Many of the 50% plus white male Catholic voters in the last US election who helped elect Donald Trump were not unaware that this was a president who would shake things up—big time. After all, that was a major part of his appeal.
But life on the Potomac is more turbulent than expected, in-fighting among the team wide-spread, unpredictability sundering credible leadership, contradictions and back pedaling more signs of disintegration than disruption.
Many of these same voters must be even more dismayed by the turbulence on the Tiber. Pope Francis, the ecclesiastical disruptor par excellence, is also facing in-fighting among the team, charges of ambiguous messaging and festering resentment over his atypical leadership style.
When the newly appointed papal ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, spoke at my own University following the convocation that awarded him an honorary degree, he was asked if the church was on the cusp of schism because of the dubia posed by four cardinals. His questioner was earnest and polite, and the nuncio was measured, as befits a diplomat, in his response: no need for panic, and schism isn’t an option. But he didn’t dispel the unease felt by many. After all, the editorial in the pre-eminent journal of Catholic opinion in the English-speaking world, The Tablet of London, published in the week of the nuncio’s response, starkly noted that “there is an exceptional level of turbulence in the Roman Catholic Church, and it arises from resistance to Pope Francis’s leadership.”
The dubia refers to a series of questions seeking doctrinal clarification on matters relating to the pontiff’s perceived weakening of church teaching on divorced and remarried Catholics receiving communion, and it is a public challenge to papal authority that knows no precedent.
These cardinals—Walter Brandmüller, Carlo Caffara, Joachim Meisner and Raymond Burke—are retired, in one case demoted, prelates, of waning influence but bold tenacity of view. They have directly confronted Pope Francis in a public way—not the usual modus operandi of those in the hierarchy—demanding that he responded to their questions. They have support from a small but vocal body of conservative priests and academics, and they are driven by a sense of urgency.
The primum mobile or instigator of this defiance is the American canonist Burke, whose capital in the Vatican is as low as it can get. Removed from his position as the Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura—the highest court in the Roman orbit—and now humiliated as patron of the Knights of Malta by his bungling intervention on a personnel matter, Burke has been emboldened to take on the Supreme Pontiff with a vigor that is Trumpian in its temerity.
In a recent investigative piece in The New York Times, Burke was identified as a cleric warmly cultivated by Steve Bannon, chief strategist for President Trump, unreconstituted ideologue of the right, deft media meister and a Catholic of Mel Gibson-like fervor and truculence. Whether Bannon’s courting of Burke presages a “holy alliance” or not, it does demonstrate that Catholic traditionalists not only worry about the direction in which Francis is taking the church but are prepared to do something about it that goes beyond praying.
Whereas Burke and his allies have been allowed considerable latitude in expressing their unhappiness with this pope, no such breach of conformity and deference customarily accorded papal teaching would have been tolerated by Francis’s two immediate predecessors. One could imagine both John Paul II and Benedict XVI summarily dismissing and dispatching these dissident clerics to the ecclesiastical equivalent of Vladivostok in the dead of winter.
But not Francis. Whereas Trump places a high premium on personal loyalty to him, Francis prefers fidelity to the Gospel. Loyalty is a secondary virtue.
Rome will no more have a schism than Washington an impeachment. Still, there is turbulence in the very idea of such developments, a pervasive disquiet not easily exorcized.