Fisking the Post’s Strawpope

Yesterday, the Washington Post published an article on Strawpope Frank. Well, actually, they claim it’s on Pope Francis, but we know how that works now, don’t we?


I’m sorry, Your Holiness, but you’re giving them far too much credit.

The title of the article is “Conservative Dissent is Brewing Inside the Vatican,” by Anthony Faiola, the Post’s Berlin chief. However, it is interesting to note that this title isn’t the original. That one, which can still be seen on the article’s URL, was “A Conservative Revolt is Brewing Inside the Vatican” (emphasis added).

The fact that they’ve had to change it means they’re already walking this back. Unfortunately, the Washington Post blocks sites like from preserving old versions of the page, so it’s easy for them to go back and edit and pretend like nothing changed.

The current title is, well . . . I’ll be charitable and say it’s less inaccurate compared to the previous one. After all, there’s no “conservative revolt.” As I described in a previous post, the Church moves slowly for very good reason. The only revolts that ever take place in the Church are from those who become impatient with the idea that religion is larger then they are and that perhaps, just perhaps, they might not know everything. After all, it’s a terrible burden to be the one with all the answers.

But even the new title reveals the agenda at hand: painting those who support the doctrines of the Church, rather than the fads of the moment, as opposing something centralized and moderate. As you might imagine, the article (and yes, it’s an article, not an op-ed) doesn’t get any better or more factual from here on out.

On a sunny morning earlier this year, a camera crew entered a well-appointed apartment just outside the 9th-century gates of Vatican City. Pristinely dressed in the black robes and scarlet sash of the princes of the Roman Catholic Church, Wisconsin-born Cardinal Raymond Burke sat in his elaborately upholstered armchair and appeared to issue a warning to Pope Francis.

Priest stop right there

The left loves to paint Burke as somehow opposing the Pope. What this guy’s referring to is an interview in February when Burke responded to a hypothetical question by just answering it rather than giving a long, involved theological dissertation on the subject. You know, because not everyone has a degree in Catholic theology nor decades of experience in the Church itself. If you read the full translation of the interview, you can see that the interviewer is (like the Post) attempting to cast Burke as fighting with Francis, even going so far as to ask Burke why the cardinal thinks he’s the true guardian of doctrine rather than the Pope (to which Burke rightly points out that doctrine guides us, not the other way around).

Further, it’s worth noting the language used. Yes, a cardinal is a prince of the Church, though that’s an archaic description and not a real title; it simply indicated that a cardinal was on the same level as royalty when it came to the pecking order at (mostly European) events where such things mattered. These days, not so much; these days, it makes you sound either old and medieval or like you should be on tabloid covers in England. (Or I guess that musician who decided to change his name to an unpronounceable symbol for a while and then realized it was a dumb move. But that’s neither here nor there.) Add that to the description of his chair and robes and he sounds like an antipope.

Well, his robes are standard-issue, and his chair, well . . . I’ve got an overstuffed arm chair in my home offices that’s not only more comfortable but looks far more visually obtrusive. But don’t take my word on it, or the Post’s. Watch the video for yourself.

Sheesh. So many words and we’ve only just gotten started.


A staunch conservative and Vatican bureaucrat, Burke had been demoted by the pope a few months earlier, but it did not take the fight out of him.

Another common charge. Two minutes of research and a calculator shows that the office of the Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, established in its current form a little over a century ago by Pope Pius X, has an average turnover rate of 6 years. The maximum time in office was 13 years; the minimum was less than a single year. Cardinal Burke held that office for 6 years, which makes his tenure quite average in that regard.

Sorry, but the Signatura isn’t a lifetime post. It’s a legal office, and it’s bad form to leave someone there for too long. You want sharp minds, not tired ones exhausted from dealing with the post. The Church is a lot wiser in this regard than the United States. (Yes, I’m in favor of regular term limits for Supreme Court Justices. Actually, I’m in favor of term limits in general.)

Francis had been backing a more inclusive era, giving space to progressive voices on divorced Catholics as well as gays and lesbians.

No, you media types just acted like popes haven’t been saying the same stuff before Francis. Probably because John Paul II and Benedict XVI weren’t as easy to soundbyte-mash.

Strawpope conservatism

In front of the camera, Burke said he would “resist” liberal changes — and seemed to caution Francis about the limits of his authority. “One must be very attentive regarding the power of the pope,” Burke told the French news crew.

Papal power, Burke warned, “is not absolute.” He added, “The pope does not have the power to change teaching [or] doctrine.”

