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Radical pope — with a ruthless streak

10 March 2023

The past ten years of Francis’s papacy have been characterised by paradoxes, says Paul Vallely


Pope Francis arrives for his weekly General Audience in St Peter’s Square, Rome, in October

Pope Francis arrives for his weekly General Audience in St Peter’s Square, Rome, in October

FROM the outset, it was clear that Pope Francis was going to be different. He was the first Jesuit pope and the first Latin American pope. He was the first pope ever to dare to take the name of the great saint of the poor, Francis of Assisi. Ten years on (the anniversary of his election is 13 March), he has turned out to be a pope cast from a very different mould from any of his modern predecessors’.

Some of the changes were swiftly evident. This was a pope who carried his own bags, eschewed the papal palace to live in a hostel, rejected the papal limousine and boarded a bus, described himself as a sinner, and asked everyone he met to pray for him. Simplicity and humility were his studied hallmarks.

On his first international trip, he told the young people at World Youth Day in Brazil to hacer lío — Argentine slang for “wreak havoc”. On the plane home, asked about homosexual clergy, he responded with what became the most famous soundbite of his papacy: “Who am I to judge?” To those conservatives who pointed out that it was the job of the pope to condemn, he later replied: “It’s also a sin to lack charity with one another.”

This was pope as pastor, when his immediate predecessors had been a theologian and, before that, a philosopher. Francis called his flock the “holy faithful People of God”. He described the Church as a field hospital after battle: “It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.” He insisted that mercy was the core of the Church’s teaching. Compassion, warmth, and empathy came first in his pastoral approach.

To the horror of traditionalists in Europe and, particularly, the United States, he had no time for the theology of the pelvis. Instead, he put first the concerns of those whom he had served as “Bishop of the Slums” in Buenos Aires: the lowly, the economically marginalised, the socially excluded. He demanded “a poor Church for the poor”. Refugees, migrants, and the homeless came first. He condemned our international “economy of exclusion” which favours profit over people, despoils the environment, and sets up structures that alienate the poor.

His fellow cardinals had elected him in the hope of reform — both of the Vatican’s finances and of the spiritual stultification that had gripped so many in the hierarchy of the Church.

He swiftly created a committee of nine cardinals — outsiders to the Roman Curia — to assist him. It took them nine years, but, last year, a new Constitution for the Reform of the Roman Curia, Praedicate Evangelium, was introduced, emphasising the importance of synodality and mission, decentralisation, and allowing lay men and women into the higher reaches of church governance (News, 25 March 2022).

The Constitution, which replaces the 1988 system of Pope John Paul II, makes clear that the Curia must “not place itself between the Pope and the bishops”, but should instead facilitate “an exchange of gifts” between the Vatican and national Churches. The Curia’s haughty authoritarian centralism, one Roman insider has noted, has been replaced by a climate of service and freedom.

The reform of the Vatican finances was quicker. Most notable of the nine outsiders was Cardinal George Pell, a combative Australian, who, for five years, made great inroads into clearing up the self-serving corruption of curial finances, until he was forced to stand down after being accused of historic sex abuse on what turned out to be questionable grounds (News, 9 April 2020).

The financial reform continues. Cardinal Giovanni Becciu, one of the key curial figures from the time of Pope Benedict XVI, is currently on trial — the first cardinal ever to be tried by a Vatican court of lay judges — on charges of embezzlement, money-laundering, fraud, extortion, and abuse of office.

ALL this has brought intense opposition from conservatives, as has the Pope’s tendency to shoot from the lip with utterances that do not change dogma but that prioritise pastoral embrace over philosophical finger-wagging. Stances such as his inclusion of gay Catholics — or turning a blind eye to rules forbidding those married after divorce to receive communion — have brought frequent complaints from traditionalists that Pope Francis sows “confusion”.

Confusion has become a euphemism for anything that the Pope says which conservatives do not like — and which they perceive as a threat to the Church’s hierarchical structure and traditional way of operating. Opposition is strongest in the English-speaking world, most particularly in the US, where traditionalists are well-funded, vocal, organised, and well-represented in the US Conference of Bishops. Blinkered by the US culture wars, many traditionalists see Pope Francis as an opponent.

But critical comment has not been confined to the US. The late Pope Benedict’s secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, within days of his master’s death, published a book entitled, without apparent irony, Nothing but the Truth, which suggested that the late Pope was highly critical of his successor. And the late Cardinal Pell published a posthumous criticism of Francis, accusing him of “neo-Marxist jargon”, and declaring the Pope’s synodal process to be a “toxic nightmare”. Other conservatives, such Archbishop Charles Chaput — whom Francis passed over for the cardinal’s hat that he expected — accuse him of the opposite: of being too “top-down” rather than too collaborative or synodical.

