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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.

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If you engaged with the Catholic church in any way between the mid-1960s and the late 1970s, you witnessed the limited effects of Vatican II on the ground: the Mass was in English and could partly be understood (more’s the pity); many dioceses were afflicted with faintly groovy young priests and nuns who played folk guitar; fish was no longer mandatory for Friday night’s dinner (an innovation resisted to this day by many older Catholics). But Vatican II was intended — at least by Pope John XXIII, who convened it, and the group of theologians who wrote and rewrote its central documents — to cover a lot more ground than Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks and “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.”

Vatican II offered the promise of a church that communicated openly with the modern world. It specifically repudiated the church’s history of anti-Semitism and vowed to pursue dialogue with non-Catholics and non-Christians of many stripes. It held out the possibility of a new dogmatic flexibility in which the church would assert the truth of the Christian Gospels while permitting freedom of conscience on a wide range of issues. Millions of learned words have been written on what was and was not addressed or implied in the ambiguous Latin prose crafted by the bishops and scholars of Vatican II, but it might be fair to sum it all up this way: No specific promises were made about changing church policy on priestly celibacy or the role of women or the moral status of homosexuality or the decentralization of Vatican power. But it was implied or understood by many participants and observers that those issues were potentially on the table, and at least you wouldn’t be punished or excommunicated for discussing them.

There was an ideological counterattack against Vatican II almost immediately, with Cardinal Ratzinger as its intellectual leader, and that became the dominant current in the church hierarchy after the ascension of John Paul II in 1978. Fox believes that the last two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, departed so far from both the letter and spirit of Vatican II — which should have been viewed as the authoritative teachings of the church — that they should be considered “schismatic,” or illegitimate. “In the Catholic tradition, a council trumps a pope,” he says. “A pope does not trump a council.” (In the great tradition of Catholic intellectuals, he cites precedence in the Council of Constance, convened in 1414, which fired three warring popes and appointed a new one.) “What’s happened since John Paul II is that he and Ratzinger have turned back all the basic principles of Vatican II. I would include the principle of freedom of conscience, the principle that theologians have a right to think. They brought the Inquisition back, there’s no question about it.”

Fox’s 2012 book  “The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade Has Imperiled the Church and How It Can Be Saved” contains a list of 105 prominent Catholic theologians who have been silenced or expelled under the last two popes, including many influential figures of the Vatican II period and its aftermath. Fox himself is on the list; he was silenced by then-Cardinal Ratzinger in 1988 after publishing his New Age-flavored bestseller  “The Coming of the Cosmic Christ” and expelled from the Dominican order five years later. (I noted during our conversation that Fox, who is now an Episcopal priest, consistently refers to the most recent pope — his particular nemesis — as “Ratzinger” rather than Benedict XVI.) This climate of inquisition, Fox says, “runs totally contrary to the entire attitude and teaching of Vatican II. In the Vatican councils, they defined the church as the people, not as the hierarchy. Under these last two popes, it’s all about the hierarchy.”

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