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This papal portrait is hard to take

Pope Francis (CNS)

The easily scandalised should avoid The Dictator Pope, a new ebook by the pseudonymous “Marcantonio Colonna” which rose to 4th place on Amazon Kindle’s “religion and spirituality” bestseller list. And others should approach its more sensational claims 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 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.”

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 Carlo Martini, who once claimed that 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, which was really a desire to dial down “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 claims. He describes the family synod of 2014-2015 as a series of tactical moves to undermine Church teaching on Communion for the remarried.

The book quotes Cardinal Wilfred Napier, who said he had been told by a Vatican insider that the organisers wanted “a certain result”. Pope Francis specially appointed many 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.

“Fear,” Colonna claims, “is the dominant note” in the Curia, and it has become less accountable. “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.” This has now been abolished, and officials “are often told that the Pope is too busy”.

As Colonna tells it, while earnest churchmen like Cardinal Gerhard 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.

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

Unthinking adulation for the Pope can 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.