The Dictator Pope: The Inside Story of the Francis Papacy

by Marcantonio Colonna

Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2018

The sight of white smoke being blown gently from out of the Sistine Chapel chimney is one that for Catholics worldwide indicates the successful conclusion of a papal conclave and the election of a new pope. It signifies the start of a new papacy and the continuation of an office that traces its roots back almost two thousand years.

In 2013, the rising white smoke signified the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope and the beginning of the new papacy of Pope Francis: the start of a new era for the Catholic Church, an era of reform and openness, of modernisation and of a focus on the poor and downtrodden, casting aside the hierarchical, tradition-bound, tainted and corrupt practices of the past — well, if one were to go just by articles that were in major sections of the global press, anyway.

Thankfully, Marcantonio Colonna does not begin his account of Pope Francis’ tenure in 2013. The story of Bergoglio’s rise to the See of St. Peter starts decades before — and half-a-world away in Argentina — with his entry into the Jesuits in 1958 and ordination as a priest in 1969. The recounting of Bergoglio’s period with the Jesuits as a provincial superior (1973-79) and as rector for the Philosophical and Theological Faculty of San Miguel (1980-86) provide details of a background that some hagiographical accounts and summaries skip over in a few brief sentences. It reveals some personal behaviours and management practices that, for a man acting as leader of the Catholic Church, would seem to be undesirable — flaws that were well known to Argentinian Jesuit colleagues.

What makes this more than just a collection of tales is the analysis that Colonna provides, linking Bergoglio’s behaviour — and indeed his ‘style’ — to the progression that he has made through the Jesuit and Church hierarchy, with the use of personal characteristics as an element to be exploited in the pursuit of power: “an accomplished self-promoter, disguised behind an image of simplicity and austerity”.

As Bergoglio has risen up the church hierarchy — as an auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires in 1992, as archbishop in 1998, and as cardinal in 2001 — his perceived political and social leanings have become of considerable interest. In 1998, when Bergoglio was made archbishop, it was welcomed in conservative sectors. Yet, as Colonna says, the “great riddle that we need to approach is his transformation into the man whom the liberal section of the Church, and notably the St. Gallen Group, turned to as their figurehead.”

Colonna links this to the Peronist operational methods that were the foundational basis of political power in Argentina:

Perón as president had no hesitation in veering from the Right to the extreme Left as it suited his quest for power, and in the early twenty-first century the conditions were present in the Church to make such a change of direction seem astute.

In our own day and age, we often try to minimise the dirty truths about politics and power as best we can. Even with this, that a cardinal would act as a political figure or that an individual would have ambition are facts that are not surprising or, indeed, worthy of criticism in and of themselves. The names of more than a few cardinals over the centuries have become bywords for politicking. Despite this, the insight that Colonna provides through tracking Bergoglio’s subsequent work in Argentina — as an emerging figure within the College of Cardinals — and of Francis’ actions in his first years as pope (which forms the majority of this book) is one that makes uncomfortable reading. At the heart of this is Colonna’s assessment that there is very little that lies behind the Francis papacy beyond the acquisition, consolidation, and maintenance of power.

The detailing of reform efforts within the Church post-2013 — which may be summarised through one of the chapter titles: “Reform? What Reform?” — makes this clear. Colonna covers multiple areas of church practice — whether linked to the Vatican’s financial practices, the Church’s hierarchical structures, or the management of positions and individuals — and the details he provides are unsavoury. They include pardons provided to those viewed as being ‘Francis’ men’; actions against religious orders that are viewed as opposing him (notably the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate); and elements of (potentially deliberate) organisational chaos within parts of the Vatican, amongst others.

Moving from the temporal aspects to the religious, Colonna details the doctrinal changes that have been made during the Francis papacy — changes that many find contentious (at best) to flawed or unjustifiable. These changes have not been in one direction alone:

Amid the sound bites and the ambiguities, the faithful are left wondering what he [Francis] intends to teach. Conservatives are appalled at the abandonment of positions for which John Paul II and Benedict XVI stood form; liberals are no happier with the vague teaching of Amoris Laetitia.

The actions against those who criticise Francis is the last element of Colonna’s book that makes for worrying reading. A pattern of unwillingness to listen to (or accept) criticism is documented and there have been repeated administrative and disciplinary moves within the Church against some of those who have spoken out.

Henry Sire (Colonna’s real name) is a case in point:  A renowned Catholic historian, once he made it known that he was the author of this book, he was expelled from the Sovereign Military Order of Malta prior to the publication of the revised and updated English edition.

Henry J. A. Sire

Almost any action can be portrayed in a negative or positive light, with all the shades of grey in between. Church doctrine and practice has been a matter of debate (to put it mildly) or a battleground (to put it otherwise) with opposing sides and factions since the very start of church history. The actions of the other side are always subject to attack and polemics.

Just because we are in the 21st century does not mean this has changed. Clearly Francis — both as pope and previously as a Jesuit and prelate — has attracted critics and people who would oppose him. This is what any senior, powerful individual would face. Such is the consequence of being in a position of power and of exercising authority.

Popes have always attracted personal and colourful invective from their contemporaries: in 1478, Sixtus IV was called “a wicked man, an ass’ prick” by one Florentine writer, while, in 1988, John Paul II was shouted at and called the “antichrist” [by Rev. Ian Paisley of Northern Ireland] during a speech at the European Parliament. And criticism has never been in short supply, whether from within or without the Church: one only needs to look at the reams of criticism made during Benedict XVI’s papacy to see that.

Arguments can, of course, be made about the degree to which criticism is justified, how correct is any assessment of personality and behaviour, and whether or not steps taken (or not taken) are in the best interests of the Church and Christians in general. What cannot be justified or argued about, however, is the turning of blind eyes.

Smoke rising from the Sistine Chapel signalled the start of Francis’ papacy. But the old saying is that ‘where there is smoke, there is fire’ — and when one suspects fire, it is responsible to investigate. This Colonna has done. The results may not make comfortable reading for many Catholics; but that does not mean they can be arbitrarily dismissed or ignored.