The Dictator Pope is an important yet a frustrating book. Important, because it offers valuable insights into the character of the enigmatic Pope Francis. Frustrating, because the book’s approach virtually ensures that those insights will not be widely shared. The book is clearly intended to correct the wildly inaccurate public image of a “reformer Pope”—an image that has been nourished by sympathetic media coverage. But in order to substantially influence public opinion, the book would need to reach the general public.
Regrettably—for now, at least—the English-language version of The Dictator Pope is available only in an electronic format, as a self-published work. Lacking the support of a major publisher and the publicity campaign that comes with it, and unavailable in bookstores, the book’s readership will be limited to people with a special interest in Vatican affairs—people who, more often than not, already know the story that the book tells.
If the goal is to persuade, there are other problems with the presentation. First, the author writes under a pseudonym (taking the name of Marcantonio Colonna, an Italian admiral who gained fame at the Battle of Lepanto). Skeptical readers will wonder why he is reluctant to identify himself, and whether his reporting is credible.
This is unfortunate, because The Dictator Pope is the product of a great deal of solid reporting. Whoever “Marcantonio Colonna” really is, he clearly knows his way around the Vatican, and has excellent sources inside the Roman Curia. Whenever the author wrote about events with which I was personally familiar, I found his treatment accurate. The only factual errors that I discovered in the book were the result of haste or sloppiness: the sort of mistakes that might have been caught by a good copy editor (which is another argument for a major publisher).
However, when the book told stories that were new to me, I found the evidence thin. Too often the author relies on hearsay evidence, and when he cites other reporters, too often their work is based on hearsay as well. Worse, when he makes his most startling claims, “Colonna” offers no evidence at all. He makes the improbable claim, for example, that then-Cardinal Bergoglio had advance notice about the impending resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, when many of the former Pontiff’s closest advisers were taken by surprise. Later he makes the even more outlandish charge that Pope Francis used the proceeds of the Peter’s Pence collection to subsidize the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton. Very few readers will be ready to accept these claims without some persuasive evidence. By putting them forward as facts, without supporting them, the author encourages readers to wonder about the book’s other claims.
Again, this is unfortunate, because The Dictator Pope contains an enormous amount of solid information. Some will be familiar to readers who have followed Vatican affairs carefully during the last few years, and already know the sad tales about the manipulation of the Synod of Bishops, the destruction of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, the takeover of the Knights of Malta, the intimidation of members of the Vatican staff. Pope Francis has encouraged young Catholics to “make a mess”; the book shows that he has followed his own advice.
And some of the book’s revelations will be new to any but the most attentive followers of inside Vatican news. The author reminds us, for instance, that Cardinal Bergoglio became prominent when he delivered a speech at the Synod meeting of 2001, after New York’s Cardinal Egan, who was scheduled to give the address, hurried home in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The Argentine cardinal’s speech was heartily applauded by the prelates who heard it. What they did not know, Colonna tells us, is that Cardinal Bergoglio merely read a text that had been prepared by a Vatican staff member.
The Dictator Pope also gives readers samples of a highly critical memo by Father Peter Hans Kolvenbach, then the worldwide leader of the Jesuit order, written in 1991 to explain why, in his opinion, Father Jorge Bergoglio should not be made a bishop. The memo is devastating, pointing to character flaws that are confirmed throughout this book.
Indeed the most valuable service provided by the author of The Dictator Pope is the psychological portrait of the Pope: a man who follows in the footsteps of Juan Peron, the demagogic Argentine political leader of young Bergoglio’s formative years. Manipulative, hypersensitive, and often downright vindictive, Pope Francis is certainly not the cheerful populist that his supporters make him out to be. For all the talk about a “reformer pope,” the rhetoric about decentralization, and the promises of reform, the net results of this pontificate to date have been a climate of fear within the Vatican, a tightening of control, and a resurgence of the “old guard” in Rome.
The Dictator Pope concludes with a plea that the College of Cardinals should recognize the damage that has been done and, when the time comes, derail the efforts of the liberal prelates like the “St. Gallen mafia” to elect another Pontiff like Francis. Even before the conclave, the author persuasively argues, ranking prelates should fulfill their duties, resisting the public pressure exerted by an authoritarian Pontiff. It’s a compelling argument. But it would have been more compelling still if the author of this book had set an example, defied the pressure, and written this book under his own name.