The Guardian view on the Catholic church: trouble ahead | Editorial | Opinion

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Jesus entered Jerusalem a week before his death as if he were the messiah, pushing through adoring crowds who sang and waved palm fronds – at least that’s what the story says. By this criterion at least, Pope Francis is further from Jesus than most popes have been. He entered Holy Week this year battered by assaults from the right wing of the American church, the Italian government, and even his immediate predecessor, the former pope Benedict XVI, who published a dense, eccentric reflection on the causes of the sexual abuse crisis: he believes, apparently, that airlines had to stop showing films with sex scenes in them because they provoked outbreaks of violence among passengers.

Old age may have eroded the 92-year-old former pontiff’s faculties, but this makes the bedrock of his deep convictions stand out more clearly: he believes that without an independent source of good, or God, human relationships are only about power; that God can only be truly known through the Christian tradition; and that this knowledge is preserved in his church. This means the church’s most important task is to guard this revelation – and Benedict was for many years the chief doctrinal enforcer of the church. But now he seems to conflate the legal and bureaucratic protection given to academic theologians with those who enabled paedophile priests to avoid expulsion from the church. To be clear, he thinks that child abuse is an absolute moral evil which nothing can ever justify – but also believes that certain styles of theological liberalism are themselves evils which nothing can justify.

Benedict, who blames the abuse crisis on unfettered sexuality, was a weak administrator; Francis, who blames the crisis on unfettered clerical power, has been much more determined in the exercise of his office. He has, as a result, made many more powerful enemies. His advocacy for refugees has upset politically conservative Catholics. His advocacy for the environment – a subject on which he writes with extraordinary passion and urgency – has further alienated the American right for whom it is an article of faith to disbelieve in global warming. While his behaviour over the abuse scandal, and over the church’s teaching on sexuality, has been more equivocal and marked by many false steps, there is nonetheless a significant difference in temperament and style from his predecessor’s approach to morality. Benedict is interested in whether particular acts are evil. For Francis, the more important question seems to be whether they can be forgiven.

Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, represents a tendency as old as Constantine: the desire of secular rulers to control the church and direct it to their ends. The Catholic church in the US has been deeply split for the last 50 years, and one side in this battle identifies increasingly with the Republican party and so with Mr Trump. Mr Bannon has been trying to encourage a strain of Catholicism antithetical to Francis’ values. He has tried to ally with populist and nationalist parties all over Europe. In Italy itself he has encouraged Matteo Salvini, the leader of the anti-immigrant Liga party, to attack the pope for his support of refugees. He has restored a decayed monastery and aims to turn it into a school for young men who may spread his view that there is a global war going on between Christianity and Islam. In an interview at the weekend with NBC, Mr Bannon accused the pope of being “political”.

He predicts that compensation payments for child abuse will destroy the Catholic church in the US – 15 dioceses and four religious orders have filed for bankruptcy under this strain in the last 15 years. The total paid out is close to $3bn. If this happens, the only obvious source of money will be the kind of rightwing super-rich who hope to buy the papacy as they have bought the Republican party. But churches are sustained in the long run by the mass of believers and the Catholic church is a supranational body. Mr Bannon is more right than he knows when he denounces it as globalist. To the extent that they are aware of these disputes, the 1.2 billion or so Catholics in the world are on Francis’s side because they know he is on theirs.

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