Pornocracy II: Electric Boogaloo

Pope Francis appears intent in his attempt to divide the loyalties of the Faithful between himself and Pope Benedict XVI, as Stephen VI did with his post-mortem trial of Pope Formosus.


August 1, 2023

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A trip to Rome a couple of weeks ago was partly thrilling—as visits to Rome always are—but also partly depressing. The latter was primarily due to the state of St. Peter’s Basilica. Oh, it is just as beautiful and inspiring as ever. But one is no longer allowed to venerate the statue of St. Peter, which is cordoned off. 

Above all, when one went before, there were always a number of Masses going on at the various side altars. Some were for groups of pilgrims, others just various Roman priests offering their daily Mass. Whichever it might be, it gave the place a feeling of being spiritually alive and far more than just a historic building. But this has been forbidden since June 2021. The result is that the place feels more like Westminster Abbey than the center of Catholicism.

But this is symptomatic of what Pope Francis’ pontificate has become. The month following the drying of Masses at the Basilica, the Holy Father issued the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes. Aiming to overturn Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum, it entirely sidestepped the terrible truth that Pope Benedict had attempted to put a fig leaf over: given that Quo Primum is still in force, clerics hindered from offering and laity from attending the Traditional Mass have been subjected to a grave injustice. By this and subsequent actions (Desiderio Desideravi and various punitive measures applied by bishops), the pope has, in essence, told the faithful they must choose between Benedict’s reality and his. 

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The problem, of course, other than attempting to divide the loyalties of the Faithful between two pontiffs (as Stephen VI did with his post-mortem trial of Pope Formosus), is that one is forced to decide which one knew what he was talking about. Where Benedict was a deep scholar and theologian, Francis lays himself open to the snarky and irreverent. These terrible folks might find themselves reminded of Groucho Marx on the one hand and Lewis Carroll on the other. The former’s demand, “who you goin’ to believe, your own eyes, or me?” acts as counterpoint to the latter’s character declaiming in Through the Looking Glass, “words mean exactly whatever I say they mean.”

All this must be amusing to the non-Catholic, and the past few months must surely have added to their merriment. Quite apart from appointing a prelate under investigation for covering up sexual abuse as one of two apostolic visitators assigned to harass Tyler, Texas’ Bishop Strickland, His Holiness placed in charge of the newly rebaptized Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith Archbishop Tucho Fernandez. The new Cardinal designate has complained that the amusement generated by the title of a book he wrote as a priest, Heal Me With Your Mouth, is being used to make him appear ridiculous. This may well be just, as so many more recent declarations he has made can be used to that end. More disturbing has been his letter from the Holy Father. Fernandez has complained that the amusement generated by the title of a book he wrote as a priest, Heal Me With Your Mouth, is being used to make him appear ridiculous. Many more recent declarations he has made can be used to that end.Tweet This

The Supreme Pontiff’s letter to Fernandez of July 1, 2023, had two particularly disturbing passages. The first runs: 

The Dicastery over which you will preside in other times came to use immoral methods. Those were times when, rather than promoting theological knowledge, possible doctrinal errors were pursued. What I expect from you is certainly something very different. 

Now, those methods to which His Holiness refers as “immoral” were approved by all his predecessors—many of whom were declared saints, including a few he himself canonized. Again, he sets up a “them or me” dichotomy. Then follows later on, 

It is good that your task expresses that the Church “encourages the charism of theologians and their scholarly efforts” as long as they are not “content with a desk-bound theology,” with “a cold and harsh logic that seeks to dominate everything.” It will always be true that reality is superior to the idea.

Apart from quoting himself exclusively, thus reinforcing the split between himself and his predecessors, there is a touch of incoherence here that is only slightly cleared up by the last sentence. Now, it is certainly true that, as St. Thomas Aquinas said of the Summa, “compared to the realities it is a thing of straw.” But that is true of theological speculation—not of the defined dogmas of the Faith, which both the Holy Father and his appointed minions are required to defend by virtue of their offices. 

The pope continues in the paragraph, “In this sense, we need theology to be attentive to a fundamental criterion: to consider that ‘all theological notions that ultimately call into question the very omnipotence of God, and his mercy in particular, are inadequate.’” What does His Holiness mean here? Does this mean we do not need the Faith or her hierarchy for salvation? That we can safely ignore the Church and the pope? 

If so, it may come as a relief for many of us that we may, by his standards, ignore him and all his works and pomps; he who has been so severe with those whom he dislikes. He then concludes: “We need a way of thinking which can convincingly present a God who loves, who forgives, who saves, who liberates, who promotes people and calls them to fraternal service.” I certainly would agree that His Holiness needs this, and I eagerly await it.

As for Archbishop Fernandez, he is very relieved that he will not be dealing with sexual abuse cases, not least because he has already shown his inability to deal properly with those in his own archdiocese, as he has admitted. But his assertion to a Spanish interviewer that his social background fits him for his doctrinal duties is interesting: 

Doesn’t it seem right to you that sometime in history a Latin American who has been a parish priest in the peripheries, who has grown up in a small town in the interior, with a sensitivity close to the pain of those discarded by society, with a life story very different from that of a European or American, but who at the same time is a doctor of Theology, should occupy that position? 

