'He can be terrific fun and also incredibly vengeful.' Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images


April 27, 2024   20 mins

The cardinals are already meeting to discuss who should be the next pope. Some of the liberal ones, who feel safe because they’re in favour with the ailing Pope Francis, can be seen comparing notes in a bar near the gates of the Vatican. The conservative cardinals are more nervous: they gather at suppers in each other’s apartments or — if they can trust the fawning waiters not to betray them — in a favourite restaurant.

Perhaps you can see the flash of a bishop’s ring as he taps a piece of gossip into WhatsApp; the Holy See employs world-class electronic spies, so everyone uses a private phone rather than the Vatican-issued ones. Even the phone-tappers are busy exchanging information, because like everybody in Rome they suspect that the painfully fragile Francis — who is often too short of breath to read out his own sermons — hasn’t got long to go.

They are just guessing, of course. The Pope is secretive about his health, and two years ago he bounced back from major surgery on his colon that was assumed to be advanced cancer. Even so, he’s 87, the oldest pope for more than a century, and a conclave can’t be too far off.

Ludwig Ring-Eifel of the German news agency KNA said in January that seeing the Pope so short of breath at a press conference at which he was too ill to answer prepared questions was “a difficult moment for me … and you can tell that this situation has also affected many colleagues emotionally”. At the beginning of March, Andrew Napolitano, a retired Superior Court judge from New Jersey, was staying in the papal guest house behind St Peter’s. “The Pope is in poor health, can barely speak or walk; and he radiates sadness,” he reported. “I don’t think he’ll be there much longer.”

Vatican nerves are always on edge in the final years of a pontificate. In the case of the conservative Benedict XVI, they were overshadowed by leaks — gleefully reported by a hostile media — revealing flamboyant corruption at the top of the Roman Curia, the government of the Holy See. Benedict was too frightened to act and resigned in despair.

Now the Vatican is once again paralysed by scandals, but this time round, correspondents working for secular and Catholic outlets are trying to protect Francis, who faces more serious questions about his personal conduct than any pope in living memory.

For years, allegations that would torpedo the career of any secular Western leader have been concealed or played down by a Praetorian Guard of liberal journalists who, back in 2013, staked their reputations on “the Great Reformer”. As a result, even devout Catholics don’t know that the first Jesuit pope has tried to shield several repulsive sex abusers from justice, for reasons never satisfactorily explained.

Only now is the truth coming out, to the relief of Vatican staff who have to deal with a pope who bears little resemblance to the wisecracking, avuncular figure they see on television. They are — or were until recently — terrified of a boss whose autocratic rule is shaped more by his rages and simmering resentments than by any theological agenda. And they can’t conceal their satisfaction that one particularly gruesome scandal involving papal ally Fr Marko Rupnik is stripping away the facade of “the Squid Game pontificate”, as it’s nicknamed, after the South Korean Netflix series in which contestants have to win children’s games to save themselves from execution.

The Rupnik affair is surely destined to become a big-budget documentary or true crime drama. It’s the most sickening scandal I’ve encountered in more than 30 years of reporting on the Catholic Church. Rupnik, a supremely well-connected artist on whose tacky mosaics the Church has spent hundreds of millions of pounds, was expelled from the Jesuit order last year after he was credibly accused of raping religious sisters belonging to a community he founded in his native Slovenia. Women have come forward claiming that the community was a sex cult. They say he tried to force them to watch pornographic films, drink his semen out of a chalice, violently took the virginity of one sister in a car and encouraged young women to engage in sexual threesomes that, according to Rupnik, would illustrate the workings of the Holy Trinity.

Last year, facing an explosion of rage on Catholic social media — mainstream media were strangely silent — Pope Francis said he would act against his friend Rupnik. He hasn’t done so. Nor has he explained why, when Rupnik was facing excommunication for abusing the confessional to “absolve” one of his female sexual victims, he was invited to conduct a retreat at the Vatican, or why his subsequent excommunication was mysteriously lifted within weeks with the approval of the Pope.

This month Fr Rupnik was listed in the 2024 Vatican directory as a consultant on Divine Worship, of all things. Meanwhile Bishop Daniele Libanori, the Jesuit who investigated the women’s claims and found them credible, has been removed from his position as an auxiliary bishop in the diocese of Rome.

