Pope Francis and the Conspiracy Against the Church

Which conspiracy theories can we trust when it comes to the Church? Which ones are plausible and which ones are not?

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Many faithful Catholics are perplexed and distressed by the reign of Pope Francis, and some have seized upon what are often called with derision “conspiracy theories” to explain it. The bizarre nature of his teaching and governance continues to lend plausibility to such theories. I am going to be up-front and tell you right now that I don’t really believe there is any grand conspiracy against the Church at this moment, whether by the pope or anyone else. What I want to talk about is why conspiracy theories, though normally not very trustworthy, are not always complete nonsense, and which kinds of conspiracies make sense to believe in and which ones do not in the current pontificate. Think of my essay as a Guide for the Perplexed, Conspiracy Theory Edition©.

There are many reasons why conspiracy theories are generally stupid, but the most obvious is that they are the sons and daughters of ignorance. When we have real knowledge, we don’t need them, and they only thrive in the absence of such. Another is that they tend to take very unique cases and make them universal, fitting for all situations. This is all the more true in the case of the Church, whose governance is byzantine and opaque, especially when it comes to the Vatican. 

Most conspiracy theories tend to overrate how competent and capable most people are; organizing, executing, and successfully keeping secret such conspiracies is difficult even for the most gifted of malefactors. Most people tend to understand “conspiracies” as vast operations involving large numbers of people, when it is rarely possible for more than one person to keep a secret. Finally, the most devoted followers seem to believe that their preferred conspiracies explain literally everything about an event or phenomenon. Almost no explanation of any kind has such explanatory power, except perhaps in the natural sciences.

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But after the last decade plus, I have grudgingly accepted that some people manage to pull off conspiracies successfully. I am thinking of the whole “Russian Collusion” hoax that our national security apparatus attempted to pull off during the 2016 election with Donald Trump. The revelations of sexual abuse coverups in the Church—above all, that of Theodore McCarrick—also convinced me to accept this reality. As a result, I am much more willing to entertain conspiracy theories than I used to be.

If that is the case, then which conspiracy theories can we trust when it comes to the Church? Which ones are plausible and which ones are not? By this, I mean humanly speaking. Satan is real, and the evil that we suffer in this life could be said to be the Ur-Conspiracy of God’s ultimate enemy, the template for all others. But there is no shortage of possibilities when it comes to human agents plotting against the Church. Many faithful Catholics I know subscribe to one or another of these to explain the free fall the Church has experienced since the 1960s.

One of the most popular is that of “infiltration” by outside forces such as communists or Masons. I have penned an article for another publication on the recent “dialogue” with the Masons of Italy the Vatican recently initiated, and it dealt partially with the idea of Masonic conspiracies. My main problem with such theories is that they presume that Freemasonry possesses the organization and institutional clout to pull off such a conspiracy. 

The only time this was ever true of the Masons was in 19th-century Italy, when Giuseppe Mazzini fomented his nationalist “Young Italy” movement in Masonic Lodges. But today, Masonry is an aging, mostly male organization whose membership is in decline. While its beliefs are opposed to those of Catholicism and can be a marker for those who would do the Church harm, Freemasonry simply isn’t a likely candidate to pull off such a conspiracy these days.

Communists are much more plausible candidates than the Masons, mainly because they have controlled actual nation-states. Both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China have or had the means and the ideological motivation to “infiltrate” the Church. We know that there were Soviet spies in the Vatican during the Cold War, which is not surprising. At one time, Italy’s communist party was the largest in Europe, and I once knew a priest who told me many of his priest friends in Italy were communists. 

However, I am not sure I believe the revelations of Bella Dodd, that Joseph Stalin sent thousands of agents into Catholic seminaries. The Soviets clearly used priests as agents and spread disinformation, but much of their focus was undermining the Church in Eastern Bloc countries or finding information about their Cold War rivals, the Americans—who had agents in the Vatican as well. The two superpowers indeed “infiltrated” the Church, but neither aimed at the Church as a whole, as if that was their main objective.

The reason I am so skeptical of the “infiltration” idea is that it presumes the Church is some sort of hermetically sealed institution that must be subverted from the “outside.” The expansion of heterodoxy, the sexual abuse crises, financial scandals, and other disasters can be more readily explained by machinations within the Church than by attempts to infiltrate them from without. The Church, and the priesthood especially, is a tight-knit organization, one where loyalty to superiors counts more than almost anything. The damage even one corrupt cardinal can do is well illustrated by the careers of Marcial Maciel and Theodore McCarrick, who used their fundraising abilities to make people look away from their crimes. 

Most traditional Roman Catholics are by now familiar with the so-called St. Gallen Mafia, who allegedly engineered the election of Jorge Bergoglio. But it is questionable whether such could even be called a “conspiracy.” Those “progressive” cardinals who aimed to elect a “progressive” pope barely tried to conceal their agenda and spoke quite openly about their aims to friendly media outlets. It is not much of a conspiracy that can be ascertained through public materials via the internet.

But does this mean that there is nothing at all to the speculation about nefarious outside influences on the Church? As noted above, I do not believe any conspiracy theories are necessary to explain the pontificate of Francis. Progressives in the College of Cardinals managed to elect someone (validly, of course) who is willing to push their agenda as far as he can, and that is pretty much all that is necessary to explain it as far as I am concerned. 

However, that doesn’t mean that there might not be some plausible scenarios in which interested outside parties could have influenced the Vatican. The most obvious is the Vatican agreement with China, which the Vatican, for inexplicable reasons, sent Theodore McCarrick to negotiate. It is no great stretch to suppose that the CCP blackmailed such a compromised figure, and it is not crazy to think something of that nature could be the reason for the disastrous agreement.

