Oh, there are rumors upon rumors in Catholicism lately! It seems that Pope Francis, who is 85 years old as I write this, has begun to show signs of physical decline. He recently began showing up at appearances in a wheelchair or using a cane. He’s also canceled trips abroad. Oooh, what is he planning? Let’s speculate today. Personally, I think the dude’s trying to fix what he can before he takes off his wizard’s robe and hat. But I don’t think he’ll manage the trick. Today, let’s see why.

(Link to Patriot Front arrests mentioned in the post’s introduction.)

Pope Francis watchers are abuzz with speculation

Recently, Francis called for a very special meeting of the cardinals at an Italian town called L’Aquila. Officially, Francis plans to officiate a ritual there called “the Celebration of Forgiveness.” A Vatican news site describes this ritual as “a perpetual plenary indulgence.” And it’s a really old one with an interesting history. In Catholic-ese, Catholics attending this ritual gain remission (sorta like forgiveness or absolution) of their sins. So, it’s not completely obviously a trip with a secret agenda.

But unofficially? Speculation abounds. The visit occurs the very day after Francis names 21 new cardinals.

Of course, that speculation has abounded for at least a year now. But it does seem like Francis’ physical problems are getting way worse, way more numerous, and like it’s all hitting the fan very quickly for him. Maybe he’s like a very old cat in that way.

I will say this though. If Francis is planning to retire, then a lot of his recent statements and behavior make a lot more sense. He may be trying to fix what he can before he leaves office, so to speak.

And let me tell you: he ain’t going to fix shit. Catholicism is completely entrenched in its ways. There is no way, no how that its current power-holders and power-brokers will brook any serious change to anything they’re doing. And we’ve already seen the proof of that fact in how he’s tried and failed in the past to fix New Catholic Movement groups.

A point fixed in time: Francis becomes the Pope

I’m not sure why, but I’ve always tended to fix events in my memory by what was happening at the same time. I reckon that a lot of people do that. Parents might think of their lives as separated into categories: before having kids and after. A student might remember a pivotal test’s date or who they were dating at a particular time because it happened on the day of an important death. For me, maybe life just seems a little more interconnected.

I will always remember Pope Francis’ election because it coincided with a big trip. In March 2013, Mr. Captain and I were fetching the last of my things from Atlanta. We’d flown down from Idaho, thinking it’d save us a lot of trouble over driving, but during the flight he’d caught a nasty cold from a passenger who had no problem hacking all over him during it. That cold quickly turned really bad on the drive home in a rented van. By the time we reached Montana one night, he was in very poor shape.

That morning, as we checked out of the hotel, I watched a morning news story on the lobby television. Everyone in the Vatican was super-stoked because someone in the papal election chamber had sent a literal smoke signal to the eagerly-waiting spectators. It was such a futzy, strangely anachronistic ritual in an age already dominated by smartphones and always-on internet. Either way, Catholics now had a new pope.

(Mr. Captain only worsened, incidentally. Not long after we got back home to Idaho, he ended up going to the ER at my strident request. He recovered quickly with their help. He also promised he’d listen to me from then on about seeking medical help. And he always has.)

Pope Francis has always polarized Catholics

As for Pope Francis himself, he polarized Catholics like maybe no other Pope ever has. In particular, Catholic hardliners in America have always absolutely fucking haaaaaaaated him with all the white-hot fury of a million burning suns, mostly because (and I am not joking here) Francis was way too nice for these tribalistic wackadoos.

We recently briefly discussed one of these guys here, in fact. They’re all about the same kind of awful person: authoritarian, control-hungry, furious that Francis doesn’t care what they want him to do.

Also, he replaced the considerably-nastier, much-more-stringent Pope Benedict, whose nickname is “God’s Rottweiler” for a reason. That sudden paradigm shift might be part of their ire. Or maybe he’s way too nice to atheists.

Whatever the root cause is, it really has always seemed like Francis can’t do anything to make these hardliners happy. They constantly accuse him of everything under the sun. As far as they care, he is the one responsible for both Catholicism’s ongoing decline and news stories about priests involved in gay orgies. And lots more.