Another toxic scandal is still unfolding in Argentina. In 2016, Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, the former Cardinal Bergoglio’s most pampered protégé, had to resign from the diocese of Orán after he was accused of financial corruption and aggressive attempts to seduce seminarians. The Pope’s response? He airlifted Zanchetta to Rome and invented a job for him:”‘assessor” of the funds managed by the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), the Vatican treasury. Zanchetta was later convicted of assaulting seminarians, even though Rome refused to supply documents requested by the Argentinian court. He’s serving his jail sentence in a retreat house amid reports that his accusers are being harassed.

The story is coming back to haunt Francis, whose enemies — emboldened by his loosening grip on the government of the Holy See — are circulating extremely damaging documents. These suggest that the Pope is even more tangled up in the scandal than previously suspected. And there are other cases: as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis unsuccessfully attempted to keep the child molester Fr Julio Grassi out of jail, commissioning a report that branded his victims as liars.

The dark secrets of this pontificate will weigh heavily on cardinals’ minds in their pre-conclave discussions before they cast their votes in the Sistine Chapel. They will be speaking in code: no one wants to take the risk of openly trashing the reputation of a recently deceased (or retired) Supreme Pontiff. But the cardinals will be forced to talk about the increasingly poisonous divisions between liberal and conservative Catholics, which date back to the Second Vatican Council but have been made far worse under this pontificate. And they will find it hard to draw a line between Francis’s policies and his personality, since he takes such visible delight in using his powers to spring surprises on the universal Church.

***

When Francis first took office, most cardinals shared the popular enthusiasm for his informal style: his preference to be known as plain “Bishop of Rome” and his abandonment of some of the more comical trappings of his office such as the red shoes. But they quickly discovered that this “informal” pope, in contrast to his predecessors, liked to rule through executive fiat.

Francis has issued a torrent of papal rulings known as motu proprios (literally, “of his own accord”) — more than 60 so far, six times more frequently than John Paul II. They have made massive changes to liturgy, finance, government and canon law. They often land without warning and can be brutal: the Pope has used this mechanism to seize control of the Order of Malta, for example, and to strip away the privileges of the secretive but ultra-loyal organisation Opus Dei.

Two rulings above all have traumatised the conservative Catholics for whom Francis nurtures a pathological dislike, rarely missing an opportunity to berate them in public for their “rigidity” or to mock their traditional vestments, decorated with what he calls “grandmother’s lace”.

The first is his decision, issued via motu proprio, to crush the celebration of the pre-1970 Latin Mass that Benedict had carefully reintegrated into the worship of the Church. In 2021, in a decision that he knew would cause his retired predecessor terrible pain, Francis effectively banned its celebration in ordinary parishes.

Only a tiny proportion of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics attend the Old Rite Masses, so why has the ban turned into such a big deal? Partly it’s a reflection of the Cromwellian thoroughness with which it has been enforced by Francis’s new liturgy chief, Cardinal Arthur Roche, the most powerful English cleric in Rome. A native of Batley with the manner of a self-important Yorkshire alderman, Roche has evolved into that familiar Roman beast: an authoritarian liberal with a nose for the juiciest Satimbocca alla Romana and the fluffiest tiramisu. This year he forced his old rival, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, to ban the Old Rite Holy Week ceremonies in his diocese.

The British Conservative peer Lord Moylan, a traditionalist Catholic, vented his fury in a post on X: “I heard a wonderful Tridentine Maundy Mass this evening. I shan’t tell you where it was in case Arthur sends his henchmen round. I’ll just say that English Catholicism has a centuries-old tradition of underground Masses. All that has changed is who’s persecuting us.”

Many bishops aren’t keen on the intricately choreographed Latin ceremonies, but what they dislike far more is having their arms twisted by a pope who, while telling the world that he’s empowering bishops by encouraging “synodality”, whatever that means, is undermining their pastoral authority over their parishes.

But even this controversy pales in comparison with the explosion of rage from half the world’s bishops when, just before Christmas, without warning or consultation, the Pope signed Fiducia Supplicans, a document allowing priests to bless gay couples. This time his chosen instrument was a declaration from the Church’s doctrine office, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), that same-sex couples or people in other “irregular” situations could receive “non-liturgical” blessings from priests. This was amazing because, as recently as 2021, the same office had condemned the notion of same-sex couples. Also, no one had ever heard of a non-liturgical blessing. It didn’t exist in canon law. Who came up with that idea?