Pope Francis has been, by and large, sanguine about such criticism, seeing it as the price of opening up dialogue within the Church after the restrictive papacies of John Paul and Benedict, during which debate was regarded as dissent. “Criticism is a human right,” Francis shrugged when it was revealed that Pell was the author of a previous anonymous attack.

THE synodal process, which is the focus of so much conservative criticism, is at the heart of Francis’s long-term vision as Pope.

Above all, he wants to change the way in which the Roman Catholic Church makes its decisions. He turned on its head previous papal disdain for the laity by insisting that a questionnaire should be sent out before the first meeting of the synod during his pontificate. It covered controversial issues such as premarital sex, contraception, divorce, marriage after divorce, same-sex relationships, in vitro fertilisation, and adoption by gay couples. Francis called it “taking the pulse” of the Church before the two Synods of Bishops which followed.

The Pope sees this not as an innovation, but as a logical extension of the work of the Second Vatican Council. He has recently recalled that, when Vatican II ended in 1965, Pope Paul VI “wanted to show that the Church in the West had almost lost the synodal dimension while the Eastern Catholic Churches retain it”. But, under the last two popes, the Synod of Bishops created by Pope Paul largely became a rubber-stamping body.

Over the 60 years since Vatican II, Francis said recently, the true nature of synodality has begun to enter into people’s consciousness. “Bit by bit, things began to be clarified,” he said. “Historians say it takes a century to implement a council,” which meant that the Church still had another 40 years to go. In 2021, the Pope raised the eyebrows of his critics by appointing a woman, Sister Nathalie Becquart, as synod under-secretary, making her the first woman to have the right to vote in the Synod of Bishops.

One of the areas in which Pope Francis has visibly learned and changed over the past decade is on the place of women in the Church.

He arrived in Rome with all the ambivalence towards women characteristic of an elderly man brought up with the machismo of Latin American culture. He venerated the memory of his Grandma Rosa, who had brought him up in the simple piety of the plain people. But he had encountered enough feminists in his time in Argentina to understand that there was an “urgent” need for “a more widespread and incisive female presence” in the Church.

When he first declared in 2014 that he wanted more women on the Vatican Theology Commission, he rather spoiled the effect by describing female theologians as “the strawberry on the cake”. But he has since appointed lay and religious women to high-ranking positions in curial offices and Vatican commissions.

ANOTHER area in which he has demonstrably changed is on the question of sexual abuse. A year after taking office, he was persuaded, somewhat reluctantly, to create the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

But the initiative proved so toothless that the two members who were themselves survivors of abuse by priests both resigned in frustration. And, when Francis appointed a bishop in Chile who was said to have been involved in covering up clerical abuse, he angrily waved away protesters, declaring: “There is not a single proof against him. This is calumny! Is that clear?” The bishop was later forced to resign. Although Francis has on several occasions met survivors of clerical abuse, his handling of the subject has been, at best, uncertain.

So has his foreign policy. On China, he has pursued a fruitless policy of appeasement. And, over the war in Ukraine, he has been too equivocal, apparently in the unlikely hope that he will one day be able to play honest broker in peace talks between Ukraine and Russia (Comment, 22 December).

FRANCIS is a pope of paradoxes. He is a cleric who took the Jesuit vow never to strive for high office, but who now occupies the highest position in the universal Church. He is a radical rather than a liberal, an enabler with an authoritarian streak, a self-confident man in constant need of forgiveness, and a cleric who combines religious humility and political wiles. He is a pontiff whose homely imprecision is his antidote to infallibility.

He is a monarch who wants to abolish the papal monarchy. He is a decentraliser who wants everything to pass across his desk. He advocates collegiality and yet acts on his own authority.

In ten years, he has issued more motu proprio documents (through which a pope acts by himself rather than through the Curia) than Pope John Paul II did in almost three decades. Those who have refused to co-operate with the Franciscan project — such as the cardinals in charge of the Vatican finances or the head of the once all-powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller — have found themselves ruthlessly removed from office. He has recently tightened his crackdown on the cult of the old Latin mass. Lately, he appears to be an old man in a hurry.

He is not finished yet. Of the 132 cardinals who will elect the next pope, 83 have been appointed by Francis from clerics whom he discerned to have on them “the smell of the sheep” — pastors who are close to their people rather than church bureaucrats, a good number of whom came from countries that have never had a cardinal before.

Many think that they are likely to elect someone of a similar tendency to Francis. Even if they swivel back to someone more conservative, the present Pope will remain what Johann Baptist Metz calls a “dangerous memory”; for, in these past ten years, Francis has demonstrated a different way of being a pope.

Paul Vallely’s
Pope Francis: Untying the knots, is published by Bloomsbury.

His usual column returns next week.

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