IT IS a measure of the impact that Pope Francis has made in his first four years that so much nonsense is spoken about him. The Times, The Spectator, and BBC 2’s Newsnight all marked the fourth anniversary of his election by carrying a bizarre report that cardinals once loyal to the Pope are so afraid that he is driving Roman Catholicism to the brink of schism that they have hatched a plot to persuade him to resign so that they can replace him with his number two, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
This arrant piece of nonsense is based on a piece of wishful thinking written in the right-wing populist Italian newspaper Libero by Antonio Saatchi, a Vatican watcher who specialises in wild conspiracy. Relying on him for intelligence about the Pope is a bit like relying for your information about the European Union on a member of UKIP writing in the Daily Express.
Yet the piece is merely the most florid excrescence of a campaign by conservative Catholic ideologues to discredit Pope Francis. They are a tiny minority, but they make a great deal of internet noise — most especially from the United States, where, despite the campaign, almost 90 per cent of Roman Catholics polled this week gave the current Pope a big thumbs-up.
Paradoxically, the noise his opponents make is one of this Pope’s great achievements. As he enters his fifth year, the lineaments of his papacy are now clear. He is shifting Rome’s focus away from doctrine, rules, and bureaucracy back to Jesus and the gospel with an insistence that mercy is the keystone of Christ’s message. So, people are more important than laws, and reality is more important than ideas.
As the first Jesuit pope, he uses the Ignatian discipline of discernment to ask how God is active in history today. As the first pope from the global South, he wants to reorientate the Eurocentric Vatican to serve the wider Church rather than be its master. And as a pastor whose episcopal mission was formed in the slums, he wants a Church of the poor for the poor — prioritising refugees and migrants, the economically disregarded, and the spiritually excluded. They all need accompanying, not admonishing.
All this causes disturbance for the comfortable, the conservatives, and those he condemns as “rigid”. He has reformed Vatican finances. He has made the College of Cardinals more representative, refusing to hand out red hats to church careerists, and elevating priests from the South who share his pastoral vision. He has introduced more collegial governance, consulting the laity, and holding not one but two synods of bishops, before opening the door to communion for Catholics who have married after divorce.
One of his great revolutions is to allow disagreement inside a Church in which previous popes had silenced and suppressed those they branded as dissenters. He instead encourages debate. Public accusations of heresy, and other calumnies by conservatives, are the price he has had to pay. It is a tribute to this unfazed pontiff that he is so willing to pay it.
Paul Vallely is author of Pope Francis: The struggle for the soul of Catholicism (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2015).