One cannot help but be reminded of Madame Justice Sotomayor, who remarked in a speech years ago that “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” Truly, identity politics is the superstition of the elite.

In any case, Archbishop Fernandez’s interview with Argentina’s Radio Perfil had some real gems. 

So you can imagine that being named in this place is a painful experience. This dicastery that I am going to lead was the Holy Office, the Inquisition, which even investigated me. People here sent in articles of mine that they thought were heretical, and I spent several months answering them. They asked me questions and I answered them again and again, which was really very annoying. 

No doubt; but it might lead one to fear that henceforth the fox shall be guarding the henhouse. Moreover, although claiming that the Holy Father’s remarks about the DDF’s “immoral” methods referred to the Inquisition, which he allowed could not be judged by current norms, he came clean with the real problem for him: 

There were great theologians at the time of the Second Vatican Council who were persecuted by this institution. And there is a famous case of a great theologian who urinated on the door of the Holy Office one night as a gesture of contempt toward this persecution methodology.

Yes, indeed—doubtless he means such as Karl Rahner, S.J. Had the Holy Office’s persecution been rather more effective, the Church might well have been spared a great deal of angst in later decades.

But in a later comment in the interview with Perfil, the Archbishop makes a comment that is truly stunning coming from a man who shall be a major figure in the Holy See. He states that he wants to avoid “All forms of authoritarianism that seek to impose an ideological register; forms of populism that are also authoritarian; and unitary thinking.” He continues, “It is obvious that the history of the Inquisition is shameful because it is harsh, and that it is profoundly contrary to the Gospel and to Christian teaching itself. That is why it is so appalling. 

Really? Harshness is appalling, in and of itself, eh? Surely a mirror is required at this point, in the wake of Traditionis Custodes and its annexed screeds.

What makes all of this amusing in a gallows-humor kind of way is that if the behavior of the new DDF, which is to be entirely restaffed, parallels the treatment of Traditionalists, Contemplative Nuns, and the Church by other bodies of the Holy See during this pontificate, authoritarianism shall indeed be demonstrated in all its “appalling” glory. Given the large number of clerics with curious lifestyles and questionable criminal records who are protected there, and the Holy Father’s apparent insistence that we stand either with him or his predecessors, one is reminded of the era of papal history dubbed by historians the “Pornocracy.”

It was prefigured by the famous “Cadaver Synod” of 897. Stephen VI had his predecessor, Pope Formosus, disentombed and propped up in a chair for a trial to be held—this of course is reminiscent of Pope Francis’ tacit judgment of his predecessors. The famous part of the trial is, of course, the grotesquerie of the proceedings, which is why so many people are familiar with the incident. 

What they are not aware of usually is that Stephen’s judgment was even more grotesque than the circumstances. Formosus was the first pope ever to be translated from another See to take up the Keys. Stephen ruled that because he had been bishop of another city, he had never been rightful pope—which, if true, would mean that the sedevacantists missed the bus by centuries. 

Far worse, however, was Stephen’s heretical declaration that because Formosus was never pope, his sacramental ministrations—including priestly ordinations and episcopal consecrations—were invalid. All of the latter were deposed. The confusion was enormous and the whole thing quashed in the next pontificate.

But in 902, a disciple of Stephen’s, Sergius III was elected. The new pontiff, among many other questionable deeds, rehabilitated Stephen’s judgment and deposed all those bishops in succession from Formosus. This was bad enough. But his mistress, one Marozia of the House of Theophylact, had a great deal of power over him and, so, the Holy See. Until 964, Marozia, her daughter, and various other ladies of their clan placed their sons and lovers in the Apostolic See. The Pornocracy would last until Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, tired of the entire charade, deposed John XII, Marozia’s grandson.

It may well be that future generations will consider our current time to be a similar period, for all that for the most part it lacks the female touch in its immorality. Indeed, if this be a second pornocracy, it lacks a great deal of the outward elegance and style of the original. The participants of the first made a much better outward show than their modern-day successors. But this is often a problem with remakes and sequels.

Indeed, modern slang has a particular generic term for poor or shoddy remakes and sequels—“Electric Boogaloo,”—that being the subtitle of the 1984 sequel, Breakin’ 2. (I must admit that I was not a fan of the original either.) 

Compared to the skillful way in which various heterodox but learned figures did their best to hijack the Church in the 1960s, the ham-handed, inarticulate, and sadly transparent ways their successors do things today suffer in comparison with even them, let alone the passionate and human semi-barbarism of the 10th century. 

So, it seems to this writer that the title of this piece would be the best description of the era we are in. Now, if we can only find an Otto the Great to shut down the performance!


  • Charles Coulombe

    Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine’s European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan’s Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.

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