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Is Pope Francis a Fraud?

After a right-wing coup crushed the reforms of Vatican II, one scholar says the last two popes are illegitimate.

Pope Francis waves upon arrival for a private audience with members of the media at the Paul VI hall at the Vatican, on March 16, 2013. The pontiff has called for "a poor Church for the poor", saying he chose his papal name because St Francis of Assisi wa


It’s easy — maybe too easy — for people with progressive political views to dismiss the Roman Catholic Church as a vile anachronism, a nightmarish patriarchy of aging pedophiles, woman-haters, homophobes and/or closet cases that can offer nothing of value to the contemporary world. When it comes to the church hierarchy, and especially the Roman Curia, the corrupt and labyrinthine Vatican bureaucracy that makes the Soviet-era Kremlin look like a model of transparency, that point of view seems more than justified.

But the church is not just the hierarchy, and as the spectacle of the last several days has demonstrated, there are millions or billions of people around the world — Catholics and non-Catholics alike — who wish the newly elected Pope Francis well and yearn to see in him the possibility of hope and renewal for this ancient, powerful and heavily tarnished institution that claims direct succession from the apostles of Jesus. As the first Latin American pope and the first Jesuit pope, Francis represents a break with tradition in several ways. Both the name he has chosen and his personal modesty and humility are meant to recall St. Francis of Assisi, one of the most adored figures in the Christian tradition, and no doubt also St. Francis de Sales, a 17th-century mystic, author and ascetic known for his devotion to the poor.

But the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio emerges from a Jesuit order that has been largely purged of its independent-minded or left-leaning intellectuals, and his reputation at home in Latin America is decidedly mixed. While Francis seems to be an appealing personality in some ways — albeit one with a shadowy relationship with the former military dictatorship in Argentina, along with a record on gay rights that borders on hate speech — it’s difficult to imagine that he can or will do anything to arrest the church’s long slide into cultural irrelevance and neo-medieval isolation. His papacy, I suspect, comes near the end of a thousand-year history of the Vatican’s global rise to power, ambiguous flourishing and rapid decline. It also comes after 40 years of internal counterrevolution under the previous two popes, during which a group of hardcore right-wing cardinals have consolidated power in the Curia and stamped out nearly all traces of the 1960s liberal reform agenda of  Pope John XXIII and Vatican II.A handful of intellectuals, both inside and outside the church, quietly believe that means Pope Francis isn’t a legitimate pope at all.

I’m a “legacy Catholic,” or ancestral Catholic, rather than the genuine article; my parents were both previously married and declined to come crawling back and undergo the necessary humiliation. Then again, as the former Dominican priest, radical theologian and bestselling author  Matthew Fox told me in a recent phone conversation, a large number of the 1.2 billion believers the church claims are “disaffiliated Catholics, ex-Catholics, Catholics with one foot in and one foot out.” Like many of those people, I’m not immune to all the emotion and adulation being poured onto the new pope just because I think it’s misplaced. More than anything else, that passion is the enduring, if confusing, legacy of Vatican II, the historic reform council of 1962–65 that promised all sorts of big changes within Catholicism that never quite came to pass.

As Fox and many other Catholic and ex-Catholic dissidents see it, Vatican II marked the moment when the church had the chance to reinvent itself as a flexible moral and spiritual force in a rapidly changing world. Indeed, it briefly seemed to do just that – and it’s important to understand that Bergoglio, like Joseph Ratzinger and Karol Wojtyla before him, was part of the right-wing counterrevolution within the church that aggressively rolled back those changes, crushed dissident thought and reasserted the absolute power of the pope and his hierarchy. Pope Francis is a longtime ally of  Communion and Liberation, a fiercely conservative Catholic organization that insists on  “total fidelity and communion” with the church leadership and is devoted, among other things, to battling European socialism and Latin American liberation theology. In Italian politics, CL has been closely tied to the party of Silvio Berlusconi, and its founder was an intimate friend of Cardinal Ratzinger before he became Benedict XVI.

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