It’s all in how you present it. Allow me to paste in the same point in the interview:

-[Interviewer:] How do you intend to place pope Francis on the good path?
-[Burke, in Italian] On this, also one must be very attentive regarding the power of the pope. The classic formulation is that, “the Pope has the plenitude, the fullness, of power.” This is true. But it is not absolute power. His power is at the service of the doctrine of the faith. And thus the Pope does not have the power to change teaching, doctrine.

Does that sound like a warning to the Pope? I think it’s obvious that it’s not. It’s Burke trying to point out to a reporter that it’s not about him (Burke) trying to steer Francis. It’s about Burke pointing out to a reporter asking leading questions that no pope has the authority to change fundamental tenents of faith. The pope is not the head of the Church; he’s the caretaker of the Church, while the actual head is away. Any reforms must be in line with what Christ left us. We can change our interpretation of doctrine, but we cannot change doctrine one bit.

*woooooooosh* That’s the sound of everything I just said going right over the heads of everyone responsible for this article.

Pope - Christ is in charge

Burke’s words belied a growing sense of alarm among strict conservatives, exposing what is fast emerging as a culture war over Francis’s papacy and the powerful hierarchy that governs the Roman Catholic Church.

Nope. It’s the radical liberal side that’s become alarmed. You media types somehow got it in your head that Francis is a liberal, and you keep sticking to that story. That’s what creates Strawpope Frank. You’re alarmed at how your people moved too far too fast, and now you either have to back down or double down. You’ve chosen the latter. The problem is, the Internet doesn’t forget, no matter how much you try to edit your article to hide what you already said.

The article pauses here to give us a slideshow gallery of random Francis-related photos. The default photo is of Francis washing someone’s foot at the Easter Vigil Mass; it’s labeled “Pope Francis: Acts of Humility.” It’s the only photo that fits that title, and it’s something every priest (whether said priest is also a bishop, cardinal, or pope) performs when he’s the celebrant of the Easter Vigil Mass. Talk about lazy illustration. Who put this together, a twelve-year-old taking a break from Call of Duty to do a quick Google search?

This month, Francis makes his first trip to the United States at a time when his progressive allies are hailing him as a revolutionary…

The National Catholic Reporter (which is neither Catholic nor much of a reporter) thinks he’s playing it too safe.

…a man who only last week broadened the power of priests to forgive women who commit what Catholic teachings call the “mortal sin” of abortion during his newly declared “year of mercy” starting in December.

Yes, we must put air quotes around that “mortal sin” business. Let’s all share a private laugh that the Church thinks anything not included in the current outrage-fads of the American Left might be considered a “sin.”

Poor fool he makes me laugh

On Sunday, he called for “every” Catholic parish in Europe to offer shelter to one refugee family from the thousands of asylum seekers risking all to escape war-torn Syria and other pockets of conflict and poverty.

Last I checked, that’s not a change from how Christ instructed us to act. Ever heard of the corporal works of mercy?

I was hungry and you gave me food

Yet as he upends church convention…

You’re going to have to work a lot harder than that to prove that Pope Francis is radically changing the Church. Though I suppose pointing out that following the teachings of Christ is rather essential to being a Christian probably is radical to people like you.

Francis also is grappling with a conservative backlash to the liberal momentum building inside the church. In more than a dozen interviews, including with seven senior church officials, insiders say the change has left the hierarchy more polarized over the direction of the church than at any point since the great papal reformers of the 1960s.

Okay, we’ll get to the polarized thing in a moment. First though . . . “papal reformers”? Who reformed the papacy? Did someone change history when I wasn’t looking?

Yes, he’s probably referring to John XXIII and Paul VI, the first being the one who called the Second Vatican Council and the second being the one who oversaw the rest of it. However, even assuming he’s thinking of that, there’s a vast difference between a pope who is a reformer and a reformer of the papacy.

As for the polarization . . . no, I can’t really agree with that. The only thing truly polarizing about Vatican II was that certain liberal folks didn’t get their way. Though they decided to act as though they did. I’m not an expert on the people who attended the Council (though I have actively studied its documents, context, and ramifications), but based on what I do know, things are actually more polarized now. And even then, I wouldn’t call it truly polarized, not compared to what the Post’s audience would compare it to in this country. Certainly not while Pope Francis is still trying to convince everyone to play nice and assuming that everyone is equally engaged in following Christ’s teachings.

The conservative rebellion is taking on many guises — in public comments, yes, but also in the rising popularity of conservative Catholic Web sites promoting Francis dissenters; books and promotional materials backed by conservative clerics seeking to counter the liberal trend; and leaks to the news media, aimed at Vatican reformers.

