Why Do Normal Events, Like Book Launches, Become ‘Imbergoglios’ That Snare the Pope?

COMMENTARY: The Vatican snafus in recent years are usually launched by commentators who are eager to advocate for Pope Francis, but often end up doing more harm than good.

Pope Francis walks to the weekly general audience Jan. 22 at Paul VI Hall at the Vatican.
Pope Francis walks to the weekly general audience Jan. 22 at Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. (photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images)

I call them “imbergoglios.” An imbroglio that snares Pope Francis.

An “imbroglio” is an “extremely confused, complicated or embarrassing situation.”

The latest Vatican imbroglio arose over the recent book written by Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah.

It becomes an imbergoglio when Pope Francis — Papa Bergoglio — is just going about his business and the people around him create an almighty flap. The Holy Father gets sucked into the imbroglio even though the principal decisions were not his. The imbroglio, which is not the Holy Father’s fault, nevertheless embroils him and becomes an imbergoglio. And then it ends in farce. All of which is terribly embarrassing for the Catholic Church and causes criticism to fly toward Pope Francis.

There is much angst in Rome and in the Catholic press that normal events — book launches, prayer services on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi — become imbergoglios too often.

A classic imbergoglio took place on St. Ignatius’ Day in 2018. A simple comment went viral, then thermonuclear.

In a congratulatory column for the Jesuit founder’s feast, commentator Father Thomas Rosica, who enjoyed the favor of the Holy Father’s inner circle, wrote that “Pope Francis breaks Catholic traditions whenever he wants. … Our Church has indeed entered a new phase: With the advent of this first Jesuit pope, it is openly ruled by an individual rather than by the authority of Scripture alone or even its own dictates of Tradition plus Scripture.”

Pope Francis never said that, never put himself above the deposit of the faith, transmitted by Scripture and Tradition. But it got enormous attention and caused many people to wonder, baselessly, about whether the Holy Father understood his role and elementary theology of the Petrine office.

The element of farce — toward which an imbergoglio always heads — followed afterward, when it was discovered that Father Rosica had plagiarized that characterization of the papal office from a Protestant critic of the Petrine office. What was intended as an attack on the papacy was employed to characterize Francis’ exercise of it.

Imbergoglios are not infrequent. Also in 2018, the prefect of Vatican communications, Msgr. Dario Viganò, was caught deceiving the press corps. He had commissioned a series of booklets praising the theology of Pope Francis on the occasion of the Holy Father’s fifth anniversary. He asked Benedict XVI to write a page or two praising the books, but Benedict declined even to read them, noting that among the authors were noted dissenters from Catholic teaching.

Msgr. Viganò then doctored a photo of Benedict’s letter in order to mislead the press corps into thinking that the pope emeritus had done what he had refused to do. A massive imbergoglio ensued. And the farce followed: Msgr. Viganò resigned as prefect of communications, only to be reappointed immediately as “assessor,” or deputy prefect, of the same department.

Just months ago the pachamama imbergoglio threatened to obscure the Holy Father’s Amazon synod. A simple prayer service — something Pope Francis likely thought his junior officials should be able to organize — was botched so that idol worship appeared to be taking place in the Vatican gardens. The Vatican communications officials simply could not, for several weeks, give a straight answer on what happened and the meaning of the pachamama figures.

The farce followed, with the pachamama being thrown in the Tiber and retrieved by the Italian police. Pope Francis then confirmed that the figures were in fact idols, as he declared that they had been “displayed without idolatrous intent.” One only says that about idols, as it is possible to view, or even admire, idols without “idolatrous intent” in a cultural or artistic way, as one does at a museum. One would never say that an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was “displayed without idolatrous intent.”

Which brings us to the latest imbergoglio, the controversy over the book From the Depths of Our Hearts, by Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah, on priestly celibacy.

Obviously it was a major event, a book by the pope emeritus and a senior Curial cardinal. It was not entirely unprecedented, though; Benedict has published an interview book while retired, and just last summer Cardinal Marc Ouellet published a book on priestly celibacy just before the Amazon synod.

The Vatican communications response was calm and correct, noting that Pope Francis has expressed his commitment to priestly celibacy, even going so far as to make the phrase of St. Paul VI his own: “I would rather die than change the law on celibacy.” And if it had been left there, the Church could have received the arguments of Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah more or less with equanimity. It was not a surprise to anyone that they offered the conclusions which they did.

Instead, an imbergoglio was launched that would convulse all Rome. It was, as usual, launched by those commentators who are eager to advocate for Pope Francis but often end up doing more harm than good.

With furious denunciations on Twitter, it was alleged that Benedict was no longer able to stay awake long enough to write anything; that he passed off some old notes to Cardinal Sarah and had no idea that a book was being published; that he knew a book was being published but that his contributions were ambiguous; that he made specific contributions but was not a co-author, but a contributor — and, above all, that Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah were exerting improper pressure on Pope Francis regarding the decision about ordaining as priests married deacons in the Amazon, as recommended by the recent synod.

That last was most absurd. If either Benedict or Cardinal Sarah wanted to influence Francis, either properly or improperly, they would have made public interventions ahead of time, as Cardinal Ouellet did. Everyone in Rome knows that the post-synodal exhortations of Pope Francis are completely drafted within weeks of the synod concluding, if not earlier. The Amazon document was already completed before the Benedict/Sarah book was released. It will be translated and published in a week or two.

Turning up the heat on what should not have been a controversy, voices who consider themselves helpful to Pope Francis accused both Benedict and Cardinal Sarah of acting with bad motives. The latter was accused of manipulating and deceiving the former, rather an incredible charge, given their close relationship.

In the event, by now what most people had heard about the new book was that Benedict was publicly at odds with Francis and attempting to undermine him. So a face-saving solution was attempted, with Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Benedict’s personal secretary and prefect of the papal household for Pope Francis, indicating that there had been a “misunderstanding.” While Benedict’s text was authentic, he should not be considered a “co-author.” Cardinal Sarah agreed that future editions in French would indicate just that, but that he personally stood behind all the claims he made about Benedict’s authorial role.

Meanwhile, Ignatius Press decided to publish the book as originally presented to them. Father Joseph Fessio, founder of Ignatius Press, has been publishing Benedict in English for more than 40 years. Readers of the book will share Father Fessio’s view that Benedict is indeed a co-author.

Then, as it always does in an imbergoglio, came the farce. Pope Francis declared the matter closed — effectively saying that there was nothing to see here — in an interview with atheist Eugenio Scalfari, the Italian journalist to whom he has given several interviews. Scalfari has on other occasions reported that the Holy Father does not believe in hell or in the divinity of Christ. He is thus manifestly unreliable. It was an odd place for Francis to address the controversy, but everything about an imbergoglio is odd. In the same interview, Scalfari “reported” that St. Francis died holding the hand of St. Clare, so one considers the source.

Imbergoglios are secondary or tertiary events, but they are significantly damaging, for they bring the Vatican and its various characters into disrepute. And because they get massive attention, they obscure what the Holy Father is actually doing. Those responsible for the imbergoglios do not serve him well.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

‘The 7 Last Words of Christ’ aired on EWTN on Good Friday 2023.

‘The 7 Last Words of Christ’ 2023

This year’s meditations by Father Raymond J. de Souza honored the late Cardinal George Pell, including some of his meditations from his ‘Prison Journal.’