Pope Francis and the Online Trolls Are Making Everyone Nervous

Pope Francis's approach to the papacy is so symbolically different from what the Vatican is used to that it's making some people nervous. 

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Pope Francis's approach to the papacy is so symbolically different from what The Vatican is used to that it's making some people nervous. And a lot of that paranoia seems to be coming from inside the house, particularly among Vatican power players who are worried the pope just might shake them out of a job. The pope's new cardinal appointments did little to help calm those nerves. In other words, they might actually have something to worry about.

Francis's first round of appointments to the College of Cardinals might not be the most sensational thing he has done over the past year, but it is arguably the most consequential. Here's why: the majority of the new Cardinals are from the Global South, which generally refers to countries outside of North America and Europe. That region, while a significant portion of the Church's membership, is underrepresented in Church leadership. The appointments he makes now will shape the makeup of the college for years, even decades, to come.

The appointments include clergy from poorer countries like the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, the Philippines, Nicaragua and Haiti, but none from the U.S., a country that's already disproportionately represented. By contrast, as the National Catholic Reporter explained, the selection of Bishop Chibly Langlois represents Haiti's first Cardinal ever. There were a couple big upsets — shoe-ins who didn't get a promotion — and a notable lack of appointments for clergy with theological, rather than pastoral, expertise. There are only four new cardinals from the Roman Curia, the bureaucratic machine that runs the Vatican. Sixteen of the 19 new Cardinals are under the age of 80, meaning that they'll more likely be eligible to select the next pope when the time comes. At any given time, no more than 120 Cardinals may participate in a papal election.

How'd those appointments, along with Francis's wider reform of the Curia, go over in the Vatican? According to a New York Times piece citing several anonymous interviewees from within the Vatican, mixed at best. Formerly influential Vatican officials are "out of the loop," the Times writes, adding, "Several people say they fear Francis is going department by department looking for heads to roll." Apparently, there are even paranoia-fueled rumors of Pope Francis relying on Jesuit spies to pick his next targets for reform or demotion. One unnamed Senior Vatican Official described the mood as "awkward:"

“Many are saying, what are we doing this for?” He said some officials had stopped showing up for meetings. “It’s like frustrated teenagers closing the door and putting their headphones on.”

But Francis's focus on the Curia isn't the only issue unnerving some in the Vatican right now. Although Francis has made exactly zero changes to Catholic dogma since his election, his lamb-wearing, inequality-smashing attitude has apparently made some believe he might. A lot of people (especially non-Catholics who aren't following that closely) seem to believe he already has. That's probably why the Vatican News Service issued a partially-capslock Facebook warning on Tuesday about false rumors spread by "unidentified trolls" on the internet: "IF THE STATEMENTS ATTRIBUTED TO THE POPE BY ANY MEDIA AGENCY DO NOT APPEAR IN THE OFFICIAL MEDIA SOURCES OF THE VATICAN," the Vatican warned, "IT MEANS THAT THE INFORMATION THEY REPORT IS NOT TRUE."

Those rumors, the National Catholic Register notes, stem from a fake report that the pope held a "Third Vatican Council" and declared the Church no longer believes in an actual hell, that the story of Adam and Eve isn't a literal truth, but instead a "fable," and that "All religions are true." The fake story also quotes Francis as saying "Our church is big enough for heterosexuals and homosexuals, for the pro-life and the pro-choice!" All of those statements — with the exception of the last part — would represent huge changes to Catholic doctrine. Despite the fears of some conservative adherents and politicians, the pope has not changed dogma. It's not hard to see why the idea persists, however: some (including, briefly, Time magazine) have misinterpreted the pope's emphasis on global inequality over culture wars as exactly that.

For those stragglers who still hope — or worry — that the pope is looking to go ahead and alter the church's official position on anything soon, take a gander at Francis's passionate condemnation of abortion from earlier this week. The business of running the church may change, but the ideas it stands for aren't going anywhere.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.