When it comes to “culture wars about issues of sexual morality,” Pope Francis reserves the plum posts for men who not only fight the culture wars, but fight them from the wrong side.

A recent National Catholic Reporter (NCR) piece points out that due to retirements and other factors, “Pope Francis faces chance to radically reshape US Catholic hierarchy.”

Most of the experts interviewed by NCR predicted that Francis’ picks would be “pastoral” but not “ideological.” Fr. Mark Massa, S.J. of Boston College said “I have been stymied to try to figure out what Francis’ agenda is. I think it’s simply to appoint pastoral bishops, and he’s less concerned about where they are ideologically.”

Is that accurate? Does it correspond to the evidence? What do we actually find when looking at key appointments by Francis?

Take his appointments to the Council of Cardinals—the cardinals who are his closest and most important advisers. Recently, Francis added five new members to the nine-member council to replace five who are stepping down for various reasons.

Do Pope Francis’s appointments—past and present—to the C9 favor the pastoral over the ideological? And what to make of the fact that the majority of his picks there have been marked by scandals both financial and sexual in nature?

Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston is one of the remaining original members of the Pope’s council. He is undoubtedly one of Francis’ better choices; he is not an ideologue and there are no scandals attached to his name. In fact, he has a record of cleaning up and resolving clerical sex abuse cases in several different dioceses. In short, he possesses the kind of expertise that other members of the council—past and present—have been sorely in need of.

What about Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay? He is another of the remaining original members of the council Francis created in 2013. Although the Cardinal himself has not been accused of abuse, there are allegations that he covered up or failed to report several cases of clerical sex abuse. Cardinal Gracias has emphatically denied the claims and, thus far, there seems to be no resolution of the allegations.

Of course, many cardinals in recent memory have been accused with covering up abuse, and the cardinals, past and present, who have served as Francis’ chief advisers are no exception. Moreover, an accusation is not proof. The late Cardinal George Pell, who served for four years on the C9, spent more than a year in an Australian prison on charges of molesting two altar boys, but he was eventually acquitted of all charges. The scandal in Pell’s case is not that he did anything wrong, but that he may have been set-up by some in the Vatican who feared that he was about to expose their financial misdeeds.

The topic of financial misdeeds brings us to Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras. Maradiaga, a close friend and ally of Pope Francis, chaired the council of nine since its inception. At age 80, he is now stepping down, but not necessarily for reasons of health. Most of his time these days is spent fending off charges of massive financial malpractice.

An exposé of Cardinal Maradiaga’s misdeeds appears in Sacred Betrayals, a book by Martha Alegria Reichmann, a former friend of Maradiaga who began to see a “dark side” to the Cardinal after he persuaded her and her husband to invest in a financial scheme that led to the loss of her entire life savings. Moreover, Reichmann contends that the Catholic University of Tegucigalpa had been turned into a cash cow by Maradiaga for his personal benefit. According to the National Catholic Register, “the cardinal received around $ 500,000 a year from the university from 2004 to 2015 without having to present any documentation to justify the destination of the funds.”

Cardinal Maradiaga is also accused of disregarding widespread homosexual activity at the major seminary in his archdiocese. Among other things, he appears to have ignored evidence that seminarians were being sexually abused by his friend and close collaborator Auxiliary Bishop Juan Jose Pineda who, according to the National Catholic Register, was “reported to maintain a string of …intimate male friends in Honduras and abroad.”

Bishop Pineda might be described as the McCarrick of Latin America were it not for the fact that there are many other South American and Latin American prelates who are candidates for the title.

For example, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz. In 2018 Errazuriz was subpoenaed by Chilean prosecutors as “part of an investigation into the country’s sprawling sex abuse and cover-up scandal.” Errazuriz was accused of protecting predator priests in at least ten cases including that of the notorious Father Fernando Karadima.

Cardinal Errazuriz also happens to have belonged to the exclusive club of advisers to Pope Francis, known as the Council of Cardinals. He was appointed by Francis in 2013 and served until his departure in 2018.

One of the four remaining members of the Council of Cardinals is Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State. Can he be trusted to give good advice? Here, according to The Catholic Herald, is what Cardinal Joseph Zen, the retired bishop of Hong Kong, told Pope Francis: “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.”

Elsewhere, Cardinal Zen is quoted as saying “Parolin knows he himself is lying. He knows that I know he is a liar. He knows that I will tell anyone that he is a liar.”

In addition to his mishandling of the Vatican-China deal, Parolin is also accused of mishandling the funds of the Secretariat of State on a scale that even Cardinal Maradiaga would find impressive.

The scandal revolves around a decision to invest 200 million euros in an upscale London property—a deal which seems to have left the Vatican holding the bag, but not the property. According to The Pillar, it seems likely that Parolin “relied on the advice of crooked advisors and didn’t understand what he was getting the Vatican into.” In short, one of the pope’s chief advisors was getting his own advice from high class con men.

The Pillar sums it up this way: “the picture which emerges…is a Secretariat of State riddled with dysfunction, unfit for purpose, and staffed by a rogue’s gallery—all on Parolin’s watch.”

The NCR piece suggests that Francis favors prelates who are pastoral. Yet, appointees such as Parolin and Maradiaga seem more political than pastoral. Of course, it’s true that Parolin’s main duties are not pastoral. Nevertheless, one wonders how many hundreds of millions of Church funds were diverted away from its pastoral mission in order to fund Parolin’s dubious real estate dealings.