Yeah, lots of Catholics big mad at him.

Pope Francis has a problem with New Catholic Movements

A few days ago, the Jesuit-run conservative news site America reported that Pope Francis is trying to rein in new Catholic religious orders.

That’s important, because it’s a big change from how these orders have operated for decades.

See, here’s the way it ran for ages:

Someone could just decide to go open a dedicated Catholic group and recruit a bunch of Catholic followers to go do particularly-Catholic things all the time. Often, the new group was called a New Catholic Movement. That sounds depressingly like “the cloud has moved” from my days as a Christian. Fundagelical cult leaders used that exact phrase to convince fervent young Christians to rush headlong into dangerous groups.

Just as cult leaders don’t tend to ask permission from anyone to start their group, these Catholic group founders didn’t need to get official permission from the Vatican.

Nor did that person ever have to worry about oversight or hands-on management from the mothership.

So gosh, what’s not to like? What argument could Pope Francis, Darth Cuddlebug himself, have with the leaders of these groups?

Well, lots of things actually.

The situation with these New Catholic Movement groups

Starting around the 1960s and 1970s, these so-called New Catholic Movements targeted Catholics who felt like regular Jesus-ing wasn’t scratching their itch. Those folks found the groups’ come-ons irresistible. A 2007 paper in Religious Studies Faculty Publications specifically names some of these groups, in fact:

If an individual were fulfilled by the liturgy and at peace with the direction in which the universal church was moving, why take on an extra way of being a Catholic Christian? Membership in Sant’ Egidio [Sant’Egido] or Focolare or L’Arche or Communione and Liberazione [Communion and Liberation, in English] are all signs, in their different ways, that some people at least are not content.

I can easily see these groups getting attention from many tens of thousands of disaffected, dissatisfied Catholics.

In 2021, Céline Hoyeau wrote a whole book about how many of these groups’ founders and leaders kept turning out to be absolutely abusive, cruel criminals and sexual predators. This revelation proved very disturbing to her personally, because she’d really looked up to one of them.

Also, remember the groups named in the quote, especially that last one. We are coming back to them in one hot moment.

Inevitable abuse

These groups tend to be strictly regimented and authoritarian. But remember, they also lack meaningful accountability checks on their leaders. As a result, their leaders can operate more or less completely in the shadows, without fear of being outed for hypocrisy, much less facing the police in their country.

Combine that lack of accountability with authoritarianism, and what you get is the article America Magazine gave us recently:

Pope Francis has taken another step to reign [sic] in new religious groups in the Catholic Church after their unregulated proliferation in recent decades led to abuses in governance that allowed spiritual and sexual misconduct to go unchecked. [. . .]

Francis has taken a series of disciplinary and regulatory actions in recent years after some founders and leaders of religious orders and new lay institutes turned out to be religious frauds who sexually and spiritually abused their members.

Yes, the writer misspelled “rein” up there. It’s still quite an interesting strong gesture from Francis after so many decades of popes having no real control over these groups.

A series of reforms from Francis

For a couple of years now, Francis has taken increasingly-strong steps to rein in the founders of these groups.

In 2020, Francis made a decree requiring Vatican approval for new religious orders. Before, local bishops could approve them just fine. But now, the Vatican itself must approve first. This new requirement takes local bootlicking, ingratiation, performative piety, and favoritism out of the equation entirely.

Last year, as well, the same year that book about abuse came out, the Vatican began imposing other rules on these groups. These included term limits for their leaders, which was done specifically to prevent charismatic leaders from creating “personality cults” for themselves.

I’m sure those groups’ leaders are all howling bloody murder about these changes, too. Heck, Francis might just be removing the entire motivating reason why these orders’ founders start their groups in the first place.

Very overdue reforms, at that

And these reforms are way overdue. All of them and more should have been put in place when the Vatican’s rulers began to realize just how popular these groups were getting back in the 1960s and 1970s. They should never have been allowed to operate like they do. It’s beyond ludicrous that nobody reined them in well before now.