Step forward the new Prefect of the DDF, Cardinal Victor “Tucho” Fernandez, the most eccentric of the Pope’s Argentinian protégés. It’s hard to overestimate the weirdness of appointing Fernandez to head the DDF. He was best known for writing a book on the theology of kissing — until it was discovered that he’d also written one about the theology of orgasms, containing passages so disturbing that Tucho himself had second thoughts and apparently tried to hide all the existing copies.

How could this embarrassing lightweight come to occupy an office previously held by Benedict XVI, who as Joseph Ratzinger was arguably the greatest Catholic theologian of the 20th century? One theory is that Fernandez wasn’t Francis’s first choice, but the name of his preferred candidate, the German progressive Bishop Heiner Wilmer, was leaked and so he picked someone else. As soon as he was in office, Tucho wrote Fiducia Supplicans and sneaked it onto Francis’s desk without showing it to other senior cardinals, who would certainly have screamed at him to tear it up.

The fall-out was spectacular. There was already a growing rift between Catholic bishops, led by German and American progressives, who thought it was OK to bless gay couples and those who thought it made a mockery of the teachings of Christ. After Fiducia that rift is so glaringly visible that you can see it from space.

On 11 January the bishops of West, East and Central Africa jointly announced that they “do not consider it appropriate for Africa to bless homosexual unions or same-sex couples”. Francis, unpredictable as ever, then said that was fine because they were Africans, thus throwing Tucho under the bus, opening himself up to accusations of racism and offending the LGBT lobby. Gay rights activists were already mortified by panicky Vatican “clarification” of January 4 stating that the blessings of same-sex couples should last a maximum of 15 seconds and were “not an endorsement of the lives they lead”.

Meanwhile the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, wounded by papal overtures to Putin, said Fiducia didn’t apply to them either. Likewise the Polish Church. Most recently the Coptic Orthodox Church has taken the drastic step of suspending theological dialogue with Rome.

“Hagan lio!” — “make a mess! — was the new pope’s message to young Catholics in 2013. What did he mean? All his words are drenched in ambiguity; perhaps it’s explained by his statement that the Church “always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street”. But Fiducia Supplicans smells like an accidental mess, not a calculated risk. It’s something you scrape off your shoe because you weren’t looking where you were going. Had the Pope taken leave of his senses?

***

“He is one of the most complicated men I have ever met,” says a Vatican source who has been observing the Pope closely for a decade. “He can be terrific fun and also incredibly vengeful. If you cross him, he’ll kick you when you’re at your lowest ebb.”

“But don’t get the idea that he’s a master strategist. He’s a clumsy tactician who spends his time lighting and putting out fires. His number one priority, overriding everything else, is that he should be inscrutable. He doesn’t want anyone to know what he’s planning to do — and, if you find out, he’ll do the opposite, even if it disrupts his plans. It’s almost psychotic.”

My source does not belong to any clerical faction and his assessments of people tend to be conspicuously gentle. It’s been interesting to watch how, during our meetings in Rome over the past five years, his opinion of Francis has hardened to the point where he unhesitatingly describes him as a nasty man.

If Francis cancels any plan anticipated by the media, then that helps explain the disaster of Fiducia Supplicans: Bishop Wilmer is probably more heterodox than Cardinal Fernandez on the subject of homosexuality, but he would never have put his name to “Tucho’s amateur doodlings”, as one critic describes the document.

But note how quickly the Pope switched into reverse gear. A book just published by the French conservative Catholic Jean-Pierre Moreau portrays Jorge Bergoglio as a liberal iconoclast inspired by quasi-Marxist liberation theology. I think that’s wrong, and he is what he’s always been: a Peronist. Like Juan Perón, the populist President of Argentina during his childhood, he is more interested in power than in ideas. My Vatican source talks of Francis’s “powerful charm, his way of making you think you’re the only person who matters”. They said the same thing about Perón, a consummate opportunist who, at the height of his powers, won simultaneous support from neo-Nazis and Marxists but who also took pleasure in lashing out unexpectedly at allies and opponents alike.

“He can be terrific fun and also incredibly vengeful. If you cross him, he’ll kick you when you’re at your lowest ebb.”

