Is Pope Francis a Fraud?
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Fox insists that he’s not alone in believing that the authoritarian reign of the last two popes represents a kind of illegitimate intra-Catholic coup d’état. He says he got the idea from the late Edward Schillebeeckx, a prominent liberal Dutch theologian and Dominican priest who managed to remain inside the church, at a private lunch in the late 1990s. “He told me, ‘I and many other European theologians feel that the present papacy’ — that would have been John Paul II — ‘is in schism.’ My response was very American. I said immediately, ‘What are we gonna do about it?’ I’ll never forget his look, which without saying anything said, ‘These Americans are so crazy. They think you can do something!’”
Fox argues, in essence, that the Schillebeeckx doctrine means the official church no longer exists or, to put it another way, that the power of the church has been diffused and now belongs to everyone. “What it means is that every cardinal, priest and bishop anointed in the last 42 years is illegitimate. What that means to the Catholic in the pew is, ‘Hey, there’s no one looking over your shoulder!’ If you’re trying to live out the principles of Vatican II, combined of course with the Gospels, that’s what the church is. The church is the people.”
That’s a lovely argument – as well as a distinctively Catholic one, I would say – and ex-Catholics and dissidents who already agree with Fox will no doubt find it unassailable. But those Catholics who’d like to go to Mass on Sunday and simply wish the church could be a bit less antiquated and noxious may not find it satisfying. Fox imagines a grassroots-based, decades-long popular uprising within the church, one that would install female priests and openly gay priests and married priests, would reclaim the spirit of Vatican II and ultimately render the repellent and backward hierarchy irrelevant. That’s a lovely idea too, but in the meantime we have the realities of political power, and a new pope with a soft spot for dictatorship and a hatred of gays at the reins of a decaying right-wing junta with especially fancy uniforms. Fox’s friend Schillebeeckx saw this coming more than 20 years ago, when he wrote that many conservatives of the John Paul II era were pushing toward a shrinking, outdated and increasingly isolated “monolith church … a ghetto church, a church of the little flock, the holy remnant.”
When I asked Fox whether he actually held out hope for Pope Francis, he briefly tried to be diplomatic, saying he was praying for the new pontiff and wished him well. Then he said, “But remember that all those cardinals that voted for him were appointed by John Paul II and Ratzinger” – and therefore, from Fox’s point of view, are not legitimate cardinals at all. “They’re all cut from the same cloth. Can he break out of that history, that background? That would take a major miracle.”