This is getting weird.
The Vatican has always been a place that spawned intrigue. The ancient, secretive and powerful nature of the institution practically encourages conspiratorial thinking.
But this past week in Rome looked like something out of a paperback potboiler that might later have been made into a TV mini-series starring, say, Richard Chamberlain.
First there were the tumor rumors. That’s right, the Vatican was forced to deny a sketchy newspaper story which reported that the pope had a benign brain tumor.
The Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, eventually wrote, “The timing of this reveals an intent to manipulate and create unnecessary uproar.”
Another Italian newspaper went the steamier route, wondering, “Who wants the Pope dead?”
The problem with all this is that it has made it easy to ignore the much more substantive intrigue beneath the surface.
At the center of all of this was the three-week meeting, known as a synod, that Pope Francis wrapped up last week. What came out of the synod, which some dubbed the most important gathering of church power brokers since Vatican II?
Nothing radical, that’s for sure. Some believe the church began the process of moving towards a more open approach when it comes to divorced and remarried Catholics. But there was little movement on other touchy bedroom matters that have led so many to leave the church.
And yet, there is still fret and worry that Francis is some kind of radical hatching a “plot to change Catholicism.” (As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat put it. As if that would be a bad thing.)
Among those who are worried is New York’s Irish American Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the public face of the American Catholic Church.
Earlier this month, Italian journalist Sandro Magister obtained and published a letter signed by 13 cardinals – Dolan among them – questioning Francis’ handling of the synod.
The letter outlines a “number of concerns we have heard from other synod fathers, and which we share.”
The letter was downright shocking to veteran Vatican watchers.
“In the first real crisis of his papacy, Francis finds himself in the position of enjoying a rare degree of popularity among the public but facing an unusual degree of dissent within an institution generally so respectful of hierarchy,” Alexander Stille wrote in The New Yorker, adding, “That more than a dozen cardinals would register a protest to the pope even before the synod began was bad enough, but that someone would leak it to the press suggests a more toxic atmosphere.”
Pope Francis alluded to some of the tensions in his closing speech at the synod.
He referred to “different opinions, which were freely expressed and at times, unfortunately, not in entirely well-meaning ways,” though he added that this “certainly led to a rich and lively dialogue.”
It is particularly interesting that Dolan would wade into this controversy. He saw the enthusiastic greeting Pope Francis received during his recent trip to the U.S. It’s hard not to see that as an endorsement of at least some of the reforms Francis has talked about.
And yet, it appears Dolan is willing to align himself with those who are out to block even the most modest of reforms.
Late last week, Dolan discussed signing the letter on a Sirius XM radio show, though he didn’t really add much beyond what was already in the letter.
“I didn’t think it was controversial at all,” Dolan said, adding cheerfully, “Way to go Pope Francis; you told us to be honest, we were, you answered right to the heart. I’m grateful that you paid attention. Let’s get on with the work.”
Either way, it’s quite clear at this point that those who’d hoped Francis would preside over an era of real reform are bound to be disappointed. Whatever it is the pope really wants – incremental or radical change – the cardinals clearly want none of it.
As one Vatican insider told The New Yorker, “If a conclave were to be held today, Francis would be lucky to get ten votes.”
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