There really are Catholic anarchists hoping for the end of Pope Francis. They find something wrong with everything he says, even though his every word is rooted in the Gospel and the writings of his predecessors.
Don’t be fooled. Another target of the agitators is the Second Vatican Council. That would be the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, which met from 1962 to 1965. No matter that some 2,625 bishops met then, in a spirit of aggiornamento. Naysayers within and without were complaining before the print dried on the documents.
And the documents were exciting and enlightening indeed. They promised a new and vibrant Church internally (Lumen gentium) and in relation to the world (Gaudium et spes), and they invited all to read the word of God (Dei verbum). Other documents discussed ecumenism and relations with the Eastern Churches and non-Christian religions; missionary activity; religious freedom; and the lives, apostolates, and education of the laity, religious and priests. Notably, one document discussed bishops’ conferences and emphasized episcopal collegiality.
Since then, the road to aggiornamento has been bumpy. Pockets of Church leadership resisted and still resist the Council’s determinations. Pope Francis thinks it is high time they joined the rest of the Church. The theme of the next synod of bishops is, after all, synodality.
Speaking to members of the Italian Bishops’ National Catechetical Office in late January this year, Francis made the fact and facts of Vatican II quite clear:
This is magisterium: the Council is the magisterium of the Church. Either you are with the Church and therefore you follow the Council, and if you do not follow the Council or you interpret it in your own way, as you wish, you are not with the Church. We must be demanding and strict on this point. The Council should not be negotiated in order to have more of these ... No, the Council is as it is. And this problem that we are experiencing, of selectivity with respect to the Council, has been repeated throughout history with other Councils.
Enter the anarchists, the schismatics, if you will. Taking a lead from Fidel Castrol’s Radio Rebelde (Rebel Radio) of the 1950s, their well-oiled propaganda machine uses all the tools of social media. Bolstered by clearly schismatic bishops within their ranks, they aim their lies sharply. Their main target: the magisterial teachings of the Vatican Two.
Hence, the Church suffers the social media cacophony of individuals whose simulated authority creates discord. It suffers priests performing unauthorized exorcisms, unassigned bishops claiming moral authority over synods and governments and retired cardinals rewriting doctrine. Like Castro, each of these recognizes the power of media—the new media—to foment religious and, if truth be told, political insurrection.
The thread throughout: some clerics seem to have signed on to a part of QAnon beliefs. They seem to think that Satan has infected the United States (especially the Democratic Party), the Church and the world at large.
They are bound together both politically and by views that decry the decisions of Vatican II. They prefer Tridentine liturgy and 19th-century clerical garb. They question doctrinal development and statements rooted in science. They recoil in horror at the thought of women at the altar, whether as lectors, acolytes, or—heaven forbid--restored to the ordained diaconate.
They are so fixated on evil they claim an indigenous statue at activities of the 2019 Pan-Amazon Synod is evidence of ecclesiastical idolatry. And they encourage unauthorized exorcisms. For example, once the U.S. election results were in, an American priest of an Italian diocese, but living in Madison, WI, performed exorcisms of election workers and officials in conjunction with his private daily Tridentine Mass, livestreamed on YouTube. Then, a priest of Omaha, NE, said he exorcised the Congress as he joined the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol because a “demon” had taken hold there. His views exploded on Twitter and Facebook. Each acted with the clear intent of supporting the “stolen election” lie. Neither seems to have suffered any repercussions for his actions.
How many others are out there? How many others have followed the leads of the stars of Church Militant, EWTN, LifeSiteNews and the many, many alt-right priest bloggers and bishop-tweeters arguing against anything remotely modern or true? And, among them, how many present the Trump lie?
The confluence of anti-Vatican II beliefs and alt-right political beliefs wrapped in ecclesiastical silk and lace present a frightening future for the Church and the world. The Gospel approaches to the needs of the people of God, so well-embodied in the documents of Vatican II and invigorated by Francis, are in danger.
The anarchists only want to tear down; the schismatics only want their own Church. Their problematic acts and comments are exacerbated by social media. And no one seems to be able to control them, or even to want to.
Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence and adjunct professor of religion at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY.