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‘He calls dogmas into question’: Five major claims from Der Spiegel’s report on Pope Francis

Pope Francis waves to the faithful during his weekly general audience this morning in St Peter's square (Getty)

The left-leaning German weekly Der Spiegel, whose circulation is more than 800,000, devoted Saturday’s front cover to Pope Francis. The cover headline – “Du Sollst Nicht Lügen” (“Thou Shalt Not Lie”) – indicates some of what’s inside: a 4,500-word study on what the magazine sees as a crisis in Francis’s pontificate. Here are five areas where it takes a particularly critical stance.

Division in the upper levels of the Church

“Only behind closed doors do cardinals and archbishops speak,” the report says, hinting at its access to senior prelates. It suggests that the Pope might “squander his authority” by speaking at the wrong moment, and being silent when he could speak.

One “old cardinal” describes Pope Francis as “a Holy Father who calls into question the truths of the Faith like never before.”

Der Spiegel also quotes a cardinal as saying: “He preaches mercy, but in truth he’s an ice-cold, crafty Machiavellian and – even worse – he lies.”

Criticism not just from ‘archconservatives’

The report recalls its story from 2016: the Pope reportedly said privately, “It is not to be excluded that I will go down in history as the man who split the Catholic Church.” Der Spiegel suggests that there is indeed a “civil war” – and that it doesn’t only run between conservatives and progressives. There’s a “climate of fear and uncertainty”, according to one bishop in the Vatican; the magazine also quotes Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register as saying that, because Francis “does not really listen to people who don’t share his views”, many believers end up “disenfranchised”.

“The criticism of him extends far beyond the global network of archconservatives,” Der Spiegel argues, pointing out that Pope Francis’s critics aren’t limited to those unhappy about, for instance, Francis washing the feet of a Muslim woman.

The wrong silences

The magazine notes that Pope Francis has declined to comment on the allegations made by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, or subsequent inquiries – such as the letter from Catholic women requesting that he answer Viganò’s claims. (That letter has more than 45,000 signatures.)

But Der Spiegel argues that this is typical: “On awkward subjects, he says nothing. So it was in the case of the ‘dubia’” – that is, the letter from four prominent cardinals, asking the Pope to reaffirm Church teaching on marriage, the Eucharist and morality. (The letter was sent in 2016; no reply has been given, or an audience granted. Two of the cardinals have since died.)

The report says these silences are an unfortunate combination with the Pope’s stated advice to “Hagan lío” (usually rendered in English as “make a mess” – Der Spiegel translates it as more like “Set the cat among the pigeons”). The Pope “sets little store by the constraints of protocol” and also “calls dogmas into question”.

Argentine background 

The report goes into some detail about Archbishop Bergoglio’s record in Buenos Aires – which has already been criticised elsewhere. One case is that of Fr Julio Grassi, who was convicted in 2009 of sexually abusing a teenage boy. He appealed against the conviction, but it was eventually upheld. Der Spiegel says Archbishop Bergoglio helped his appeal by commissioning a report (this eventually ran to 2,000 pages) which tried to demonstrate Grassi’s innocence.

What Der Spiegel adds is an interview with Juan Pablo Gallego, who prosecuted Grassi, and who says that Pope Francis won’t return to Argentina because he would face heavy criticism over his handling of abuse cases.

Another interviewee, Julieta Añazco, says she was abused by a priest in Buenos Aires diocese. There are multiple accusations against this priest, which he denies. Añazco says that she and 13 others wrote to their former archbishop once he became Pope, and received no reply – again, something which has been previously covered. Añazco tells Der Spiegel what she has said before: “We want to reach the Pope, but he does not care about us.”

Bad advisers

In one of its most dramatic claims, the report says that some of the Pope’s “advisers and assistants” are “in more or less obvious concubinage with representatives of one sex or the other.”

Der Spiegel makes reference to a document supposedly commissioned by Pope Benedict, describing the “gay lobby” in the Vatican. The newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano recently claimed to have a copy.

The magazine stops short of claiming that the Pope is aware of the scale of the problem, saying that he may be guilty of either “naïvety, chutzpah or a lack of alternatives”.

For the full report (Spiegel subscribers only), go here.