit. It is therefore prudent to avoid the demonising of this phenomenon or ascribing full responsibility for its existence to wealthy American rulers as the Vatican vulgata would like, and instead be open to listening to them as “scandalously” experienced by Francis.
With the passing of universalist ideologies and the disintegration of social and even family bonds, the open debate with emotional forms of Christianity appears to reveal the anachronism of the Roman Church, genetically branded by its imperial origins and diehard Constantinism. Studied by a hypothetical alien observatory, its fate seems sealed – as Francis’ apocalyptic critics secretly hope. Will he have to be “Pentacostalised” to survive in Rome? Or more specifically, Pentacostalise himself?
If one addresses the issue from the perspective assigned to us, therefore assessing the health and prospects of this grandiose geopolitical subject that for centuries has marked human history, there is one fixed point. An institution entrusted by Christ to the Petrine rock, equipped with keys to the Kingdom of God, with the power to “join together” and “put asunder” – to allow and to forbid – on earth and therefore in heaven, cannot undermine the rock on which Matthew’s Gospel states it is built. Its programme is engraved in capital letters at the base of St. Peter’s: “Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam”. The mission envisages and does not negate the institution.
Spreading the faith requires time, space and organisations. It is an operation involving spiritual geopolitics that expands from a supreme hierarchic centre, but does not exclude other minor, regional or local ones. The mission has always been understood and will continue to unravel on geographical maps, maybe virtual ones, on which its clerical and lay forces will be strategically deployed, creating routes, organising and reorganising dioceses. It will invent updated synodal forms to better enculturate itself in lands to be evangelised or the pope will discover he is alone. Just another televangelist among others.
Due to the rush to shorten distances in the world, Catholicism risks dispersion, Nor can it envisage global Christianisation as the apostles were under the illusion of having achieved. Were it to dismantle the institutional founding structures, including the burdensome but inevitable bureaucracy, attempting to imitate the “emotional”, it would end up crumbling around its broken axis.
Of course Pius XI’s warning was no more productive when he invited people to acknowledge the Church as the “teacher and guide of all other societies.” (39. Nor does John Paul II’s lashing – with difficulty followed by Benedict XVI – who wanted the Church devoted to the rebuilding of a perfect societas christiana, seem proportional to the evangelisation of populations, revolving around contemporary social and geopolitical contexts. (40) But not everything can become everything without running the risk of losing itself. Elephants do not tap dance.
The historian Andrea Riccardi reminds one of the “sense of the limes” within which the Church carries out its mission and implements its pastoral responsibilities. This because “the Catholic Church preserves the imperial idea of safeguarding its territory, mapped and divided into districts all over the planet. (…) This is proved by the cartography of the Atlas hierarchicus, which no corner of the world escapes.” (41) Ubi Roma, ibi papa.
5. Since it is Roman, the Catholic Church is part of Italian history, and what a part! And it has been so forever, not only since the Risorgimento. Of course united Italy was formed against the Church, although Vincenzo Gioberti saw Catholicism as the common substratum that under the pope would have peacefully brought together the peninsula. And there is no doubt that the Petrine bond, especially under the concordats, restricted the independence of our nation, at least as much as the relevance of the American empire after 1945. Father Giuseppe De Luca, quite correctly observed during the Cold War that one could more accurately speak of a “Republic in Italy” than of an “Italian Republic”. (42)
Overturning this perspective, it is however true that if the centre of the Catholic Orbe were not situated in the Urbe, Italy’s geopolitical importance and its very influence would be drastically reduced. Perhaps Giulio Andreotti, the incarnate paradigm of the asymmetric intimacy between the two banks of the Tiber, exaggerated when he explained to a White House emissary that Rome did not need an anti-missile defence because it had a pope. As Italians we would not be pleased were we to close our eyes and imagine the triumph of Archbishop Fernández, with the pope a guest of the offices of the Latin American Episcopal Council in Bogotá – and then one by one the other “neo-patriarchates”.
Vatican and Italian interests are different but intrinsic. The Catholic Church has never been as universal as when governed by popes and managed by the Italian members of the Curia. A (relatively) secular Italy would be just a former European power like many others if it did not guarantee the pope of the universal as it is Roman Church in the apostolic see. This is always an added value. For both.
