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Conservative and reactionary forces in the Roman Catholic church wonder whether the Pope is a Catholic

Pope Francis, despite his unflappable, affable demeanour, is locked in a bitter struggle with conservative and reactionary forces in the Roman Catholic church who have since conducted a sometimes-mutinous campaign to curb him.

While hundreds of thousands of Irish Catholics are eagerly and enthusiastically awaiting his visit, a vociferous minority of Irish church traditionalists, egged on by American reactionaries, are also waiting for him – but in the long grass.

Just as "birthers" questioned whether Barack Obama was an American-born citizen or a Muslim, these reactionaries use social media and blogs to question not merely the orthodoxy of Francis, but whether some of his statements and actions are actually heretical.

For them the old humorous question " Is the Pope a Catholic?" is no longer a joke at all. They really wonder whether he is in fact a Catholic.

Last year, four cardinals, Carlo Caffara, an Italian, Raymond Burke, an American with Irish roots, and Walter Brandmuller and Joachim Meisner, from Germany, had written five "dubia" - formalised doubts on whether the Pope's recent encyclical document on love and the family, Amoris Laetitia, is conformable with the church's immutable teaching.

In essence, they claim that a divorced and remarried Catholic who maintains a conjugal relationship with his or her second spouse is committing adultery, that such sex is therefore intrinsically evil and a mortal sin so as to exclude that Catholic from receiving communion.

The Pope, on the other hand, had written that it was not a simple "black and white" issue; he urged pastors to address the subjective complexity of the situation of such Catholics, and suggested that there should be no absolute exclusion from the Eucharist for such persons.

The dubia are but the visible manifestation of a deeper battle for the "soul" of the Catholic church. Pope Francis understood that and wisely decided to ignore the dubia - much to the doubting cardinals' chagrin.

The same Cardinal Burke rejects nearly all of the aggiornamento of the Second Vatican Council. He keeps company internationally, including here in Ireland, with  Catholics who reject the use of the vernacular in the liturgy, who disapprove of the priest facing the congregation, who prefer the Latin mass, who disapprove of women acting as ministers of the Eucharist and girls as altar servers, who disapprove of receiving the host in the hand, and who basically want to revert to the pre-conciliar rites, sacramentals and teachings of the Catholic church.

For them, the rot set in when the post-conciliar Vatican failed to deal firmly and swiftly with the intellectual rebellion by theologians, clergy and faithful against Humanae Vitae which affirmed that artificial birth control for family planning purposes was intrinsically evil and sinful, while the use of thermometers and charts was not.

Far from being content just to defend the status quo against demands by Mary McAleese and many others for the ordination of women and for married clergy, and for the acceptance of LGBTI persons as members of an inclusive church, these reactionary Catholics want to turn back the clock completely, to re-establish the church of their youth, and to have little or nothing to do with modernism, another heresy.

So the Pope's visit to the World Meeting of Families in Dublin is not simply an occasion for debating demands of liberal, progressive Catholics for a change in the Church's attitudes to issues of sexual morality and gender equality; Catholic conservatives are running an alternative conference in Dublin for "Catholic Families" to be addressed by video-link by reactionary prelates such as Cardinal Burke, a conference which will condemn liberalism in all its manifestations.

Lumen Fidei, the organisers of the alternative Catholic Families conference in Dublin, have been using their well-produced fortnightly newspaper, Catholic Voice, to fan flames of dissatisfaction with the World Meeting of Families. 

The Catholic Voice recently revealed to its readers that the "first liberal" was none other than Lucifer, and that his doctrines have been espoused by a series of well-known figures including Nero, Gengis Khan, Stalin, Hitler and, wait for it, Hillary Clinton.

The Catholic Families conference will also be addressed by John Smeaton of SPUC who has openly accused Pope Francis's Amoris Laetitia of propagating heresy.

When the Pope has returned to Rome, the galactic battle will resume. Conservative and reactionary Catholics across the world, not least in the US, regard Francis as a temporary aberration into heterodoxy, error and heresy which will mercifully end with his death or resignation, which can't come soon enough.

They confidently believe that the next conclave of cardinals will not make the mistake of electing someone in the mould of Francis or John XXIII. And it is probable that their expectations will then be rewarded.

Francis, by the way, is no radical intent on a second Reformation. He is, in reality, quite conservative. But he wants to save the Roman Catholic church from the clutches of reactionaries and absolutists who are intent on driving it over a cliff on a policy of "making the Vatican great again".

His reactionary opponents, when he is gone, will probably find it far easier to bully the Vatican establishment into going backwards than Mary McAleese will find it easy to drive the church forward to the changes she articulates.

It was, after all, John Paul II who, as Karol Wojtyla, Archbishop of Krakow, in 1967 privately implored the then pope, Paul VI, from behind the Iron Curtain to reject the report of a papal commission that had recommended the church to change its position on contraception. He later wrote after the publication of Humanae Vitae urging the Pope to crack down on dissidence among the clergy and the faithful and to explicitly elevate the doctrine as infallible teaching.

Thus, when, as John Paul II, he visited Ireland ten years later, the damage done was already beginning to show through the cracks. The innocence and naivety of the young so graphically recorded at his Ballybrit event, where Eamon Casey and Michael Cleary were his unforgettable warm up act, seems like a different world.

Francis, apparently, has also established a "study group" on Humanae Vitae which will almost certainly not reverse it but will seek to create an interpretative moral flexibility on family planning .

It is exactly that possibility which the absolutists are determined to prevent.

They see the whole Church edifice threatened by any acknowledgment of previous doctrinal error or by any acceptance of conscience based moral relativism.

It is a dogma (or an error itself, as many think) which has simply made prisoners of the entire clerical church – from Pope down to priest – but not of the laity.

When Bishop Kevin Doran of Elphin ran the standard of Humanae Vitae up the flagpole again last week, Simon Harris implored him to "stop it". Fat chance.

These clerics are waging an existential, spiritual battle in a different dimension from the merely "transient" issues of child abuse, married or female clergy, or contraception.

They are fighting a destructive all-out civil war for control of ideas and dogma while their all too human institution disintegrates before our eyes.

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