I have done several postings over the past two years on the Franciscans of the Immaculate, one of the new communities that has sprung up in the Church in the post-conciliar years. When living in Rome, I would often see the friars and sometimes the sisters of this community in their bluish grey habits, especially near the little church of the Annunziatina at the foot of the Borgo Santo Spirito just as you cross the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II on the way to Saint Peter’s. The Friars of the Immaculate were established by Father Stefano Manelli and Father Gabriele Pelletteri, Conventual Franciscans, and in 1998 were separated from the Conventuals into their own independent congregation. In July 2013, just four months after his election, Pope Francis stepped in and replaced Father Manelli, the superior general, with an Apostolic Commissioner, Father Fidenzio Volpi. Father Volpi is not a member of the Franciscans of the Immaculate—the whole idea of an Apostolic Commissioner is to appoint an outsider to the group to correct the problems that are beyond the ability of an internal administrator.
This is not the first time that the Holy See has removed a religious superior of general rank. When the Jesuit General, Father Pedro Arrupe—whom John Paul II deeply distrusted for the direction in which Father Arrupe was leading the Jesuits—suffered a debilitating stroke in 1981, the Pope appointed Father Paolo Dezza to head the Order in place of the Vicar General, the American Father Vincent O’Keefe, who would have followed Father Arrupe’s line of action. Father Dezza governed the Society for two years until a General Congregation was called and elected Father Peter Hans Kolvenbach to succeed Father Arrupe as General. A key difference, of course, is that Father Dezza, while appointed over the Society by the Pope, was himself a member of the Society of Jesus. Father Volpi, while not a Franciscan of the Immaculate, is, as a Capuchin, a member of the Franciscan family and from a branch of that family that has a long and established Franciscan heritage.
When Father Manelli realized he was about to be removed from office he apparently moved some portion of the community’s financial assets—both property and liquid assets—from the community’s control to the control of members of his own family to prevent Father Volpi having access to them. Father Volpi reported this in a confidential memo to the members of the community as was both his right and his obligation. Someone leaked the memo, however, and the Manelli family sued Father Volpi for defamation of character. The moving of community assets to outside sources is, after all, embezzlement and so the memo could be read to accuse Father Manelli and his family of embezzlement.
In Italian law, before a lawsuit can go to court, there must be recourse to an arbiter who will try to settle the matter without a formal judicial process. Father Volpi explained to the arbiter that he had merely reported the transfer of assets, made no accusations against the family (though anyone can see that 1 +1 does = 2), and agreed to clarify the matter on the Congregation’s website by publishing a joint statement with the Manelli family explaining the facts. All well and good.
No, not all was well and good. The Manelli family, through a family friend who remained anonymous, published a press release that Father Volpi “had admitted his slander and lies” against them in court, was found guilty, and had been sentenced to pay a fine of €20,000. Father Volpi has since come out and denied the rumor that he admitted guilt and was convicted and fined, and has, in turn, sued the Manelli family for defamation.
OK, OK, so we have a tempest in a Roman teapot. Why should this be seen as revealing a fault line for possible schism? The barque of Peter is navigating far more tempestuous seas than the struggle for control of the assets of a small community of friars and nuns. We have phase II of the Synod on the family and the Francis faction is fighting for some drastic changes in the discipline of who can who cannot receive the Eucharist. Indeed there is a conflict brewing over the indissolubility of marriage and the integrity—or lack thereof—of same-sex unions. Meanwhile, there is a shift in the sort of men Rome is naming as bishops and not all are confident in the “orthodoxy” of the Francis men. The Dogs of War have been called off the American Nuns who are busy again riding around on buses agitating for the forgotten and overlooked in our society. Francis himself says that it time for us to get over our “obsession” with the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage and that we need to look at a broader spectrum of todays’ issues: like climate change and immigration. Who cares about the Franciscans of the Immaculate. They are supposed to be poor anyway. Why do they need any assets?