The most fanciful conspiracies regarding Francis have to do with his election, and I could be persuaded that interested governments would be willing to exert influence on a papal election. The most likely candidates would be the aforementioned CCP but also the United States government. The WikiLeaks emails revealed liberal Democratic politicians in Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign (including John Podesta, a baptized Catholic) discussing the need for an “Arab Spring” in the Catholic Church. It is not lunacy to imagine a liberal Democratic president crossing the line from speculating to actually manipulating Church officials via bribes or other inducements. 

Another possible candidate for “infiltration,” one that to my knowledge no one has considered, are NGOs, especially ones with an interest in promoting “population control.” I have in mind outfits like the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, who have long promoted that agenda and are possessed of very deep pockets. The Rockefeller Foundation comes to mind because John Rockefeller III once personally attempted to alter Church teaching. 

In 1966, he sought and received a meeting with Paul VI. He spent forty-five minutes trying to persuade him to change the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception, even offering to ghostwrite the forthcoming encyclical on the subject. Such a “conspiracy” would explain why population control advocates like Jeffrey Sachs have become members of the John Paul II Institute.

But again, it is not necessary to assume any actual conspiracy. As hard as it is for devout Catholics to admit, the Church is, in its human aspect, just like any other institution in Western life, riven by the same cultural wars that bedevil every other. Most members of the Church’s bureaucracy have long since declared their allegiance to the wrong side in these wars; and for them, Francis is their long-awaited champion. As the French atheist philosopher Michel Onfray noted, Francis has “done well that for which he is there where he is,” which I take to be running interference for leftist political and cultural aims of the progressives who have run the Church since the 1960s.  As hard as it is for devout Catholics to admit, the Church is, in its human aspect, just like any other institution in Western life, riven by the same cultural wars that bedevil every other. Tweet This

You do not need to presume actual coordination of Catholic progressives with outside forces but only the synergy of their aims with those of secular, progressive elites to control the “conservative” elements of the Church so they can’t interfere with population control, abortion, etc. Francis’ muddying the waters on sensitive Church teachings makes sense without any actual conspiracy because it allows those members of the hierarchy and Church bureaucracy who no longer believe such things are sinful to hide behind the authority of the pope. This obfuscation obviously helps secular elites, but there is no need to assume they are doing anything other than enjoying their ecclesial allies’ subversion of the Church’s teaching from within. 

Realizing this helps explain some of Francis’ more inexplicable choices as pontiff. Take his unrecorded interviews with the Italian atheist Eugenio Scalfari, in which Scalfari hinted, among other things, that Francis did not believe in Hell. These interviews bewildered faithful Catholics, who could not imagine why he allowed his words to be manipulated by a left-wing atheist journalist. The confusion arises because they understand the papacy’s role as one of communicating beliefs, but that is not how Francis sees the papacy. 

The former Remnant columnist Hilary White once suggested these interviews were meant to signal to the political Left in Italy that he is on their side and that he would not oppose their agenda, especially their cultural agenda. I think this analysis is correct but should be extended to pretty much his whole pontificate. Francis is adept at tacit messaging, a skill necessary to manage the divisions in the Church. 

He is a master at making gestures toward orthodoxy while opening the door to undermining it, without most people being able to notice this. Most of what Francis says and does is not meant to convey beliefs or articulate doctrines but to influence people, to convince them he is on their side. At the top of the list of people he and the circle around him would like to convince of this are the secular elites whose approval that circle of prelates craves so much. 

This is where the “conspiratorial” element does have some plausibility to my mind. The Church, no longer being an “elite” institution, can only exercise influence on society through a kind of populist messaging, something at which popes have become expert since the fall of the Papal States. The global secular elites who otherwise despise the Church understand this all too well because they understand nothing but human power. 

They remember quite clearly, for example, the efforts of the Vatican in 1994, along with Muslim allies, to quash plans by the U.N. to promote abortion and contraception. The Vatican’s efforts proved unsuccessful in that instance, but the Church’s enemies are quite aware the Church possesses the ability to thwart their designs. It is the Church’s ability to influence society which makes it plausible to believe some might try to influence the Church. 

Which is why if someone were trying to place a pope on the throne of Peter for the purposes of manipulating the Church, Francis would be the perfect candidate. His ability to make orthodox-sounding statements that still allow for its opposite sense to be inferred is perfect for controlling the Church’s messaging. This way, he can present himself as orthodox to the vast majority of the faithful, whose impression of the pope comes almost wholly via secular media, while still signaling to secular elites that he is on their side. 

However, in the end, it doesn’t matter if there is such a conspiracy going on or not. Whether a conspiracy or merely very bad judgment on the part of the College of Cardinals, the presence of such a terrible person occupying the See of Peter would have the same effects either way. And either way, we are stuck with the man for the duration.

To return to my point de départ, the only conspiracy which we can be certain is true is the conspiracy of Satan and his Fallen Angels against mankind and the Lamb of God sacrificed to save it. If this sounds less real to you than the machinations of dubious prelates, I would gently suggest the problem is with your perception of things. (I say this because it is something I have struggled with.) 

There are evil forces of a spiritual nature arrayed against us, and no amount of speculation regarding human malfeasance will put an end to that conspiracy. It is better by far to look for visible signs of God’s supernatural aid and favor in the war only He can win than to waste time looking for evidence of human designs whose success or failure can do nothing to forestall His ultimate victory.


  • Darrick Taylor

    Darrick Taylor earned his PhD in History from the University of Kansas. He lives in Central Florida and teaches at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, FL. He also produces a podcast, Controversies in Church History, dealing with controversial episodes in the history of the Catholic Church.

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