Ideologically, Peronism is all over the place, but it has always been committed to social welfare and also passionately anti-American — two enduring strands in Francis’s thinking. During John Paul II’s pontificate Bergoglio stressed his theological orthodoxy, earning the hatred of some of his fellow Jesuits. But he always disliked meticulous ceremonies — there’s footage of him virtually throwing the Blessed Sacrament into a crowd in Buenos Aires — and when you watch him yawning his way through ceremonies in St Peter’s you can’t help wondering if he finds Mass boring. He no longer celebrates it in public, and the excuse that he’s always too ill to do so doesn’t work: John Paul II said Mass even when crippled by Parkinson’s and barely able to speak.

On the evening Francis was elected, the traditionalist website Rorate Caeli published a cry of anguish from Marcelo Gonzalez, a journalist in Buenos Aires. It was headed: “The Horror!”’ and described the self-effacing figure who had just walked on to the balcony of St Peter’s as “the worst of all the unthinkable candidates”. Bergoglio was a “sworn enemy of the Traditional Mass”’ who had “persecuted every single priest who made an effort to wear a cassock”.

Like most observers, I thought the article was over the top, and like most observers I was wrong. Gonzalez was proved right about the Latin Mass — and also about cassocks. These days ambitious priests in Rome know that the swish of the soutane could land them in a miserable curacy, so now they scuttle across the piazzas in drab clerical suits.

But is Francis really a liberal? The fact that he loathes conservatives doesn’t mean that he supports women’s ordination — he doesn’t — and one shouldn’t read too much into the occasional photo-op with an LGBT Catholic: gossips in the Curia suggest that, when the Holy Father lets his guard down and slips into scatological Buenos Aires slang, he’s not especially complimentary about “the gays”. Or some other minorities.

It’s hard to explain the prominence of gay clergy in his entourage, both in Argentina and Rome, given that no one has ever suggested that Jorge Bergoglio, the former nightclub bouncer who had a girlfriend before he entered seminary, is homosexual. But he knows whose closets contain skeletons. One priest in Rome told me: “When Bergoglio visited Rome in the old days, he’d park himself among other visitors in the Casa del Clero, absorbing the gossip, much of which was about gay clergy. And he wouldn’t forget it.”(The Casa is where Francis went back to settle his bill after his election and made sure there were cameras set up to record his humility.)

Of course, the future pope wasn’t alone in gathering information in this way. Latin American politics, clerical as well as secular, has always been oiled by the exchange of secrets — and nowhere more so than in Argentina, where two thirds of citizens have some Italian ancestry and political horse-trading has a distinctly Italian flavour.

Perhaps it was naive of the cardinals in 2013 to expect the former Cardinal Bergoglio to clean up the corruption that had driven Benedict XVI to the state of helpless despair in which he resigned his office. But that was the main reason they elected him. He promised pest control, and it was a promise he didn’t keep.

Maybe the cardinal should have taken a closer look at two retired cardinals who were acting as his unofficial campaign managers. The American Theodore McCarrick and the Belgian Godfried Danneels were both in disgrace, having been caught trying to lie their way out of sex scandals. McCarrick’s assaults on seminarians had been an open secret in the American Church for decades, while Danneels had already been caught attempting to cover up incestuous child abuse by one of his bishops. Francis immediately rehabilitated both of them. McCarrick resumed his role as the Pope’s emissary and fundraiser (though Francis eventually had to defrock him when he was charged with child abuse). Danneels, incredibly, received a papal invitation to a synod on the family.

Meanwhile, Francis’s financial reforms began promisingly. He created the new job of Prefect for the Economy for the late Cardinal George Pell, a no-nonsense Australian conservative. Pell stumbled across gigantic money-laundering operations involving senior curial officials — whereupon he was conveniently forced to resign to face trumped-up charges of child abuse in Melbourne.

During Pell’s long, ultimately successful, battle to clear his name, Francis inexplicably gave free rein to Archbishop Angelo Becciu, who was already suspected of having his hand in numerous tills. Becciu took the opportunity to sack Libero Milone, the independent auditor appointed by Pell, threatening to throw him into a Vatican jail cell for the crime of ‘spying’ (i.e., doing his job).

Eventually Becciu himself was sacked after the discovery of billions of dollars poured into dodgy investments — at which point, very oddly, Francis made him a cardinal. And he remains one today, despite losing most of his cardinal’s privileges in 2020 after he was charged along with nine others with embezzlement. He was found guilty and now faces five and half years in jail — but no one thinks he’ll serve them: he knows too much.

