In Rome in October 2019 a young traditional or ‘Trad’ Catholic man grabbed several small Amazonian ‘mother earth’ statues from a church near the Vatican and threw them into the River Tiber.
The five small wooden statues had featured at several ceremonies of the Synod of the Amazon, then underway in Rome, and the young Austrian activist was outraged at the relativism and idolatry on display at the centre of Western Christianity.
The liberal Catholic hierarchy in Europe and the United States might have discounted the incident as a one-off reaction from an insignificant wing of the Church.
But Trad Catholics have been growing fast in number, populating Latin Mass congregations, praying the Rosary and popping up all over the internet with news channels, call-in shows and popular video blogs.
Trads rally around a doctrinally orthodox, ritually pure way of being a Catholic that is anathema to the easy come, easy go liberalism that emerged following the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
To put it bluntly, Trad Catholics are ‘kicking ass and taking names’ online, identifying ‘heretical’ Church leaders, outing Church abusers and scandals, and publishing long books on how the Church lost its way in the West.
Amid rising popularity and influence in Europe but especially in the United States, the Pope appeared to lose patience in late 2020.
The past six months has seen escalating actions from the Pope and those around him that have baited Trad Catholics.
It begs the question: is the Pope trolling Trads in public and if so, why?
(‘Trolling’ is a term describing a provocation designed to draw an over-reaction from an opponent that would discredit or humiliate them).
So what has the Pope been up to?
Late last year the Pope released a book called “Let Us Dream”; but for Trads, this pontificate is turning into a nightmare.
On 3 October the Pope released his encyclical Fratelli tutti. The longest of the Pope’s three encyclicals to date, it weighs in at 43,000 words and, it was soon noted in Trad circles, Jesus was mentioned twice, the Holy Spirit twice and God the Father – zero.
So what was the encyclical about? It appears to be about perfecting humanity and the world, through cooperation above the level of nation-states, social justice and environmentalism.
Trads muttered darkly about a ‘globalist Pope’, and double-checked that the document wasn’t an infallible statement from the Pontiff (it isn’t, because it wasn’t about doctrine, apparently).
Then in December the Pope released a paper in which he repeatedly pledged the Church to “build back better”. Didn’t Jesus himself tell his Church to “grant unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”?
Trads asked why was the Pope using the slogan coined by today’s Caesar — President Joe Biden? Pope Francis appeared to be directly referencing President Biden, respectfully using the term in quote marks.
The timing was wicked, in the bitter aftermath of an acrimonious presidential campaign between Trump, billed in Trad circles as a warrior for Western Christian civilisation, and Biden, a decades-long defender of legal abortion and therefore a ‘fake Catholic’.
Trads had hoped for a miracle in the weeks after the election that might expose widespread election fraud across key swing states. Here was their Pope rubbing their faces in defeat.
Many Trads also looked with great suspicion on the Vatican’s 2018 secret deal with the Communist rulers of China, which was extended in October; a shadowy undertaking thrown into sharp relief when Cardinal Zen of Hong Kong – a pro-democracy supporter — travelled to Rome to seek a meeting with the Pope.
The Pope refused Cardinal Zen. But Pope Francis did, later in December, find time to meet a visiting delegation of NBA players to discuss “social justice and economic inequality”, aligned with many of the players’ Black Lives Matter activism in 2020.
Next came the strange, science-fiction-inspired figures selected for the highly anticipated nativity at St Peter’s Square last year.
Tourists and faithful alike turned away in fright and confusion.
Trad Catholics noticed and asked: where was the faith of the true, good and beautiful?
On 30 January the Pope was reported as saying that Catholics who disregarded Vatican II —Trads) — were placing themselves outside the Church, going so far as citing those earlier malcontents who left the Church following the first Vatican Council in the late 19th century, in comments reportedly made to the Italian Bishops Conference.
So far, Trad Catholics appear not to be taking up the Pope’s invitation to leave.
If the Pope is trolling Traditional Catholics, why?
Trads such as Taylor Marshall speculate the Pope is trying to get them to lose heart, get frustrated and push back and eventually to leave the Church altogether.
Dr Marshall, a convert and former Episcopalian priest, speaks several times a week to his more than 320,000 subscribers on YouTube. He’s called for calm amid what Trads see as the rising provocations.
That said, Trads are highly provocative too, often. Their champion in the Catholic hierarchy is Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, a former senior Vatican diplomat, who has apparently gone into hiding, following several years of searing criticism of the Pope. He called for the Pontiff’s resignation in 2018 and has questioned his status, given the former Pope, Benedict XVI, is still alive.
Trads just don’t have the platform, or the supreme place in the hierarchy, that the Pope has.
In a comical twist, and perhaps a sign that God is now taking notice, we saw the Pope apparently reprimanded while delivering a homily from his balcony overlooking St Peter’s Square.
In remarks in Italian on 14 February the Pope claimed that Jesus, who the Church has long taught was both a sinless man and divine Son of God, was “contaminated himself with sin” – a scandalous teaching on its face, not just for Trad Catholics but many Christians besides.
Hilariously, as the words fell from his lips to the faithful below, the wind in the square whipped up the burgundy coloured Vatican banner hanging from the balustrade and engulfed the pope, audibly hitting the microphone and making him disappear for a moment (see it at the 6.30 minute mark here)
After months of relentless trolling of Trad Catholics, it appears God draws the line at trolling Jesus.
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