The anonymous book makes unproven claims. But some of its analysis is uncomfortably plausible

The easily scandalised should avoid The Dictator Pope, a new ebook by the pseudonymous “Marcantonio Colonna” which has risen to 4th place on Amazon Kindle’s Religion and Spirituality bestseller list. And others should approach its more sensational claims – which I won’t repeat here – with caution. Everyone who writes about the Vatican hears credible things from good sources which we nevertheless cannot publish, because they do not quite pass the evidence threshold, or because we would rather not bring the papal office into disrepute. Colonna just goes right ahead. But the book is also judiciously written and genuinely insightful.

For instance, he addresses the old puzzle: how does the Pope sound at one moment like a theological “liberal”, at the next like a “conservative”? Colonna’s answer is cynical but not implausible: the Pope belongs to a uniquely Argentine tradition, exemplified by the three-time president Juan Perón. There is an apocryphal story about Perón inducting his nephew into politics:

“He first brought the young man with him when he received a deputation of communists; after hearing their views, he told them, ‘You’re quite right.’ The next day he received a deputation of fascists and replied again to their arguments, ‘You’re quite right.’ Then he asked his nephew what he thought and the young man said, ‘You’ve spoken with two groups with diametrically opposite opinions and you told them both that you agreed with them. This is completely unacceptable.’ Perón replied, ‘You’re quite right too.'”

As that suggests, this is a very political book. Colonna expands on previous claims about a group of cardinals – the “St Gallen mafia”, as one member jokingly called them – who tried to prevent Joseph Ratzinger’s election in 2005. The group was originally led by the late Cardinal Martini, who once claimed Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s encyclical reiterating Church teaching on contraception, had done “serious damage”.

The St Gallen mafia adopted Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as their candidate in 2013, and campaigned for him with all their energy. “With Martini dead, and most of the group coming within a hair of the cut-off age for participation in a conclave, time was running out – they knew this was their last realistic chance,” Colonna writes.

The St Gallen group liked to talk about a more “pastoral” Church, by which, Colonna says, they meant a desire “to get away from the firm upholding of Catholic moral teaching that had characterised Pope John Paul II and move towards the approach that has since been seen in the synod on the family.”

Colonna describes the family synod of 2014-15 as a series of tactical moves to undermine Church teaching on Communion for the remarried. He quotes Cardinal Wilfred Napier, who said he had been told by a Vatican insider that the organisers’ plan was “manipulating the synod, engineering it in a certain direction… I asked: ‘But why?’ He said: ‘Because they want a certain result.’” Pope Francis specially appointed several prelates to the synod who opposed the traditional teaching. Even then, some ambiguous words about Communion did not receive enough votes from the synod fathers. But they were included in the final report nevertheless.

This material has been presented before, but rarely with such lucidity. Similarly, Colonna’s chapters on the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate and the Knights of Malta make it clearer than ever that, if the conflicts began within those orders, it was Vatican intervention which turned them into catastrophes.

“Fear,” Colonna claims, “is the dominant note” in the Curia. Officials have noted the fate of three officials from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) who were fired. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, then the prefect of the congregation, publicly complained that the Pope “gave no reason” for dismissing this “highly competent” trio. According to the book, Cardinal Müller asked to discuss the matter with the Pope; but getting an appointment took two or three months, by which time it was too late. This is not untypical, the book says. “In the past there was a system which provided for each head of a Vatican body to see the Pope regularly, usually twice a month; it was called the udienza di tabella. This has now been abolished; officials have to make special appointments, and they are often told that the Pope is too busy.”

As Colonna tells it, while earnest churchmen like Cardinal Müller flounder, the Vatican is increasingly dominated by canny ecclesiastical politicians who devote much of their time to preventing important reforms. For instance, the proposed audit from PwC was stopped; anyone who seems serious about rooting out financial corruption – such as Libero Milone, the recently ousted auditor general – quickly runs into trouble. Colonna also makes some unsettling claims about what it is like to work for the Pope, both in today’s Vatican and formerly in Buenos Aires archdiocese.

To repeat, The Dictator Pope is not for the easily scandalised. But then it is meant to counterbalance the image presented in the media: the Pope of “No H8”, “Who am I to judge?”, “the leader of the global left”, “a conscience for the world”.

Colonna queries some of the Pope’s much-praised gestures of simplicity, such as his moving into the Vatican guesthouse, instead of the grander papal palace. The book claims the move has cost €2 million, while the palace still has to be maintained.

He also suggests that, despite Pope Francis’s immense popularity with the secular media, he has not won over the Catholic faithful in the same way. Colonna cites official statistics for average attendance at the Pope’s weekly audience in St Peter’s Square:

2013: 51,617
2014: 27,883
2015: 14,818

No figures for 2016 have been published, but Colonna says “they are understood to be under 10,000”.

Unthinking adulation for the Pope can, at times, seem a harmless enough mistake. But amid the present doctrinal crisis, it is not helping anyone. If this book is worth reading, it is as an almost unbearably bitter-tasting medicine.