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John L. Allen Jr.

ROME — For those in and around the Vatican, the most talked-about piece of rhetoric during the holiday season has been Pope Francis’ Dec. 22 blast at the Roman Curia. A close second, however, has been Vittorio Messori’s own Dec. 24 fusillade at the pope, published in the Italian paper of record, Corriere della Sera.

Pope Francis at a meeting with young people at the Sanctuary of Castelpetroso in Campobasso, Italy in July. A prominent Italian writer says the pope's unpredictability has caused the cardinals who elected him to have second thoughts and has confused average Catholics. (Franco Origlia, Getty Images)

Under the headline, “Doubts about the turning point of Pope Francis,” Messori wrote that “my evaluation of this papacy oscillates continually between adhesion and perplexity,” and also asserted that Francis’ unpredictability has caused even “some of the cardinals who were among his electors to have second thoughts.”

Messori did not name any repentant cardinals, but his claim has been taken seriously because he is Italy’s most famous living Catholic writer, the man whose 1984 interview book with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, The Ratzinger Report, made the future pope a star.

In other words, he’s the kind of person in a position to know what at least some segment of the College of Cardinals is thinking.

What has truly rankled pro-Francis commentators, however, isn’t the idea that some cardinals have their noses out of joint, which for them is part of the pope’s appeal. Instead, it’s Messori’s claim that the “average Catholic” — which he defined as believers “not in the habit of thinking much on their own about faith and morals, exhorted to simply ‘follow the pope’ — finds his “tranquility disturbed” by the pontiff’s mixed signals.

According to Messori, those average Catholics today are confused about which Pope Francis to follow. He offers three instances of what he sees as contradictions:

  • The Francis of the morning homilies at the Santa Marta, full of classical pastoral wisdom and even repeated warnings about not falling into the devil’s snares, versus the Francis who called up Marco Pannella to wish him well in his work. (Pannella is the legendary leader of Italy’s Radical Party, a passionate advocate of legalized abortion and divorce, euthanasia, gay rights, and almost every other liberal cause.)
  • The Francis of his Curia speech, who defined the Catholic Church as the mystical body of Christ, versus the Francis of an interview with Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari, in which the pope supposedly said “God is not Catholic” — thereby, according to Messori, suggesting that the Church is no more than an “optional accessory” to the Holy Trinity. (The qualifier “supposedly” is obligatory because Scalfari later conceded he didn’t tape the exchange or take notes, so he was working from memory.)
  • The Francis who knows from direct experience the massive losses Catholicism has sustained in Latin America to Pentecostals and Evangelicals, versus the Francis who took a day trip to wish good luck to a friend who, according to Messori, “is a pastor of precisely one of the communities which is emptying out the Catholic Church with the very proselytism [Francis] has so harshly condemned among his own flock.” (In July, Francis traveled to Caserta in Italy to visit a Pentecostal community led by Giovanni Traettino, a friend from his time in Buenos Aires.)

In a lively Italian back-and-forth stirred up by Messori, there’s been a good deal of harrumphing at the idea that “average Catholics” are actually upset about this sort of thing, which does smack a bit of inside baseball. At the widely read blog “Il Sismografo,” a sarcastic challenge was laid down to Messorio to produce an e-mail address or cell phone number for this “average Catholic,” so he or she can be interviewed.

“What a scoop it could be!” joked the writer, Luis Badilla.

The thrust of the reaction has been that Messori dressed up his own issues with the pope as a defense of ordinary believers — which, to be honest, is not a category to which he’s belonged for quite a while.

Leaving aside the issue of what the term “average Catholic” even means, two observations on Messori’s presentation suggest themselves.

First, it can never be said enough that Pope Francis has invited a robust and open debate about issues in the Church, which certainly includes his own leadership. When someone voices reservations, therefore, it’s not an act of defiance so much as one of obedience.

Francis is an assiduous reader and quite wired into Italian conversation, meaning he has certainly read Messori’s piece. If he hasn’t done so already, it would be among the least surprising developments in recent memory if Francis called Messori to thank him for it.

He did just that last year when Italian traditionalist Mario Palmaro published a far more stinging critique along with a colleague entitled “Why we don’t like the pope,” and if Francis can show such graciousness, perhaps the rest of the Church can lower its guard a bit as well.

Especially looking ahead to round two of the Synod of Bishops on the family in October, a refresher course on the distinction between disagreement and division would be no bad thing.

Second, Messori is not wrong that Francis can be an enigmatic figure.

Recently, Italian papers have carried pieces suggesting there’s a Pope Francis look-alike in Rome who sometimes is mistaken for the real deal. Supposedly on Dec. 22, the doppelganger was spotted near the Circus Maximus in a blue subcompact car at the precise moment the real Francis was making his Curia speech.

Honestly, there are moments when one hears or sees something from the pope and wonders if maybe it’s that imposter, because it’s just so difficult to reconcile with other aspects of Francis’ record. Messori wrote that he could have gone on cataloguing contradictions and one actually wishes he would have, because it would be analytically useful to have a complete list.

Here’s another: the Francis who routinely lists the unborn among the victims of a “throwaway culture,” who used his Christmas Day Urbi et Orbi speech in part to denounce abortion, and who visited a symbolic cemetery for the victims of abortion in South Korea, versus the Francis who spurns the phrase “non-negotiable principles” to refer to the Church’s positions on sexual morality and who has said he doesn’t need to talk so much about abortion and other matters on the pro-life agenda.

Yes, there is a way to make all those positions consistent, but one would have to be deaf, dumb, and blind to miss the contrasts among them. Equally, it’s impossible to miss the point that both the Church’s most ardent cultural warriors and those looking to negotiate a truce claim Francis as their own.

Of course, one person’s enigma is another’s master of subtlety. Whether the apparent contradictions that surround Pope Francis are a deficit or a strength is, perhaps, in the eye of the beholder, but they are undeniably part of the package.

Perhaps in a few days we’ll have the chance to ask Pope Francis about all this himself, since we should have a long news conference with him on the papal plane on the way back from the Philippines on Jan. 19. If so, we’ll see if whatever answer he delivers clears up some of the perplexities — or becomes another item on the list.