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Pope Leo X, a Renaissance-era pope, is famous for quipping to his brother, "Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it." Modern Churchmen point to the self-indulgence implicit in that remark as an example of gross clericalism, a topic Pope Francis has often addressed. But has the Church changed all that much from those days of clericalism? Is it any better if a modern pope gives a cushy Vatican job to a corrupt brother bishop rather than a brother?
In the Bishop Zanchetta scandal, which continues to unfold, Pope Francis appears as clericalist and wedded to cronyism as any of his decadent predecessors. In 2017, he gave a job to Zanchetta in the Vatican office overseeing its real estate holdings despite an amazingly checkered record of allegations involving the abuse of seminarians and the misuse of Church funds.
Recall that a month or so ago, Pope Francis had vowed that the Church would "never" conceal predators again. Who was working down the hall from him at that very moment? Zanchetta, a veritable protégé, whose ecclesiastical career Pope Francis had carefully cultivated.
According to press accounts, Pope Francis served a spiritual counselor and confessor to him, got him a top-ranking job at the Argentinian bishops' conference, then made him a bishop in 2013, a position from which he resigned in the wake of grave accusations of misconduct.
The Vatican has denied any knowledge of those allegations, a denial exploded by a recent Associated Press report quoting Zanchetta's former vicar general:
The Vatican received information in 2015 and 2017 that an Argentine bishop close to Pope Francis had taken naked selfies, exhibited "obscene" behavior and had been accused of misconduct with seminarians, his former vicar general told The Associated Press, undermining Vatican claims that allegations of sexual abuse were only made a few months ago.
The AP report makes it clear that, at the very least, Pope Francis discussed some of these allegations with Zanchetta long before the Vatican's denials and may have even sent him to a fellow Jesuit for a kind of rehab before giving him a soft landing in Rome:
The pope summoned Bishop Zanchetta again in July 2017. Returning home, Bishop Zanchetta announced his resignation in a July 29 statement saying he needed immediate treatment for a health problem.
Bishop Zanchetta spent time in Corrientes before leaving for Spain, where he is believed to have met with one of Francis' spiritual guides, the Rev. German Arana, a Jesuit to whom Francis had sent another problematic bishop, the Chilean Juan Barros.
Bishop Zanchetta largely disappeared from public view until the Vatican, in an official announcement Dec. 19, 2017, said Francis had named him to the new position of "assessor" in APSA, a key administrative department which manages the Holy See's real estate and financial holdings.
The Zanchetta scandal throws more light on this troubled pontificate, a hopeless admixture of cronyism, permissiveness and clericalist double-talk. Supposedly elected on a mandate of eliminating a culture of corruption at the Vatican, Pope Francis has only deepened it. The scandals of this pontificate make the ones under Pope Benedict XVI look minor by comparison.
Pope Francis has surrounded himself with Churchmen cut from the same mold as McCarrick, and it is more and more obvious that the basis for his patronage is at once personal and philosophical: He has long been on friendly terms with them, and he simply doesn't consider their misconduct that big a deal.
The Vatican's denials of any knowledge of Zanchetta's misconduct imply that such knowledge would have disqualified him from the position. Why? Knowledge of allegations of misconduct has never stopped Pope Francis from appointing one of his friends before. His signature phrase — "Who am I to judge?" — was made in the context of defending his promotion of his friend Monsignor Battista Ricca to the highest ecclesiastical position at the Vatican bank.
The Pope knew all about the allegations of misconduct regarding Ricca. Vatican correspondent Sandro Magister had established through his reporting that Ricca's scandals included an affair with a member of the Swiss Guard, a beating he received at a gay bar and an incident involving the discovery by firemen of Ricca trapped in an elevator with a young male prostitute. Pope Francis blew off this information and appointed Ricca anyways.
Pope Francis is famous for saying that the Church is too "preoccupied" with issues of sexual morality and that sins of the flesh are less serious than sins of the spirit. Never mind that the abuse scandal combines sins of the flesh with sins of the spirit. Far from obsessed with sexual discipline, the Church for decades has been indifferent to it, which led her into this nightmare.
A pontificate that claims to prioritize rooting out "greed" over lust from society has been promoting prelates guilty of both. If anything, sins of the spirit have preceded their sins of the flesh and then led to more sins of the spirit — lying, sacrilege and the routine misuse of spiritual goods.
While decrying clericalism, Pope Francis has presided over a Church saturated with it. The abuse of Church authority for personal ends has become commonplace, and it now assumes a far more destructive cast than the clericalism of the Renaissance period, insofar as it corrupts the Church's teaching. The "nephews" of Pope Leo X didn't dare teach heresy; the same can't be said for the nephews of McCarrick, who have enjoyed a return to power under Pope Francis.
They not only sin but twist the Church's teaching into an endorsement of sin, thereby corrupting the faithful at the deepest possible level. Were it not for that poisonous clericalism, Zanchetta would have disappeared into an ignominious retirement. Instead, he found refuge at the center of power.