Yet not everyone with access to damaging information has been promoted. Bishop Nunzio Galantino was president of APSA when Zanchetta was hiding there in the non-job of “assessor”. He expected to be made a cardinal when he retired. He wasn’t and is reportedly furious.

This month I was sent a 500-page dossier on Zanchetta. Many of the stomach-churning details of the allegations of the sexual exploitation of seminarians have never been reported. I was also sent a photocopy of a document purporting to show that diocesan officials from Orán accused Zanchetta of hiding the sale of properties that funded the building of his seminary. It displays the signatures and stamps of the officials. Allegedly, Zanchetta claimed that Pope Francis himself advised him to conceal the transactions. A leading Catholic blog reported this claim in 2022; the mainstream media did not. I showed the photocopy to a former very senior Vatican official, who replied via WhatsApp: “I had heard of this matter as a rumour but now I see it in black and white!”

***

However hideous the scandals associated with this pontificate, it’s unlikely that they will influence the next conclave as much as the document signed by Francis on 18 December last year. Fiducia Supplicans changed the dynamics of the electoral college — not just because it forced Catholic bishops to address the radioactive topic of homosexuality that has torn apart the Protestant Churches, but also because it summed up the catastrophic incompetence of this pontificate.

At least three quarters of the future cardinal-electors will have been appointed by Francis. So you might think that the conclave, while recognising Fiducia as a blunder, will be looking for a pope who supports Francis’s relatively undogmatic approach to issues of human sexuality. And so it might — if he’d created enough liberal cardinals. But he hasn’t.

In the early years of his reign, Francis adopted a tribal approach, especially in the United States. It was as if he was playing a Peronist board game, moving red hats to unlikely sees occupied by Bergoglian loyalists. Newark, New Jersey acquired its first cardinal: Joseph Tobin, who had been close to Ted McCarrick. Los Angeles was punished for having an orthodox archbishop, José Gomez, who really had his nose rubbed in it: instead of becoming the first Hispanic cardinal, he had to watch the honour go to his über-liberal suffragan Robert McElroy of San Diego, accused of ignoring warnings about Ted McCarrick’s predatory habits. Chicago got a red hat, as is customary, but it landed on the head of the aggressively Left-wing Blase Cupich, needless to say a Francis appointee.

Elsewhere in the world, Francis adopted a policy of appointing cardinals from the “peripheries”: Mongolia’s 1,450 Catholics have one; Australia’s five million Catholics don’t. Tonga has one, Ireland doesn’t. But, by doing so, he had to abandon his game of boosting liberals and twisting the tail of his conservative critics. These factional labels don’t mean much in the developing world. In the last two consistories he has created 33 cardinals, only a handful of whom hold Western-style radical views on sexuality. To quote one Vatican analyst: “Francis has wasted his chance to firmly stack the deck for the next conclave.” And now the college is full; even if he lives to call another consistory, he won’t have many places to play with.

The new cardinals tick various Bergoglian boxes. They relish the Pope’s attacks on free-market capitalism and his melodramatic warnings about climate change. None of them is a Right-wing traditionalist and until recently no one paid much attention to their ferocious views on “sodomy”.

Now those views really matter. To quote the same analyst, “when Fiducia Supplicans was published, the African cardinals ditched their Francis-worship overnight. The vast majority won’t vote for anyone who has backed Fiducia”. There are currently 17 African cardinal-electors; nearly all of them are in the anti-gay bloc. To these we can add at least 10 cardinals from Asia, Latin America and the West who share their views, even if they use milder rhetoric. Under current rules, a pope must be elected by a two-thirds majority of the cardinal-electors. This means that social conservatives, if they join forces with the significant number of moderates alarmed by Fiducia, can block anyone seen as progressive on homosexuality.

That’s bad news for Cardinal Luis Tagle, the ambitious former Archbishop of Manila. He was once dubbed the “Asian Francis” on account of his showmanship and socially liberal views. In 2019 Francis put him in charge of worldwide evangelisation — a huge prize that was snatched away when the Pope restructured his department and sacked him as head of Caritas, the Catholic aid agency dogged by sex abuse scandals.

