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Dangers Within

Demos II and the Pathos of Pope Francis’ Haters

The success of an endeavor is often in direct proportion to the vociferousness of the hatred directed toward it. As a fan of the New York Yankees who attended many games during their recent heyday of 1996-2000, and of the Notre Dame football team (whose great successes are in the more distant past), I can testify that this is the case. If we measure the papacy of Francis, which is in certainly its latter phases, by this standard, it might be compared more fruitfully to the more recently successful Kansas City Chiefs or Alabama Crimson Tide football teams; the fires of hatred against Francis still burn hot. The recent publication of an anonymous letter by Demos II, who claims to be a cardinal, provides evidence for this.

Demos takes his name, notably, from a similar letter written anonymously by the late George Cardinal Pell—an advisor and then critic of Francis—shortly before his death. Pell’s 2019-2020 imprisonment on sexual abuse charges in his native Australia became a cause célèbre among conservatives. This whole saga, which included the publication of a 3-volume prison memoir, was in remarkably poor taste. Regardless of Pell’s guilt or innocence of these charges—which Australian court practices of secrecy render hard to sort out—making a martyr out of Pell amid the ongoing reality of clergy sexual abuse was incredibly tone-deaf to the pain of victims and those whose faith has been shaken by the stories of abuse and coverup. Reviving Pell’s nom de plume continues this legacy.

Demos II grounds his anonymity in the supposed “authoritarianism” of Pope Francis, an accusation regularly leveled against him from his right and seemingly grounded in periodic decisiveness about matters that irk them rather than the long leash he has given to his outspoken enemies. Authority is indeed one of the key points in the letter; for this cardinal, Francis has abused his authority yet forsaken the rightful authority of the church by teaching ambiguously. Indeed, ambiguity stands out as the second theme of this text: for its author, Francis has taught ambiguously in such a way as to mislead the faithful. The areas of ambiguity are rendered—ambiguously—but they seem to come down to questions around proclaiming Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation and the failure to name and harshly enough condemn sin. These are evidence-free charges, relying on innuendo rather than substantiation.

The rhetoric of Demos attempts to focus on the positive and prescriptive, using language about evangelization that attempts to mimic John Paul II. Yet, in fact, it manages to only capture the harsher side of that complex Pope. Demos participates in what has by now become a tradition of aggressively misreading Pope Benedict XVI with its language about the “hermeneutic of continuity.” In the author’s nostalgia for an imagined recent past, how a conclave of cardinals selected by John Paul II and Benedict XVI came to elect someone like Francis is of no interest.

The cluelessness of Demos becomes most clear in the letter’s critique of papal travel. While there are legitimate conversations to be had about the cost and benefits of papal trips (Czech theologian Tomáš Halík has written eloquently about his distaste for these events) the rationale Demos gives for curtailing them—shoring up the European church—is remarkably tone-deaf. It deliberately pushes back against the language used by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium calling for a “church that goes forth,” rather advising retreat. This focus on institutional maintenance is laughably out of touch with the reality of the church today—and its center of gravity in areas far from Europe—that it renders almost all the other complaints in the letter meaningless.

Pope Francis has made many mistakes, as he would be the first to admit. Yet his greatest mistakes on both internal and external matters have tended to be when he has hewed in a more conventional direction—his recent remarks about Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s sham election in Russia are indicative of this. Francis is at his best when challenging the church to be more true to the Gospel even at the risk of tension with established structures. It is this Gospel emphasis that Demos II cannot abide. Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart suggested in a recent book that it is precisely the Christianity of Francis that his opponents cannot stand, and the points focused on by Demos make this all the more clear.

Like the hatred of winning sports teams discussed in the first paragraph, the rhetoric of Demos II burns hot but has shallow roots; negativity leads to a miserable spiral. With a constructive agenda based around a negative outline of Francis’ actions, this anonymous cardinal has done little but shine a light on the narrowness of his own viewpoints and movement. Haters such as Demos might well reflect on what good their vitriol is producing and whether they could be accomplishing something better for the church and the world.

Daniel A. Rober is a systematic theologian and Catholic studies professor at Sacred Heart University.


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