Rome — Since the moment he was elected in 2013, Pope Francis has sought to steer the Catholic church away from a focus on doctrinal rules and formulas and toward a more pastoral ministry — a campaign that has sparked widespread hand-wringing among traditionalists and unusually public opposition to the pontiff.
In recent weeks, however, the critics have grown bolder and more demanding than ever as several conservative cardinals and various pundits have issued warnings that Francis may be leading the church into heresy and schism.
They have openly speculated about how Francis could be disciplined, or if he should resign for incompetence — basically, the sort of topics that haven’t been bandied about in Catholic circles in the last 1,000 years or so.
So far, Francis himself has declined to engage his foes directly, preferring to let his writings, periodic interviews and daily sermons speak for themselves.
Yet Francis is hardly without champions in what some are calling a “Catholic civil war,” with perhaps the most prominent and vocal among them a soft-spoken Italian priest, Fr. Antonio Spadaro.
Indeed, Spadaro is so ubiquitous in his mission to defend the pontiff that critics like to call him “the pope’s mouthpiece” — a label seemingly designed to undermine Francis by denoting Spadaro as a kind of papal puppet master, as well as making Spadaro a target in his own right.
The "mouthpiece" epithet is one that makes Spadaro smile. “The pope doesn’t need anyone to speak for him,” he said in lightly accented English during a late November interview at the Villa Malta, headquarters of La Civilta Cattolica, the Vatican-approved magazine Spadaro has edited since 2011.
'I am only doing my job'
Spadaro certainly comes off as an improbable paladin in this crusade. A Jesuit like Francis, he has a winsome affect and the bookish look of a scholar; he holds degrees in theology and philosophy.
But Spadaro, a 50-year-old Sicilian, is anything but reticent. Nor is he a head-in-the-clouds intellectual.
On the contrary, he is intense, always in motion, and dogged in mixing it up on Twitter with both critics and trolls, which should not be surprising given that he also has a degree in social communications and curates a blog called CyberTeologia, “understood,” as its mission statement reads, “as the intelligence of faith in the age of the Internet.”
In keeping with that digital focus, Spadaro has even begun to turn Civilta Cattolica from a rather staid journal that hadn’t changed format much since its founding in 1850 to a more accessible publishing venture with a robust online presence in various languages. (One recent feature was Spadaro's lengthy interview with Martin Scorsese, director of the new movie “Silence,” about 17th-century Jesuit missionaries in Japan.)
Spadaro’s own office reflects the different eras he inhabits — a simple room with contemporary furnishings on the ground floor of an enormous old Italianate palazzo sitting on a hill across Rome from the Vatican.
What hasn’t changed about the Jesuit-run magazine in all these years is its loyalty to the pope, whoever he might be.
From the archconservative Pius IX (who reigned from 1846-1878) to the social justice pontiff Leo XIII (1878-1903) to the anti-modernist Pius X (1903-1914) and every pope since, Civilta Cattolica has vigorously defended papal teachings — even if some of those later proved embarrassing. In the past, popes personally reviewed its articles before publication, and a draft of the magazine is still given the once-over by senior Vatican officials.
Since the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s launched the church on a path of reform and opened Rome to the world, the journal has also become more engaged — and engaging — though it still aims to reflect the Vatican's views rather than counter them.
“In reality I am only doing my job as director” of the magazine, Spadaro wrote in a follow-up message in December as the criticisms of Francis continued to mount. “All of the popes throughout history have been attacked, in one way or another. And ours has always been a simple and humble service.”
Two Jesuits, one opinion
The other reality is that Spadaro is particularly close to Francis. They are both Jesuits (Francis is the first member of the Society of Jesus ever to become pope) and it was Spadaro whom Francis called out of the blue on a May morning before 7 a.m., two months after Francis was elected.
Spadaro had not known Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio before he became Pope Francis, and when his cellphone rang he hesitated on seeing an unknown number.