It’s also tricky for Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, the affable bicycling beanpole who’s Archbishop of Bologna. His politics are socialist — no problem for developing-world bishops — and during Benedict XVI’s reign he developed an enthusiasm for the old liturgy, even learning how to celebrate the Tridentine Mass. His stance on homosexuality is cautious — but he allowed a gay couple to have a church blessing in his diocese and then, disastrously, had his spokesman basically lie about it, claiming it wasn’t a same-sex blessing when it obviously was. Zuppi isn’t a fan of Fiducia Supplicans, but at the moment he’d run up against the blocking third.

Hardline liberals stand even less of a chance. Blase Cupich of Chicago isn’t papabile; nor are the “McCarrick boys” Tobin, McElroy, Gregory and Farrell, or the veteran European Leftists Hollerich, Marx and Czerny. The name of the Maltese Cardinal Mario Grech has been mentioned because he’s secretary general of the “synod on synodality”, a consultative body of bishops and lay activists that the Pope notably didn’t bother to consult about the new gay blessings. Grech, unkindly nicknamed “the Bozo from Gozo”, has seen his reputation collapse along with that of the toothless synod. His enemies describe him as the biggest toady in the Curia (unfair to Arthur Roche, many would say).

As for hardline conservative papabili, there really aren’t any; Francis has at least made sure of that. But there is a moderate conservative possibility: Cardinal Péter Erdő, Primate of Hungary. Unlike the exuberant, tearful Tagle, he’s an emotionally reserved scholar. When I met him for coffee in London years ago, we were half an hour into the laborious business of using a translator when he suddenly switched into fluent English. He has the reputation of disliking the limelight and being a bit thin-skinned — but at a synod on the family in 2015, despite arm-twisting from papal apparatchiks, he used his position of relator-general to deliver a masterful defence of traditional teaching. One Vatican-watcher describes him as “boringly conservative, which may be exactly what we need right now“.

What about moderate cardinals who are difficult to pigeonhole? The newest papabile is Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Italian-born Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. In recent months the horrors on his doorstep have revealed a diplomat of rare skill. His condemnation of IDF attacks on civilians in Gaza earned him a rebuke from the Israeli foreign minister — but he had earlier condemned Hamas for its “barbarism” and offered himself as a hostage in place of Israeli children. And while it’s not hard to believe him when he says he has absolutely no wish to be pope, it’s possible he may be forced to think again.

But any Vatican-watcher will tell you that new papabili flash through the sky during the last days of a pontificate. This time around they are busy memorising the names of Asian electors. (It’s generally assumed that after Francis we can forget about another Latin American or Jesuit for a few centuries.) Three names keep cropping up: William Goh from Singapore, orthodox on sexuality, quietly critical of the surrender to Beijing; Charles Maung Bo from Myanmar, also a critic of the China deal; and You Heung-Sik, the new prefect for the dicastery for the clergy from South Korea. Cardinal You is a fascinating figure: a teenage convert to Catholicism whose father had either been killed or defected to the North — no one knows. He then converted the rest of his own family. His faith is joyful and his vision of priestly formation far more attractive than Francis’s bitter tirades against “clericalism”.

Finally, we have to consider the most senior of all the papabili — Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who as Secretary of State (a mixture of prime minister and foreign secretary) is technically number two in the Vatican. The 69-year-old Italian is visibly on manoeuvres and his candidacy is being taken seriously. And that in itself is odd, because Parolin was in office when his deputy Becciu and others were embezzling or gambling with billions of dollars from Church funds. Also, he was the architect of the Vatican’s 2018 deal with Beijing, which — as former Hong Kong bishop Cardinal Joseph Zen warned him — would turn the Chinese Catholic Church, including persecuted underground believers, into a wholly owned subsidiary of the Communist Party.

That is precisely what happened. Zen, now 92 and regarded by many orthodox Catholics as a living saint, has used extraordinary language about Parolin: “He is so optimistic. That’s dangerous. I told the Pope that he [Parolin] has a poisoned mind. He is very sweet, but I have no trust in this person. He believes in diplomacy, not in our faith.’”

This thought is echoed by a Vatican source who has worked with Parolin: “He’s nice to everyone but hollow in the middle. Also, his health is bad. [Everyone in Rome mentions rumours of cancer and Parolin hasn’t denied it.] Last time I saw him he was so frail I was afraid to shake his hand.” But another source says (and this gives you a real flavour of Vatican gossip): “I wouldn’t put it past Parolin’s people to exaggerate the cancer thing, because they think the cardinals want a short pontificate.”