Well, gosh. We’re a website of traditionalist-minded Catholic geeks. I guess we’re all Francis dissenters? Oh, and you somehow missed the hordes of books on Catholicism published over the last quarter-century? (I use that period of time because it was about twenty-five years ago that I first tripped over my mother’s books on the subject. You think I mean that metaphorically, don’t you?)

You’re failing at your attempt to encourage that polarization you mentioned. The problem with painting with a broad brush is that it doesn’t leave much room for subtle strokes.

In his recent comments, Burke was also merely stating fact. Despite the vast powers of the pope, church doctrine serves as a kind of constitution.

Wow, really? You mean everything Burke was saying was true, but you’re going to attack him for it anyway?

Logic Brain Freeze

And for liberal reformers, the bruising theological pushback by conservatives is complicating efforts to translate the pope’s transformative style into tangible changes.

Translation: “Those mean traditionalists who actually believe in Catholicism won’t let us use Strawpope Frank as an excuse to remake the Church in our image! Waaaaah!”

“At least we aren’t poisoning each other’s chalices anymore,” said the Rev. Timothy Radcliffe, a liberal British priest and Francis ally appointed to an influential Vatican post in May. Radcliffe said he welcomed open debate, even critical dissent within the church. But he professed himself as being “afraid” of “some of what we’re seeing” [sic]

Yes, Radcliffe is one of 40 consultants to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, called for at Vatican II and instituted by Pope Paul VI. That basically means he’s part of a crowd of bureaucrats who write up stuff for the bureaucrats who then send recommendations to bishops. The only reason Radcliffe isn’t lost in that crowd is because he holds borderline heretical (I’m trying to be nice) views on marriage and is therefore beloved by liberals who think their religion must reflect their own wants and desires. (They never mention, by the way, that Radcliffe is firmly against female ordination and some other pet leftist causes. Not that it makes me like his other views any better, but I do find it interesting when leftists selectively promote their heroes.)

Testing newfound freedom

Rather than stake out clear stances, the pope is more subtly, often implicitly, backing liberal church leaders who are pressing for radical change, while dramatically opening the parameters of the debate over how far reforms can go. For instance, during the opening of a meeting of senior bishops last year, Francis told those gathered, “Let no one say, ‘This you cannot say.’ ”

You know you’re reaching when you link to the National Catholic Reporter (who, again, is neither Catholic nor much of a reporter) and even they are admitting that all Francis said was that he didn’t want an echo chamber. He wasn’t talking about what was up for grabs, just that he wanted to hear all opinions. Heck, the only thing I’d have said differently was probably “Don’t forget to include doctrinal citations, and you’ll be graded on your use of punctuation.”

Okay, maybe not that last part. This is why I’m an editor, not a pope.

Since then, liberals have tested the boundaries of their new freedom, with one Belgian bishop going as far as calling for the Catholic Church to formally recognize same-sex couples.

Ho-hum. There have been bishops calling for that for decades, both in Europe and in the United States. Probably some in other places; I just haven’t heard about them. This isn’t a “new freedom.” Even bishops are allowed to say stupid things. They’re just not allowed to preach them.

Conservatives counter that in the climate of rising liberal thought, they have been thrust unfairly into a position in which “defending the real teachings of the church makes you look like an enemy of the pope,” a senior Vatican official said on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely.

Yes, because then the Post, the Reporter, and other agitators try to paint those who believe in the Church as reactionaries who don’t realize that someone invented the flushing toilet. You’ve successfully made people afraid of being pilloried in the media (both traditional and social), so it falls on those of us who are tougher, or just more fed up, to take you to task. And all we do is just point out facts.

“We have a serious issue right now, a very alarming situation where Catholic priests and bishops are saying and doing things that are against what the church teaches, talking about same-sex unions, about Communion for those who are living in adultery,” the official said. “And yet the pope does nothing to silence them. So the inference is that this is what the pope wants.”

That’s been going on for decades, longer than Francis has been living in the Vatican. Longer, even, than Francis has been alive. The only thing that’s changed now is that we’ve got professional agitators pushing the Strawpope narrative, hoping to make Francis seem like a radical rather than just someone who’s simply trying to get disagreeing bishops to work together.

The contention within

A measure of the church’s long history of intrigue has spilled into the Francis papacy, particularly as the pope has ordered radical overhauls of murky Vatican finances. Under Francis, the top leadership of the Vatican Bank was ousted, as was the all-Italian board of its financial watchdog agency.

