ROME—For traditionalists in the conservative wings of the Catholic church who believe worship is an “essential service” even during pandemic lockdowns, the limits put on Mass have proven fertile ground for conspiracy theories—especially those targeting Pope Francis.
Throughout the crisis, the pontiff has continued to urge restraint and caution—essentially, in the view of his critics, deferring to scientists instead of God—when moving forward with gatherings during the pandemic.
After a strongly worded letter from Italy’s powerful group of Roman Catholic bishops demanded the government grant the right to gather, Catholics can now return to church to celebrate Mass from May 18. This after the government originally banned religious gatherings for anything but funerals until June 1 and continues to ban large gatherings of any other kind for the foreseeable future.
The pontiff pointedly did not sign on to that letter. He most certainly does not want new Catholic COVID clusters that would be all too easy to trace, because religious services will be the only gatherings of any size allowed anywhere in Italy for the next few weeks, at least.
Several clerics and even a number of conservative Catholic journalists have signed a separate petition against the pope, claiming that he is not doing enough to counter the COVID “hype” and that the subsequent lockdown amounts to a “pretext” by unnamed actors hell-bent on depriving the faithful of attending Mass to “impose a new world order” sans religion.
The petition goes on to say that imposing contact-tracing apps, requiring vaccinations, and “criminalizing” contact between family members amounts to “a disturbing prelude to the realization of a world government beyond all control.”
The petition is the brainchild of Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, a conservative promoted by the likes of Steve Bannon and American Cardinal Raymond Burke. Vigano famously set up Pope Francis’ ill-conceived handshake with same-sex marriage opponent Kim Davis on Francis’ first visit to the U.S. in 2015. Vigano also wrote a lengthy testimonial in July 2018 in which he claimed that Francis knew all about the sins of another American cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, and covered up for him. He has also disappeared from public view, but in conservative publications he consistently offers criticism against the pontiff from the shadows.
The petition—the contents of which have been floating around the internet since the lockdown began—is also being pushed by conservative Catholic laypersons like academic and religious personality Taylor Marshall, who champions Francis foes including Vigano and Burke. Marshall was interviewed by one of President Trump’s preferred networks, OANN, on Friday about why Catholics should not vote for pro-life candidate Joe Biden and instead get behind serial adulterer and twice-divorced Trump “for the sake of the unborn.”
Taylor has also tweeted that Catholics should insist on taking Communion by mouth and not by hand, which conservatives believe contaminates the wafer which represents Jesus Christ’s body. This despite the COVID pandemic. Anyone (read Pope Francis) who insists otherwise isn’t really Catholic, they claim.
Taylor, who has a big following among conservative Catholics, has a popular YouTube show with topics like, “Pope Francis, Are you a heretic? Do you worship idols?” and “Where have all the Catholic men gone?” in which he insists that if a woman on a first date balks if she is told a man should be the head of the household, the good Catholic man should ask for the bill and walk out.
Another reported signatory of the petition is Cardinal Robert Sarah, head of the Vatican’s liturgy office, who got into hot water over a book he said he co-authored with retired Pope Benedict XVI that clearly meant to influence Francis’ decision on allowing married priests in the depths of the Amazon, which Francis ultimately decided against. Though Sarah has since said he didn’t sign the petition, several involved in its creation insist that he did.
Vigano gave a statement to Catholic website Crux on Friday, insisting that Sarah had endorsed the petition but that he would act “profoundly charitably” and forgive him “for the grave crime he committed against the truth and myself” in now denying his involvement.
Even with Catholic Masses allowed in just a week’s time—70 days since they were banned in Italy and, one could argue, far sooner than is safe—the conspiracies swirling around about how the disease that has killed more than 280,000 people worldwide is somehow a plot to keep conservatives out of the church are likely to just be getting started.
Starting next Monday, priests wearing masks and gloves will be allowed to give Communion to parishioners who will receive it with their hands then lower their masks to consume it.
Thermoscanners will be recommended at the entrance of basilicas and ceremonies like Baptisms will prove complicated as holy water fonts will have to remain dry. Weddings are supposed to be held outside or in front of a small number of people, to be determined by parish priests who have to ensure safe social distancing based on the size of the churches.
Confessions will be allowed, but not in the tiny wooden booths used by most Catholic churches. Instead they must be held with both the priest and confessor wearing masks at a safe social distance, which suggests they may have to shout their sins across the room.