Remember those groups mentioned in that 2007 paper quote? Here’s how things are going for them:

  • Sant’Egido. In 2018, they tried very hard to set up a slapfight with Opus Dei over who the Pope liked best. I’d never fuck with Opus Dei. They’re kinda scary. I don’t know anyone in Catholicism who’d fuck with them. But these guys apparently did. No scandals that I could find, thankfully, just Opus Dei’s leader sounding just mystified that someone actually tried to fuck with them—and, of course, cuz they’re Opus Dei, pointing out actual evidence showing that Francis thinks they are indeed pretty pretty princesses. I wonder how this Sant’Egido group ever finds enough free time to start middle-school slapfight feuds with Opus Dei, of all people?
  • Focolare. They’re probably still dealing with the child-rape scandal and cover-up accusation that emerged a couple of years ago. They’re admitting to one member sexually abusing some 30 children. If anyone thinks it was just one “focolarino” doing it and only 30 victims, they are one sweet summer child.
  • L’Arche. One of the big granddaddies of all New Catholic Movements sex scandals and cover-ups. This one goes back to the 1970s and involves the founder himself, Jean Vanier. This is one of those times when we can say that at least everyone involved was of-age and he was abusing grown-ups. Perhaps not unexpectedly, his own mentor, Thomas Philippe, had done the same thing since at least the 1950s. This all came out around 2020.
  • Communion and Liberation. Wow. Apparently, this one was Francis’ actual intended target when he instituted term limit reforms. They’re very influential, according to America. Some of their members even help to run Benedict’s household since his retirement. That ought to tell you where their doctrinal and hardliner sympathies rest. But Julian Carron, its head since 2005, was gettin’ a little big for his britches. He was resisting Francis’ reforms and claiming Francis preached a “false doctrine.” Carron also claimed that his group’s “unique spirit” literally passed down through its successive leaders. Just wow. One can see why Francis wanted him gone. He sounds just wackadoodle-loo!

So far, we have a great track record. And by the way, this all took me less than a minute each to find. Only one group out of four listed seems to have avoided a sex or abuse scandal, at least for now. All that one’s done is act really dumb.

I wonder what we’d find if we investigated all New Catholic Movement groups?

The wheels of the Catholic bus go round and round, round and round, round and round!

But none of these reforms will really matter. Francis is way too late and a whole lot of dollars short.

If accountability isn’t baked right into an authoritarian group’s operational structure, it is exceedingly difficult to get them into it decades after the fact. Those abuses and cover-ups mentioned earlier didn’t happen just once. They didn’t happen just even a few times. They’ve happened over decades, they involve every level of membership and leadership in these groups, and even now I don’t think investigators have tracked them all down.

The problem here really is that this is a fully systemic problem. In other words, the solution requires changing the entire system itself, because the problems exist throughout every part of the system. And there’s just no way to do that. In each group’s social system, there will be, guaranteed, people there who really like operating the way they used to. Those people won’t like the new rules and requirements from outside the group. They especially won’t like seeing the Vatican pull rank on them.

For years, they’ve operated as dukes of their own city-states. Now Francis barges in and tells their leaders they have to retire and that they must rewrite their rules and bend the knee.

Ain’t gonna happen. There’ll always be pockets of sullen, furious resistance. I’ve seen it firsthand when a friend of mine tried to do that with an online game. It didn’t work there, and it sure won’t work on authoritarian religious leaders who’ve been used to unfettered power for so long.

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Thank you so much for listening, reading, and being a part of Roll to Disbelieve!

Captain Cassidy

Captain Cassidy is a Gen-X ex-Christian and writer. She writes about how people engage with science, religion, art, and each other. She lives in Idaho with her husband, Mr. Captain, and their squawky orange tabby cat, Princess Bother Pretty Toes. And at any given time, she is running out of bookcase space.

1 Comment

Confirmation bias: Catholic early marriage edition - Roll to Disbelieve · 02/04/2023 at 1:12 AM

[…] Even if hardline Catholics had somehow lucked into a link between following their outdated, misogynistic rules and marriages lasting longer and being happier, which they absolutely have not, that wouldn’t magically make their belief system into a net benefit for humanity. […]

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