"I was wondering whether to pick it up because I was in a hurry. In the end, I decided to pick up and was going to ask the calling person to call back later. Then I heard: 'Good morning, this is Pope Francis speaking,'" Spadaro told the Catholic website Aleteia last July.
"After a moment of complete shock, like, ‘Oh, my God!', I said perhaps a little incredulously: 'His Holiness?' Then I asked, how do I respond to the Holy Father. And he said: 'There is nothing to be alarmed about,' and we began to talk freely."
During that conversation, Francis agreed to Spadaro's request to give his first extended interview. That took place in August 2013 and set out many of the themes and tropes that have become familiar hallmarks of Francis’ pontificate, and it forged a strong bond between the two men.
Spadaro is now a regular visitor to the Casa Santa Marta, the pope’s residence inside the Vatican, and is frequently seen consulting with Francis and networking with many of the other power players in the church who live in Rome or regularly pass through the Eternal City.
The priest and the pope also recently collaborated on a collection of the pope’s homilies from the years he was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires in Argentina (Francis is also the first pope from Latin America, and the first from outside the European orbit).
But to those who follow all things Catholic, it is Spadaro’s efforts to champion the pope’s ideas and blunt the latest round of attacks on Francis that draw the most attention.
The spark for this recent, and possibly most serious, furor is a document Francis published in April that offered his summation of the deliberations of two major Vatican gatherings — called synods — of cardinals and bishops from around the world to discuss the realities of modern families. The meetings, each three weeks long, were aimed in part at figuring out how and whether the Catholic church could accommodate those who don’t conform to the ideal of the catechism.
Francis asked the church leaders to be honest and frank in their talks; many of them were all that and more, especially conservatives who reacted sharply against proposals to welcome families led by gay couples, for example, or to approve ways that Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment could receive Communion in some cases.
In his apostolic exhortation delivering a definitive papal take on the synods, titled Amoris Laetitia, Latin for “The Joy of Love,” Francis delivered a wide-ranging reflection on family life, recognizing the myriad challenges but pledging that the Catholic church would accompany families of whatever form and size and in whatever situation they found themselves.
Conservatives wished that the pope’s exhortation had been stronger in emphasizing traditional church doctrine on sexual morality and marriage. But they were especially concerned, and then increasingly angry, as it became clear that one element of the document could in fact be seen as allowing pastors latitude to give divorced and remarried Catholics Communion.
Such a development, the critics said, would undermine Jesus’ own teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and would in effect “Protestantize” (a favorite characterization) Catholicism if it were allowed to stand. This crisis, some have claimed, is as serious as the fourth-century debates over the nature of Jesus Christ — as both God and man — that deeply divided Christianity; they were only resolved over several decades through the development of a common creed.
'He is the vanguard in taking down the critics'
The attacks on Francis over Amoris Laetitia mounted along with conservative frustration, and in November four leading conservative cardinals — including the Rome-based U.S. churchman Cardinal Raymond Burke, a chief papal gadfly — finally released a letter demanding that Francis answer five yes-or-no questions, known in Latin as “dubia.” They said answering those questions would clarify whether Amoris Laetitia contravened church doctrine or not. By implication, the answers could also determine whether Francis was promoting heresy.
The publication of the letter came just days before Francis was to create a new batch of cardinals, ensuring that it would generate maximum publicity, and controversy.
The yes/no format of the “dubia” was also seen as a trap, and one that Francis apparently hopes to avoid. He has made it clear he sees the issue as a pastoral matter for Catholics and their priests to resolve and he is not going to try to give a one-size-fits-all response that conservatives could use to shortcut that process.
Spadaro, however, is happy fill the silence.
“He has become the vanguard in taking down the critics of Amoris Laetitia or even anyone who would question the thinking here,” Raymond Arroyo, a popular host on the conservative Catholic cable network EWTN, said during a recent interview with Burke (who also took the opportunity to blast Spadaro as “in error”).
Indeed, in these past weeks Spadaro has been everywhere, physically and virtually. A sought-after speaker, he has given talks on Francis’ pontificate in Spain, South Korea and elsewhere; given interviews; and penned a firm rejection of the cardinals’ questions for CNN’s website.
