Pope Francis, we learned this week, will take part in a service next year to celebrate a great moment in Christian history.
Yes, you read that right. ‘Pope celebrates Reformation’ sounds like an Onion headline, but it’s actually going to happen – when Francis travels to Sweden next year to mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s first furious broadside against Rome.
Liberal Catholics, liberal Protestants and the secular media will cheer when he does so. They will drown out the groans of traditional Catholics for whom this is yet another feelgood stunt by a pope who isn’t interested in theology.
And only the very sharp-eared will hear the rattle of decapitated skeletons – both Catholic and Protestant – turning in their graves.
The Reformation jamboree will pay lip service to the ‘tragedy’ of the 16th-century martyrs. But if those bones could speak, I suspect they’d say the real tragedy is the spectacle of Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican leaders glossing over the doctrines for which they died.
One thing is for sure. Benedict XVI, if he were still pope, wouldn’t be throwing himself into the Reformation festivities. Indeed, it’s hard to think of anything Francis has done that his retired predecessor really approves of.
‘Exactly!’ say Francis’s millions of admirers. ‘Benedict was a dinosaur who tried to turn the clock back. Francis is sweeping out the Vatican stables. He’s making Catholicism more compassionate. And did you see him with George Clooney?’
At which point I’m the one letting out a groan, together with lots of Catholics who, like me, were initially charmed by the Argentinian pontiff’s laid-back style.
Let’s get one thing straight. Pope Francis is not a ‘great reformer’, as one sycophantic biographer dubbed him. He’s pushed through just one overdue reform – simplifying the church’s marriage annulment procedures.
His other ‘reforms’ never happened and aren’t going to.
That’s because Francis has a bad habit of hinting at big changes to Catholic teaching (especially on sexual morality) that he never gets round to proposing – either because he knows his bishops don’t support them or because he hasn’t made up his own mind how far he wants to go.
To add to the confusion, sometimes he gets over-excited during one of his mid-flight interviews and lets slip a remark that implies, accidentally, that he favours changes that he actually opposes.
For example: ‘Who am I to judge?’ The Pope was explaining that gay people who didn’t have sex or had repented shouldn’t be judged. But he was chatting away carelessly, so the journalists thought he was giving the green light to homosexual relationships.
The other thing they overlooked was the question Francis had been asked – about his friend Mgr Battista Ricca, a Vatican official who’d allegedly been trapped in a lift with a rent boy.
Ricca has been accused of many scandalous indiscretions. But he’s kept his job. Francis’s allies tend not to be ‘judged’ and, as a result, the Vatican stables are as dirty as ever. Shockingly, the Pope invited Cardinal Godfried Danneels, who had covered up family sex abuse by a Belgian bishop, to a Vatican Synod on the family last year.
That synod had the unenviable task of trying to clear up the biggest mess created by any pope for decades – over the ultra-sensitive issue of whether divorced and remarried Catholics can receive communion.
Francis wanted to relax the rules. But, typically, he didn’t set out any theological arguments and the synod voted against change.
His response? A long document, Amoris Laetitia, which dodged the question but mused incoherently about mortal sins not being mortal sins. Asked about a puzzling footnote, Francis said he couldn’t remember what was in it.
Was he serious? We don’t know, but last week it was revealed that some of the most controversial bits of Amoris Laetitia had been lifted from articles written a decade ago by a third-rate Argentinian theologian, Archbishop Victor Fernandez, who just happens to be an old friend of Francis.
“Is the Pope a Catholic?” asked orthodox Catholics, only half-jokingly. To which the answer is, of course, yes: the former Jorge Bergoglio is a man passionately devoted to Jesus and Mary who, in his own eccentric way, is trying to be loyal to the Church.
The problem is that, although his beliefs are (relatively) orthodox, he is behaving like a befuddled Anglican Primate who is too busy charming the media with quirky quotes to attend to the duties of his office.
Or, to put it another way, the Pope may be a Catholic – but it’s beginning to look as if the cardinals made a terrible mistake when they decided that this particular Catholic should be a pope.