Yes, because a mixture of priests who don’t get finances with some who don’t get the “vow of poverty” thing is part of a “long history of intrigue.”

Stupid people

One method of pushback has been to give damaging leaks to the Italian news media. Vatican officials are now convinced that the biggest leak to date — of the papal encyclical on the environment in June — was driven by greed (it was sold to the media) rather than vengeance. But other disclosures have targeted key figures in the papal cleanup — including the conservative chosen to lead the pope’s financial reforms, the Australian Cardinal George Pell, who in March was the subject of a leak about his allegedly lavish personal tastes.

Yes, there are some suspicious expenses in Pell’s account, but his “lavish personal tastes” only seem so compared to the Pope. If a member of the US Congress lived that frugally, he’d be complaining about how he’s not getting paid a living wage.

But let’s not gloss over something key here; Faiola is trying to make the case that conservatives are pushing back against Francis’ liberal reforms . . . by pointing out that someone is trying to discredit one of the traditionalists . . . who is implementing a fiscal reform to eliminate waste and fraud.

Right. I have a hard time believing that those nasty traditionalists who believe in following the rules and obeying God would be all that upset at rooting out greedy clerics who are stealing from the Church.

More often, dissent unfolds on ideological grounds. Criticism of a sitting pope is hardly unusual — liberal bishops on occasion challenged Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI.


But in an institution cloaked in traditional fealty to the pope, what shocks many is just how public the criticism of Francis has become.

We’re not criticizing Pope Francis. We’re criticizing Strawpope Frank.

Pope Francis - Commie Crucifix strawpope

In an open letter to his diocese, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., wrote: “In trying to accommodate the needs of the age, as Pope Francis suggests, the Church risks the danger of losing its courageous, countercultural, prophetic voice, one that the world needs to hear.” For his part, Burke, the cardinal from Wisconsin, has called the church under Francis “a ship without a rudder.”

Bishop Tobin was cautioning against moving too quickly, not that nothing needs to change. You can see that in his thoughts on the synod, which were full of caution and not inflexibility.

Burke never called the Church “a ship without a rudder.” You can find the full text of the interview here, but this is the relevant portion:

Some faithful are concerned with the path that the Church has taken. What do you say to them?
Many have shown me this concern. In such a critical moment, in which there is a strong feeling that the Church is as a ship without a rudder, the reason does not matter; it is more important than ever to study our faith, to have sane spiritual guidance, and to give strong witness of the faith. Some tell me, for instance, that taking part in the pro-life movement is not important anymore. I tell them that it is more important than ever.
Do you see the Church as being in a moment in which there is no one in charge?
I have all the respect for the Petrine Ministry, and I do not want it to appear like I am a voice opposed to the Pope. I would like to be a teacher of the faith, with all my weaknesses, saying the truth that many feel today. They feel a bit of seasickness, because it seems to them that the ship of the Church has lost its compass.. The cause of this disorientation must be put aside. We have the constant tradition of the Church, the teachings, the liturgy, morals. The catechism does not change.

All Burke is saying is that there is a fear that the Church has lost its way, and his reply to that is to immerse ourselves even more deeply in the teachings and doctrines of the Church, to understand them, to recognize the parts that are mutable and the parts which are eternal.

That’s a far cry from what the Post wants us to believe, isn’t it?


Even Pell appeared to undermine him on theological grounds. Commenting on the pope’s call for dramatic action on climate change, Pell told the Financial Times in July, “The church has got no mandate from the Lord to pronounce on scientific matters.”

Fortunately, Pope Francis hasn’t done that. The only one talking about how climate change is now part of Catholic doctrine is Strawpope Frank. What Francis said boils down to, as Declan has often said on The Catholic Geek Radio Show, “sure, save the whales, but save the baby humans first.”

In conservative circles, the word “confusion” also has become a euphemism for censuring the papacy without mentioning the pope. In one instance, 500 Catholic priests in Britain drafted an open letter this year that cited “much confusion” in “Catholic moral teaching” following the bishops’ conference on the family last year in which Francis threw open the floodgates of debate, resulting in proposed language offering a new stance for divorced or gay Catholics.

Notice that they didn’t accuse any of the bishops offering heretical ideas of being, you know, heretics? It’s not always about Francis. Or Frank, for that matter.

Again, what Francis did was to open the floor for debate. I welcome that. I don’t have any fear of Francis doing heretical things; I do want heretical bishops to expose themselves by thinking that this is their chance. I would not be surprised to find that the next pope after Francis has been making a list. Heck, I wouldn’t be more than a little surprised to find out that Francis himself is making that list.