And, of course, he has been all over social media. “The Pope has ‘clarified,’” he tweeted in mid-November. “Those who don't like what they hear pretend not to hear it!”
Which is of course the sort of response that, in turn, has made Spadaro as big a target as Francis himself.
But in their eagerness to take down the pope’s apologist, the passion of the critics sometimes outstrips their facts.
A case in point: A Spadaro critic on Twitter compared the priest and the pope to Grima Wormtongue and Saruman, a pair of evil characters from the “Lord of the Rings” epics. Rather than taking it too seriously, Spadaro tweeted a video clip of Gandalf, another Tolkien protagonist, declaring that he refused “to bandy crooked words with a witless worm” — a joking reference to his critic’s view of Spadaro himself as Wormtongue.
The critics, however, overlooked the original tweet comparing Spadaro to Wormtongue and instead saw Spadaro’s video clip as a villainous attack on the four cardinals who were demanding answers from Francis. Thus a viral meme was born — that a top papal adviser was calling the pope's enemies, and cardinals to boot, "witless worms."
It got to the point that even New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a conservative Catholic who has been one of the pope’s most persistent foes, recycled the false slam in a piece about the pontiff's standoff with the four cardinals.
Spadaro did not sit still for that, and on Twitter pressed Douthat for a correction; the columnist eventually complied, and apologized.
“The whole thing is ridiculous,” Spadaro later told the Catholic news site Crux. "And deeply offensive, that anyone should believe that I could ever refer to a cardinal as a ‘worm.’ I might not agree, or make a light-hearted joke, but offense is something else together.”
Critics in media outlets that are less susceptible to persuasion than the Times continue to repeat the story, however. Some also went on to accuse Spadaro of being a “sock puppet” — using a fake online identity to promote his own views anonymously — when he tweeted from a little-used personal account to say that the “4 cardinals sounds like the title of a rock and roll band from the early 1960s that sang trite songs.”
Once again, outrage ensued, and Spadaro rolled his eyes. “If I had really wanted to throw stones from an anonymous account I would never, obviously, have re-tweeted it,” Spadaro told Crux. “And why should I feel any need to hide?”
'To follow the pope up close is a profound joy'
So how does it feel to be the designated spear catcher for such a controversial pope?
Spadaro insisted that it’s not about engaging in online spats but is instead about advancing a much larger, and more crucial, narrative — one he is also privileged to witness firsthand.
“I feel that we are living through an important phase in the history of the world and the church,” he told RNS. “It is not an easy moment and it is full of contradictions and risks. Francis’ outlook is profoundly evangelical, prophetic and open: He is one of the few figures who gives hope. To follow the pope up close is a profound joy that overcomes all possible problems along the way and all possible attacks by the critics.”
Spadaro also downplays the number of critics, even if they have an outsized profile, especially in the English-speaking world where the opposition seems most vocal.
“The problem is that some opponents make a lot of noise, especially on social media,” he said. “They create an echo chamber. But you can hear the noise only inside the sacristies” — the rooms in a church where priests and bishops change into their vestments. “If you get out of the sacristies you can’t hear anything. So only the people inside the sacristies can hear this big noise.”
He reiterated that Francis “likes opposition,” likes to hear different opinions and critiques because tensions means the church is alive, and differing views can lead to the discernment of the best way forward.
“This is the meaning of the Incarnation — the Lord took flesh, which means we are involved with real humanity, which is never fixed or too clear. So the pastor has to get into the real dynamic of human life. This is the message of mercy. Discernment and mercy are the two big pillars of this pontificate.”
Spadaro said Francis also distinguishes between the constructive criticism of those who “really want, in good conscience, the good of the church” and “another kind of opposition, which is just imposing one’s own view, which is ideological opposition.”
“The pope listens to the first and is open to learning. But he doesn’t pay too much attention at all to the second kind.”
Besides, for those opponents the pope has Antonio Spadaro.
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