No one disputes that Parolin is a smart operator who specialises in making sure his fingerprints are nowhere near the scenes of various crimes. He nuances his statements on Ukraine and Israel while the Pope puts his foot in it with his improvised comments. He love-bombs potential enemies. Sensing a backlash against Francis, he is tacking Right, admitting that Tucho’s gay blessings are a nonsense.

To his critics, Parolin is the Italian Francis: empty, devious and sneeringly dismissive of the Latin Mass, an idiotic stance when you consider the surprising fact that the old liturgy is fast acquiring cult status among young Catholics. But are they overlooking one big difference? From the moment he became a cardinal, Bergoglio had his eyes set on the papacy and his gaze never wavered. Parolin, on the other hand, may recognise that he is too compromised to survive successive ballots. Perhaps his real ambition is to become a truly powerful Secretary of State under the next man.

And we really don’t have a clue who that will be. So much depends on how moderate, non-aligned cardinals vote. They are revealing nothing, especially now that the Vatican and probably diocesan curia are stuffed with hidden microphones. We can only guess what a swing voter such as Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster is thinking. Until recently he invoked the name of Pope Francis with cringe-making frequency. Now, not so much. He must be sick of the meaningless rhetoric of synodality and being pushed around by Arthur Roche. He clearly wasn’t impressed by Fiducia.

One can easily imagine mildly liberal cardinals voting for a mildly conservative candidate who can tackle the structural damage of the past 11 years. “Francis has left canon law with so many holes in it that it’s like the surface of Mars,” says a priest who has worked in the Curia. That’s infuriating for cardinals who, like Nichols, are diocesan bishops. They have to decide whether divorced-and-remarried Catholics can receive Communion, a desperately sensitive subject on which the Pope is deliberately evasive. And how do they ensure that these Fiducia blessings are “spontaneous”and “non-liturgical”? What does that even mean?

It’s a fair bet that, in their pre-conclave conversations, most cardinals will agree that the next pope must be someone capable of supervising an emergency repair job that clarifies doctrine, the scope of ecclesiastical authority and puts an end to the jihad against traditionalist Catholics, many of whom are a generation or two younger than the jargon-spouting Boomers harassing them.

Also, the cardinals know they must delve deep into the past of the leading contenders. They have no choice. The next pope will face instant, merciless scrutiny from online investigators. A 2021 article in The Tablet by church historian Alberto Melloni described an all-too-credible catastrophe: “The newly elected pope steps out. And as he smiles and humbly introduces himself to the crowds in the square, a lone social media post makes a stunning allegation.” The new pope, when a bishop, had failed to act against a priest who went on to commit further crimes. “In the square and in the press boxes, eyes drop from the balcony to their smartphones … The pope steps back inside, and resigns. The see is vacant again.”

The necessary scrutiny will be an awkward business, but at the very least the cardinals mustn’t repeat the mistake made by their predecessors in 2013 — that is, taking a candidate at his own estimation. The truth is that many Catholics in Argentina from across the ideological spectrum knew about Francis’s character flaws: his compulsive secrecy, score-settling, disturbing alliances and rule by fear. But no one asked them.

One might argue that none of the 120-plus eligible cardinals is quite so mean-spirited as the Holy Father. Fair enough; but there should be no question of electing anyone who imitates Francis’s modus operandi. No chameleons, in other words. No one who was orthodox under Benedict, liberal under Francis and is now slinking back to the centre.

The new pope must be a holy man who relies on lieutenants who have no dirt on him and on whom he has no dirt — and it’s a shocking fact that this would represent a departure from recent precedent. The pope must be above reproach. That is far more important than whether he’s “liberal” or “conservative”.

Traditionalists will disagree, but I don’t think it’s a bad college of cardinals. Cynics might say that’s because Francis, having made factional appointments early on, lost interest and appointed independent-minded men by accident. But let’s not neglect the role of social media: while the Praetorian Guard have been busy hiding things, countless websites have been making life difficult for the poisonous old toads who have been trying to fix conclaves for the best part of 2,000 years.

Melloni is probably right: as the new Supreme Pontiff shuffles on to the balcony there will be an unnerving moment while the faithful check their mobiles. But if the cardinals have done their job properly the applause will quickly resume. And if you listen carefully, you will hear another noise coming from every office in the Vatican: a sigh of relief that the Squid Game is finally over.


Damian Thompson is a journalist and author

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