The neo-archbishop of La Plata is a man who has read many and varied books. Among them let us dare to list Guido Morselli’s prophetic novel, Roma senza papa [Rome with no Pope], written in 1966. It was this “Lampedusan of the North”, a genius published post mortem, who invented the “wandering seat” [Translator’s Note: a play on the words"the seat being vacant"]. (43) His pope, John XXIV, a taciturn Irish Benedictine, temporarily moves to Zagarolo at the end of the 20th century, “not a famous location, and on the contrary, proverbially the opposite.” “A pope who had he been born Italian, would never have dared inflict such an insult on the Romans”, observes the very Lombard Morselli, since “the serious affront they find hard to recover from lies in the choice of the location. ‘Did he really want to slap us that hard?’” (44). This resulted in resounding ‘pasquinades’, graffiti on the car leaving Saint Peter’s Square; “No support from me – Not for someone who dropped me like a bad habit – But what finished me off was Zagarolo”. (45)
No, Bergoglio will not leave Rome. Not as pope. Morselli is a literary case. Fernández is an archbishop who moves too fast – “on many issues I am far more progressive than the pope” (46) – or perhaps he anticipated the outcome of one of those processes that Francis likes to start, leaving it to the judgement of his successors to decide the outcome. Pushing down on the brakes, on the accelerator or both? It also depends on how many feet will have access to the sacred pedals.
(translated by Francesca Simmons)
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- Evangelii gaudium, 31.
- Ivi, 32.
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- PAOLO VI, General audience on November 17th, 1965, https://w2vatican.va/content/paul-vi/it/audiences/1965/documents/hf_p-vi_aud_19651117.html
- BENEDETTO XVI, Speech made on September 14th, 2012 at the Basilica of St Paul in Harissa, https://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/it/speeches/2012/september/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20120914_firma-es-ap.htmlù
- S. ADAMIAK and S. TANZARELLA in “La teologia romana dei secoli XIX e XX. Costantino tra la Chiesa trionfante e la Chiesa dei poveri”, as stated in the Enciclopedia Costantiniana published by Treccani, cfr. http://treccani.it
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- Cfr. W. BÜHLMANN, La terza chiesa alle porte, Alba 1974, Edizioni Paoline, pp.210-213.
- See “Dictatus papae” in Cathopedia, http://it.cathopedia.org/wiki/Dictatus_papae.
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- A. IVEREIGH, Tempo di misericordia. Vita di José Mario Bergoglio, Milan 2014, Mondadori, p. 44.
- Evangelii gaudium, 205.
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- A. PODETTI, “L’irruzione dell’America nella storia”, Incontri. Testimonianze dell’America Latina, n. 7, September-October 1982, p. 11.
- Cfr. M. BORGHESI, op. cit., pp. 200-201.
- “L’America Latina del cardinal Bergoglio. Tra imperialismo della globalizzazione e progressismo adolescenziale”, Terre d’America, 28.4.2013.
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- C. M. MARTINI’s interview with the Corriere della Sera, 2.9.2012, by Father G. SPORSCHILL and Father RADICE FOSSATI CONFALONIERI.
- Cfr. J.-P. BASTIAN, “Un cristianesimo dell’emozione: il pentecostalismo”, in A. RICCARDI (by), Il cristianesimo al tempo di Francesco, Roma-Bari 2018, Laterza, pp. 151-167.
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- Cfr. S. DIANICH, ivi, p. 143.
- A. RICCARDI, “La Chiesa tra centri e periferie”, in A. RICCARDI (a cura di), Il cristianesimo al tempo di Francesco, Roma-Bari 2018, Laterza, pp. 12-13.
- Cfr. L. CARACCIOLO, Terra incognita. Le radici geopolitiche della crisi italiana, Roma-Bari 2001, p. 10.
- G. MORSELLI, Roma senza papa, Milan 2013 (third edition) Adelphi, p. 173. It will not have escaped the meticulous author that the foreign vicariate of Zagarolo belongs to the suburbicarian diocese of Palestrina, which is part of the Roman diocese. In the early Christian era, bishops in suburbicarian seats were permitted in certain contexts to replace the Bishop of Rome. So, although he had physically moved, as far as his diocese was concerned, John XXIV stayed at home.
- Ivi, p. 174.
- Cit. in A. BERMUDEZ, Analysis: Pope’s personal theologian expected to lead major Argentine archdiocese”, Catholic News Agency, 25.4.2018.