The plight of Father Manelli and his Congregation have galvanized the right-wing not because of the particulars of this case, but because of what Father Manelli stands for. What brought on the removal of Father Manelli and the appointment of an Apostolic Commissioner is that even before Francis was elected, Friars from the Congregation had appealed to Pope Benedict against Father Manelli’s leadership. Father Manelli had imposed the usus antiquior (the “old Mass”) on the Congregation as its normal liturgy and while the Friars of the Immaculate tend to the conservative, this was too much for some of them who wished to continue using the Novus Ordo (the Vatican II Rite). But it was not only the liturgy. Father Manelli was turning the clock back to a pre-conciliar era across the board. The initial formation of the friars and their theological education were also being reorganized to bypass the Second Vatican Council. The Congregation’s customs and constitutions too were being pushed in a direction more and more divergent from the rest of the Church. This proved too much for many of the Friars who feared that they were drifting into the Lefebvre schism. They saw Father Manelli’s program was not a matter of being conservative or traditionalist, it was becoming a repudiation of the Council in everything but word. The visitation of the community ordered initially by Pope Benedict led to his successor appointing an outside commissioner to put the congregation back on track with the Church. So what you have here in Father Manelli and his faction is a clear symbol of “Here I stand (in opposition to Vatican II); I can do no other. God help me.” And in Father Volpi you have a surrogate for Pope Francis—by whose authority Father Volpi has taken on Father Manelli and his faction—and everything Francis stands for in his Vatican II march to the sea. The Vatican II Church and the Resist Vatican II Church which has grown within the belly of the Vatican II Church have, in the saga of the Franciscans of the Immaculate, a clear field of battle.
One of the groups which have led the charge of the Resist Vatican II Church is the Lepanto Institute and its founder, Michael Hichborn, formerly of Judy Brown’s American Life League. Michael Lofton, a convert to Catholicism affiliated with the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter (The Anglican Usage Ordinariate in the United States), has written a scathing attack on the Francis pontificate published on the Lepanto Institute Webpage. Lofton considers the Church under Francis to be in its “Babylonian Captivity” and he begins his attack with Father Volpi’s governance of the Franciscans of the Immaculate and then moved on to attack Archbishop Bruno Forte’s work as Special Secretary of the Synod on the Family, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldiserri as Secretary General of the Synod and Father Thomas Rosica as press-liaison for the Synod. Lofton accused Father Rosica and his betters of having advanced the “Kasperian” agenda that would permit a change in the Church’s discipline regarding admitting divorced and remarried persons to the Sacraments. Lofton’s outspoken attack on Francis’ leadership puts the Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter in an awkward position for though he has no official standing in the Ordinariate such opinions make this group of ex-Anglicans appear less than fully committed to their new Catholic family,
Lofton is only one of several writers for the Lepanto Institute that is pulling at the leash that holds the Resist Vatican II Church to the keys of Peter. Recently Italian Catholic writer and historian Roberto de Mattei, an outspoken critic of Pope Francis, published an article on the website of his Lepanto foundation asserting that developments since the election of Francis, including his famous “Who am I to judge?” remarks about gays, risk “a road that leads to schism and heresy.” De Mattei should know better. Pope’s don’t lead to schism. A Pope can go into heresy, but he can’t go into schism. The schism is with those who reject his authority. De Mattei’s anti-Francis rhetoric has grown so strong that even very conservative Catholic sources such as Radio Maria have begun to distance themselves. But not the bloggers—the Katholic Krazies on the blogosphere like Rorate Caeli love de Mattei and quote him frequently ever widening the divide that is growing in the Church in the controversies over Vatican II. The Krazies have picked up the Volpi incident and had a field day with it. Some—and here is credit to Rorate Caeli—have published Volpi’s defense and let the readers decide but many others have only published the Manelli family’s version. All in all it leaves a very sour taste and certainly undermines the credibility of those who are trying to advance the Resist Vatican II Church agenda.