Belfast Telegraph

Let's hope Pope Francis can weather Vatican storms and pay us a visit

By Alf McCreary

There was a time when you asked someone a question to which there was an obvious answer, the reply might be another question with an equally obvious answer: "Is the Pope a Catholic?"

That obvious answer used to be "yes", but a recent headline in The Times made me think again. It read: 'Theologians doubt the Pope is Catholic'.

Theologians come and go and I have little time for most of them or many academics, all of whom should be doing something more useful with their lives.

Nevertheless, it is time to sit up and take notice when Catholic theologians are not sure that Pope Francis, or some of his statements, are really Catholic at all.

His 2016 exhortation on the family, entitled 'The Joy of Love', apparently contained much that was objectionable to 45 Catholic theologians.

They claimed that there was not sufficient evidence to suggest that Pope Francis had lapsed into heresy personally.

However, in the weasel words of clerical academics on the attack, they claimed that they had identified 11 statements in the text that would constitute heresy.

The attack on the Pope is being sustained by the conservative American Cardinal Raymond Burke who was moved last year from an influential Vatican committee to a largely ceremonial role.

He said: "It is simply wrong and harmful to the Church to receive every declaration of the Holy Father as an expression of Papal teaching."

In other words, the Pope is not always right.

This is a long way from the claimed infallibility of a pontiff when he is speaking ex-Cathedra, but the reality behind the ecclesiastical daggers from Cardinal Burke and others is a bitter and intense struggle behind the scenes in the Vatican between the hardliners and the reformers.

It is easy to forget that the previous Popes, Benedict and John Paul II, were extremely conservative. John Paul II was such a charismatic figure that his conservatism was overlooked by some. However, if you scratched beneath the surface, Saint John Paul II was every inch a Catholic.

Pope Francis' teachings on human love and marriage as well as the Eucharist and Papal authority have irked his critics mightily, to the point where some claim that the traditionally hardline Catholic Church is developing into a Protestant-style organisation with less discipline and decentralised power.

Pope Francis, who has tried to breathe some fresh air into the Vatican, has been finding that reform is not easy and that the Curia, including many of the cardinals, is clinging on to as much power as it can retain to resist any reforming Pope.

All reformers face the same problem, not least in Northern Ireland where the continued blame game between the DUP and Sinn Fein is a total disgrace, while the well-cushioned MLAs continue to take their fat Stormont salaries for doing nothing.

This time next year, Pope Francis is expected to attend a major event in Dublin under the auspices of the World Meeting of Families.

Its secretary general is the Belfast-born priest Fr Timothy Bartlett who is well placed with senior Catholic clerics here, and is known to hold a position of influence in the Irish Catholic Church in general.

He stated earlier this week in this newspaper that if Pope Francis were able to come to Northern Ireland, he would regard this as "an incredibly remarkable, appropriate and beautiful closure on a very difficult history".

Most reasonable people would agree with him, but in Northern Ireland there are too few reasonable politicians and many highly unreasonable members of the public in all churches and none.

However, let us remain positive and continue to hope that Pope Francis can weather the critical storms in the Vatican and also come north to end symbolically the previous visit to Ireland by John Paul II who deeply regretted that he could not cross one of the most intransigent borders in European history.

Maybe Brexit will come to our rescue, or it may merely make matters worse…

Belfast Telegraph

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