Damian Thompson analyzes Bergoglio

When Francis first took office, most cardinals shared the popular enthusiasm for his informal style: his preference to be known as plain “Bishop of Rome” and his abandonment of some of the more trappings of his office such as the red shoes. But they quickly discovered that this “informal” pope, in contrast to his predecessors, liked to rule through executive fiat.

Francis has issued a torrent of papal rulings known as motu proprios (literally, “of his own accord”) — more than 60 so far, six times more frequently than John Paul II. They have made massive changes to liturgy, finance, government and canon law. They often land without warning and can be brutal: the Pope has used this mechanism to seize control of the Order of Malta, for example, and to strip away the privileges of the secretive but ultra-loyal organisation Opus Dei.

Two rulings above all have traumatised the conservative Catholics for whom Francis nurtures a pathological dislike, rarely missing an opportunity to point out their “rigidity” or to mock their traditional vestments, decorated with what he calls “grandmother’s lace”.

The first is his decision, issued via motu proprio, to crush the celebration of the pre-1970 Latin Mass that Benedict had carefully reintegrated into the worship of the Church. In 2021, in a decision that he knew would cause his retired predecessor terrible pain, Francis effectively banned its celebration in ordinary parishes.

Only a tiny proportion of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics attend the Old Rite Masses, so why has the ban turned into such a big deal? Partly it’s a reflection of the Cromwellian thoroughness with which it has been enforced by Francis’s new liturgy chief, Cardinal Arthur Roche, the most powerful English cleric in Rome. This year he forced his old rival, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, to ban the Old Rite Holy Week ceremonies in his diocese.

The British Conservative  Lord Moylan, a traditionalist Catholic, vented his fury in a post on X: “I heard a wonderful Tridentine Maundy Mass this evening. I shan’t tell you where it was in case Arthur sends his henchmen round. I’ll just say that English Catholicism has a centuries-old tradition of underground Masses. All that has changed is who’s persecuting us.”

Many bishops aren’t keen on the intricately choreographed Latin ceremonies, but what they dislike far more is having their arms twisted by a pope who, while telling the world that he’s empowering bishops by encouraging “synodality”, whatever that means, is undermining their pastoral authority over their parishes.

But even this controversy pales in comparison with the explosion of rage from half the world’s bishops when, just before Christmas, without warning or consultation, the Pope signed Fiducia Supplicans, a document allowing priests to bless gay couples. This time his chosen instrument was a declaration from the Church’s doctrine office, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), that same-sex couples or people in other “irregular” situations could receive “non-liturgical” blessings from priests. This was amazing because, as recently as 2021, the same office had condemned the notion of same-sex couples. Also, no one had ever heard of a non-liturgical blessing. It didn’t exist in canon law. Who came up with that idea?

Step forward the new Prefect of the DDF, Cardinal Victor “Tucho” Fernandez, the most eccentric of the Pope’s Argentinian protégés. It’s hard to exaggerate the weirdness of appointing Fernandez to head the DDF. He was best known for writing a book on the theology of kissing — until it was discovered that he’d also written one about the theology of orgasms, containing passages so disturbing that Tucho himself had second thoughts and apparently tried to hide all the existing copies.

How could this embarrassing lightweight come to occupy an office previously held by Benedict XVI, who as Joseph Ratzinger was arguably the greatest Catholic theologian of the 20th century? One theory is that Fernandez wasn’t Francis’s first choice, but the name of his preferred candidate, the German progressive Bishop Heiner Wilmer, was leaked and so he picked someone else. As soon as he was in office, Tucho wrote Fiducia Supplicans and slipped it onto Francis’s desk without showing it to other senior cardinals.

The fall-out was spectacular. There was already a growing rift between Catholic bishops, led by German and American progressives, who thought it was OK to bless gay couples and those who thought it made a mockery of the teachings of Christ. After Fiducia that rift seems irreparable.

On 11 January the bishops of West, East and Central Africa jointly announced that  they “do not consider it appropriate for Africa to bless homosexual unions or same-sex couples”. Francis, unpredictable as ever, then said that was fine because they were Africans, thus throwing Tucho under the bus, opening himself up to accusations of racism and offending the LGBT lobby. Gay rights activists were already mortified by panicky Vatican “clarification” of January 4 stating that the blessings of same-sex couples should last a maximum of 15 seconds and were “not an endorsement of the lives they lead”.

Meanwhile the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, wounded by papal overtures to Putin, said Fiducia didn’t apply to them either. Likewise the Polish Church. Most recently the Coptic Orthodox Church has taken the drastic step of suspending theological dialogue with Rome.

“Hagan lio!” — “make a mess! — was the new pope’s message to young Catholics in 2013. What did he mean? All his words are drenched in ambiguity; perhaps it’s explained by his statement that the Church “always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street”. But Fiducia Supplicans smells like an accidental mess, not a calculated risk. It’s something you scrape off your shoe because you weren’t looking where you were going. Had the Pope taken leave of his senses?