Pope Francis is no ‘straw man’

Opposition to the Pontiff is growing, writes Michael Higgins

The papal honeymoon appears to be coming to an end.  Various bloggers, religious cyberpolice, advocates of ‘orthodoxy’ and sentinels of the true faith have marshalled their not inconsiderable resources to call into question the media’s enthusiasm for Pope Francis, to query the wisdom of Peter’s proximity to the sheep, and to deplore – and deplore is the right word – the papal propensity to speak outside the script.

Conservative, nay ultra-conservative, Catholic commentators in the United States appear to have few reservations criticising the style of Papa Francesco, contrasting as one spokesperson for the righteous trumpets, the alarming reality that we have moved as a Church from having a Pope who is the principal intellectual of the West – a rather outrageous and un-nuanced claim – to having a clap-happy leader with little taste for abstractions and intellectual heavy-lifting.


Deploying caricatures and invoking bizarre comparisons are not the exclusive preserve of the reactionary right, however, as a vituperative, shallow, and disturbing new book on the person and policies of Joseph Ratzinger amply demonstrates.

The Trial of Pope Benedict:  Joseph Ratzinger and the Vatican’s Assault on Reason, Compassion, and Human Dignity by Vancouver journalist Daniel Gawthrop is a rather vicious piece of work.

Tendentious in argument, narrowly selective in his use of sources, and coloured, nay defined, by the author’s animus towards Benedict XVI, the book is a litany of Ratzingerian incompetence and infamy.  A sustained argumentum ad hominem, it is difficult reading unless you subscribe to the writer’s conviction that under decades of Ratzinger’s influence and governance the Catholic Church has been reduced to a sectarian redoubt full to overflowing with misogyny, homophobia, child molestation, and intellectual obscurantism—one vast spiritual desert.


Gawthrop makes clear in his opening chapters that his being gay is critical to understanding how he feels about the Emeritus Pope and he spends much energy querying Benedict’s personal sexual orientation.  He relies on the Italian gutter press, salacious if not irrelevant speculation, dubious hypotheses and just plain bile to make his case that the Vatican is awash with sexual hypocrisy, self-loathing gay clerics, and desperate careerists with little if any piety about them.


A grand charge for sure: comprehensive, unfair and libelous. There is no doubt that corruption has reared its face in the Vatican bureaucracy – the cardinal electors at the last conclave said as much – and there is much work to be done to repair the damage inflicted by sexually errant clerics, paedophiles, reputation-obsessed bishops with no love of transparency and accountability, and theological troglodytes who have turned their face against post-modernity and embraced a romantic and irrecoverable past at the expense of the timeliness of the Gospel. 

Pope Francis has begun that work and with an earnestness and tenacity that is alarming his detractors, critics both within the Church and outside it who are growing bolder by the day.

Part of their counter strategy is to invoke the name and legacy of his immediate predecessor in order to show what a coming down we have in Francis. It won’t work.

Brazen broadsides against that same predecessor by the likes of Gawthrop won’t work either. Truth can’t be held a permanent hostage to polemic; factionalism can only be fully addressed when straw men are replaced by flawed and real leaders; and clericalism – an abhorrent manifestation of privilege, entitlement and specious singularity – must be finally and definitively interred.

Francis understands that; Benedict deserves better; and the Catholic community lives in hope.

Partisanship and discord continue to define ecclesial life in North America and it can be quite painful.  But I remain convinced that the threat to the unity of the Church, of schism, always comes from the Right, as both Popes Paul VI and John Paul II knew.

Gawthrop’s invective will pass but the opposition to Francis is growing.