CRUX on Papal Conflict in Nigeria

- Point and Counterpoint

Inés San Martín is the Vatican correspondent for CRUX. She is from Argentina, like Pope Francis, and has many reasons to support the pope. On July 22, about two weeks after Pope Francis’s deadline to the Nigerian priests of Ahiara, she wrote “Pope begins answering priests from troubled Nigerian diocese.”

Her summary: “On June 8, Pope Francis issued a seemingly unprecedented threat, giving the priests of the diocese a 30-day deadline: Either write to him promising ‘total obedience,’ or face suspension.” Ms. San Martin implies that there are precedents for Pope Francis’ ultimatum. But if she knew of any, she probably would have mentioned them. This is a dishonest way of defending the pope’s questionable behavior.

Ms. San Martin said “most of the priests in the diocese complied with the pope’s request.” An anonymous priest of Ahiara told her that all of the priests have written to the pope, though some appear to have threatened him. Her Vatican contacts apparently provided no information. It seems clear that many priests have not cooperated as demanded.

While acknowledging that Pope Francis’ deadline was missed, she said “Pope Francis, through some of his closest advisers, has begun to respond to each” of the priests of Ahiara. But the pope’s ultimatum (here) said nothing about a papal response. It simply demanded absolute obedience. Apart from firing disobedient priests, there was no reason for a papal response.

Ms. San Martin reports that some of the papal responses were “signed by both the Vatican’s Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Filoni, an ‘apostolic blessing’ is extended on behalf of Pope Francis.” This appears to be a form letter. Why wasn’t Pope Francis’ signature used under his own blessing? Are they indiscriminately blessing the disobedient along with the obedient?

Ms. San Martin leaves the reader with the impression that the check is in the mail, and the situation is effectively resolved. She failed to mention that the people of Ahiara, nearly three weeks before she wrote her article, turned out in force to reject Pope Francis’ demands, making priestly obedience an empty gesture. It is inconceivable that she was unaware of this development. Even if you ignore her Vatican contacts, she repeatedly interviewed Nigerian Cardinal John Onaiyekan - who is in charge of Ahiara. Contrary to her report, the situation in Ahiara is anything but settled. Pope Francis’s authority has been challenged, his ultimatum rejected, and he has failed to respond – apart from an alleged bestowal of his “apostolic blessing.”

Ms. San Martin also asserted that Nigerian bishops are always selected from outside their diocese - a dubious claim. She suppressed the fact that the prior bishop of Ahiara specifically recommended that a local priest succeed him, and also provided a list of qualified candidates. It is unlikely that the bishop would have made such a recommendation if Nigerian bishops are always chosen from outside their diocese. All in all, in an attempt to paint an irenic picture of Church affairs in Ahiara, Ms. San Martin ran roughshod over the facts.

John Allen’s View of the Nigerian Problem

John Allen is the editor of CRUX, and was formerly a Vatican correspondent for many years. He is also the author of The Francis Miracle, and no stranger to puffing Pope Francis. The day after Ms. San Martin’s article appeared, he wrote an editorial about the subject. His take is radically different than his colleague’s.

Ms. San Martin tried to minimize the despotic nature of the pope’s ultimatum, but Mr. Allen contradicts her: “Pope Francis has thrown down one of the most authoritarian gauntlets we’ve seen any pope fling in a long time.” He continues, “Had any other recent pope done such a thing, howls about abuse of power and over-centralization probably would have been deafening. . . . Francis, however, gets more or less a free pass.” His headline asks, “Can anything burst Pope’s media bubble? Nah, probably not.”

He speaks of the pope’s “media bubble.” Just as the stock market bubble in 2000 reflected extreme overvaluation of stocks, and the housing bubble of 2006-2008 reflected extreme overvaluation of housing, Mr. Allen implies that the media is greatly exaggerating the value of Pope Francis. He emphasizes the “mainstream secular media.” He quibbles about the religious media, but he is hardly an objective witness. While the religious press is indeed more likely to carry occasional criticism, that is only because it has vastly more papal coverage - and nearly all of it reverential.

Mr. Allen goes on to speculate what it might take to break that media bubble: “If Pope Francis were to be caught up in some sort of personal scandal that appears to stick - if he were personally caught with his hand in the Vatican’s financial cookie jar, for instance, or if there were some sensational allegation of abuse in his past that surfaced - that might do it.”

This brings to mind Donald Trump’s boast that he could shoot someone on Main Street and his followers wouldn’t care. In both cases, the adulation is unwarranted and unhealthy. The emperor’s unappealing ass is on display, yet the media and nearly all the public enthuses about the splendor of his apparel.

Conclusion

The emperor of the Church has a vast propaganda machine behind him. While the press is supposed to be a corrective for such propaganda, the religious press is basically a cog in the machine, and the secular press is just going along for the ride. There is no opposing interest group. The closest we have are victim groups such as SNAP, but in over 30 years, they have been unable to break the media bubble. But by definition, bubbles deflate, generally with an explosive pop.