The same can be said of Cardinal Maradiaga. He drained huge sums from the Catholic University of Tegucigalpa that were intended for educational purposes, but seem to have been used for purposes of personal enrichment. Moreover, one wonders how much money was left over for the poor and needy of Tegucigalpa once the archdiocese had finished paying the legal fees necessary to defend wayward priests against charges of sexual misconduct. Cardinal Maradiaga and his friend Bishop Pineda acted more like parasites than pastors.

The NCR article also suggests that Pope Francis prefers to elevate non-ideological bishops. Does that hold up to scrutiny?

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, one of the original members of the advisory council was recently removed from the council, but the reasons for his departure are not clear. Marx has long challenged Church teaching on sexuality and marriage. Last March, for example, while celebrating a Sunday Mass for the “Munich Queer Community,” Marx said that Church traditions “that once had a meaning are now disturbing” because they no longer reflect “what was actually intended by him [Christ].” On another occasion, he said that homosexuality was not a hindrance to becoming a priest.

But Marx’s removal probably had little to do with ideological issues. If that were the case, why would Marx be replaced on the council of advisors by Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich—a man whose position on sexual matters is, if anything, even more extreme than that of Marx’s?

Hollerich has rejected Catholic teaching on homosexuality as “false,” is in favor of same-sex blessings, and is open to the ordination of women. Despite his heterodox views on a number of issues, Francis seems to have great confidence in him. Two years prior to appointing Hollerich to his advisory council, Francis named him as the Relator General of the Synod on Synodality, making him one of the most powerful prelates in the Church. A true progressive, Hollerich said that critics of the Synod on Synodality were afraid of a “Church on the move.”

Moving where, exactly? A common theme is moving toward the loosening or complete changing of Church teaching on sexual morality. And that, it’s safe to say, would be a move over the cliff into outright schism, confusion, and the jettisoning of even more Church doctrine. And Pope Francis’ most recent picks don’t instill much confidence that they will do any better. They seem to have the same lemming-like attraction to the cliff.

Take Cardinal Gerald Lacroix of Canada. According to Rome correspondent, Edward Pentin, Lacroix believes Francis “is a prophet,” and is “bringing the Church to where it needs to be.” Cardinal Lacroix took part in the 2015 Synod on the Family and was much impressed. “I love that way of discerning,” he said. But that’s not very reassuring when one considers that for “progressive” Catholics, the word “discerning” means figuring out in what direction the world is headed, and following suit. So, when Cardinal Lacroix says “this is really going to change the Church forever. It’s a new world,” it’s reasonable to think “brave new world.”

Another new appointee to the C9 is Cardinal Sergio La Rocha of Brazil. La Rocha was the general relator for the 2018 Synod on Youth whose final document, according to the Register, has been called “remarkably LGBT-positive.” But is it really so remarkable? It would be more remarkable at this point if Francis were to promote someone to high office who was not LGBT-positive, never mind someone openly upholding Church teaching about sexuality.

Another new member of the C9 is Cardinal Juan Jose Omella y Omella, from Barcelona. Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh describes him as a “classic Francis pick”. And sure enough, Omella believes in a “Samaritan Church” which will “accompany” the suffering, realize that moral issues are “not all black and white,” and is all-inclusive “so that no one feels cast aside.” But none of this liberality seems to extend to critics of Pope Francis. “Obedience to the pope means walking with him”, said Omella. “Walking with him?” “Accompany”? “All inclusive?” But this is the same kind of ambiguous and heavily therapeutic talk that Francis himself employs.

But isn’t it reasonable to think that the purpose of a council of advisers is not simply to agree with the advisee? To offer him new perspectives and even to challenge his policies and the assumptions they are built on? But Francis’ circle of advisers seems content to walk to the cliff. And over it as well?

To all appearances, the Church is already in some sort of free fall. During the pontificate of Pope Francis, weekly Mass attendance of U.S. Catholics declined from 25% to 17%. In addition, more than 1,000 parishes were closed. Catholic marriages and baptisms also declined sharply.

Dr. Larry Chapp, in a recent CWR essay about the agenda of some of the promoters of the synod on synodality, said that “what is going on is nothing short of a hostile takeover of the Church, seeking to impose a non-Christian ideology of change and development on the Church’s traditional understanding of those realities”—that is, Catholic beliefs about “hot button” issues such as homosexuality, female priests, and contraceptives.

Again, the National Catholic Reporter piece assures us that Pope Francis’s appointments are not shaped by any ideology or agenda at all. Rather, according to NCR, his selection of bishops to date shows that he “eschews divisive culture wars about issues of sexual morality.”

But anyone who has been paying attention can see that when Francis makes appointments, he does so with an eye toward ideological conformity. And when it comes to “culture wars about issues of sexual morality,” he reserves the plum posts for men who not only fight the culture wars, but fight them from the wrong side. Bishops such as Marx, Hollerich, Cupich, Tobin, Gregory, and McElroy long ago aligned themselves with the culture wars’ anti-Catholic forces.

Catholics in the U.S. should not let themselves be lulled to sleep by the reassurance that when the pope gets his chance to further reshape the American hierarchy, he will choose wisely or without a problematic litmus test.

If his past appointments are any indication of who he will choose, Catholics can expect the free fall to continue.

This article originally appeared in the April 14, 2023 edition of Catholic World Report.

Pictured above: Cardinal Reinhard Marx

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