That language ultimately was watered down in a vote that showed the still-ample power of conservatives. It set up another showdown for next month, when senior church leaders will meet in a follow-up conference that observers predict will turn into another theological slugfest. The pope himself will have the final word on any changes next year.

You don’t even realize the contradiction in your own statements. You talk up Francis as being the one pushing for liberalization of doctrine, and note that he’s the final mortal authority (though I don’t think you really care about the implications of the word “mortal” in that sentence), and yet somehow conservatives are still in charge. You don’t even stop to think that if Francis really was Strawpope Frank, he’d just push it all through right away.

Cool Story

Conservatives have launched a campaign against a possible policy change that would grant divorced and remarried Catholics the right to take Communion at Mass. Last year, five senior leaders, including Burke and the conservative Cardinal Carlo Caffarra of Bologna, Italy, drafted what has become known as “the manifesto” against such a change. In July, a DVD distributed to hundreds of dioceses in Europe and Australia, and backed by conservative Catholic clergy members, made the same point. In it, Burke, who has made similar arguments at Catholic conferences, issued dire warnings of a world in which traditional teachings are ignored.

But this is still the Catholic Church, where hierarchical respect is as much tradition as anything else. Rather than targeting the pope, conservative bishops and cardinals more often take aim at their liberal peers. They include the German Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has suggested that he has become a substitute target for clergy members who are not brave enough to criticize the pope directly.

Yes, because those 500 priests you mentioned are regular priests. Bishops can criticize other bishops without that whole “vow of obedience” obstacle.

And you just got through describing how Burke and other tradtionalists are so free with their unprecedented criticism of the Pope! Make up your mind!

Flip Flop

Yet conservatives counter that liberals are overstepping their bounds, putting their own spin on the pronouncements of a pope who has been more ambiguous than Kasper and his allies are willing to admit.

“I was born a papist, I have lived as a papist, and I will die a papist,” Caffarra said. “The pope has never said that divorced and remarried Catholics should be able to take Holy Communion, and yet, his words are being twisted to give them false meaning.”

Hey, someone alert the editors at the Post. They accidentally printed some truth.

Some of the pope’s allies insist that debate is precisely what Francis wants.

“I think that people are speaking their mind because they feel very strongly and passionately in their position, and I don’t think the Holy Father sees it as a personal attack on him,” said Chicago Archbishop Blase J. Cupich, considered a close ally of the pope. “The Holy Father has opened the possibility for these matters to be discussed openly; he has not predetermined where this is going.”

Again, that’s kind of the point. Let’s get it all out in the open, where we can see who’s saying what. And then, as with so many other times in the Church’s history, we’ll refute the heresies.

Oh, yes, it’s happened before. I’d be surprised if there was a single council of the Church where there hasn’t been an argument. Just look at the First Council of Jerusalem, recorded in Acts. The only reason that doesn’t come off as a knock-down drag-out argument is because it’s recorded by Luke, who wasn’t there and was working off of what other people told him. (That, and Luke probably didn’t think the swear words were appropriate to record.) Take a closer look, though, and you’ll see that things were getting pretty tense there.

And defense of tradition can go too far, even when the truth is absolute. We Catholics love to talk about St. Nicholas (Santa Claus, to the rest of you) punching Arius at the Council of Nicaea. We gloss over how he was rightly disciplined for that.

The Church has had nearly two thousand years of history and experience in this hierarchy. It does things the way it does not because it hasn’t found other ways to do things; it’s because it hasn’t found a better way to do them. The only thing that changes now is how easy it is to share information and travel around the globe. We can gather experts from all over the world for mere synods, much less full councils. We can hear all opinions and arguments.

And Francis can listen to them all . . . and listen to who’s saying them. I don’t think that’s an accident. I think he’s got a lot to learn as an administrator, but I don’t think he’s clueless. He can’t be, not after surviving as a bishop in Brazil and resisting the communists and leftists there. And if his biggest failing is a sense of optimism about even the leftist bishops, well . . . there are worse failings to have.

But don’t just take my opinion for it. Lori has her own, so if you haven’t had enough you can come back for seconds!

About Matthew Bowman

Matthew Bowman is a traditionally-minded Catholic convert and freelance science fiction and fantasy editor, which means that he's in high demand in a small population. Fortunately, he loves talking about stories. And Catholicism. And history. And philosophy. And lots of other stuff.
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2 Responses to Fisking the Post’s Strawpope

  1. Pingback: Strawpope Frank Returns: A Fisk | The Catholic Geeks

  2. Pingback: Pope in US | The Catholic Geeks

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