It’s inside the Vatican, and among a number of fellow bishops, that Francis faces his biggest critics, says Christopher Lamb12 May 2016 | by Christopher Lamb | Comments: 0 The stalling of the release of an audit into the financial affairs of the Holy See is another sign of challenges to Pope Francis’ efforts to reorganise the Vatican
He is feted by world leaders, adored by the crowds and praised by journalists. Even though his popularity took a fall this week, according to YouGov’s 2016 list of world leaders, Pope Francis remains the most popular pope of modern times.
But it’s inside the Vatican, and among a number of fellow bishops, that Francis faces his biggest critics, with many of them deeply opposed to his project of reform and renewal. For a long time this dissent largely took the form of muttering from a small group of hardliners. Now, more than three years into his papacy, his opponents are more numerous and increasingly happy to break cover.
Broadly speaking, the opposition can be broken down into three categories. First are the mid-ranking Vatican officials, suspicious of a Pope they see as impulsive and who has attacked them for “diseases” such as gossip and operating cliques. Many in this group are happy to bide their time until a new man in white occupies the throne of St Peter and matters return to normal. But it means that many of them are disaffected and try to block a Pope who wants to overhaul his central administration.
Second are the Rome-based cardinals who don’t even try to hide their ideological opposition to Francis. They write books and give interviews, saying what the Pope can and can’t do when it comes to Church teaching. This came to a head during last October’s synod of bishops when 13 cardinals signed a letter, later leaked, challenging the Pope’s approach and warning him against making any shifts in Catholic doctrine. More recently, Cardinal Raymond Burke, the most prominent Rome-based critic, suggested that Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, published following the synod, could safely be ignored as it was a personal reflection and did not carry “magisterial” authority.
Finally, an increasing numbers of bishops in dioceses across the world – mainly in North America – do not agree with the direction of this pontificate, which has shifted the conversation from defending doctrine to witnessing to the world’s marginalised. Last week, Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo took issue with the Pope’s strategy for welcoming migrants. In the United States, the hierarchy has resisted adopting a more Francis-style social justice agenda with Archbishop Leonard Blair of Hartford warning against “regime change.”
It was always likely there would be opposition to Francis, from the moment he announced that he would be the first to name himself after the radical saint from Assisi. But the antipathy to Francis, including from doctrinal hardliners who object to his approach to difficult marital issues, has surprised curial officials who were not anticipating such open criticism of the Pope.
According to Fr Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit in Rome who is close to the Pope, the opposition shows the change that Francis is trying to bring about is real. It is part of a discernment which does not take place in his office – which consists of just one small table – but in the papal chapel where Francis goes to pray each morning at 4.30am.
“This is a Pope of open processes and the fact there is opposition is not a bad thing, as long as it is done in a respectful way,” he told me, adding that he did not believe Francis was isolated.
Where things seem to have been getting especially fraught, however, is in the latest battle over the suspension of an audit by global accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, designed to provide a complete picture of the Holy See’s money.
So, why have the reforms now stalled, challenging a pope who had been elected with a mandate to reform the Curia? Those in Britain who have watched the comedy Yes Minister, might have an inkling: change takes far longer than outsiders expect. As one Church source involved in the reforms confessed to me last week: “We underestimated the power and strength of the curial bureaucracy.”
The Roman Curia, said my source, is similar to the British civil service – independent and ongoing. Popes and cardinals may come and go, but those who run the Vatican stay – and they don’t take kindly to being told what to do by outsiders like the tough-talking Australian Cardinal George Pell, who runs the new economy secretariat and wants reform of Vatican finances.
This battle is being played out between Pell’s department and the Secretariat of State, the most powerful Vatican department that traditionally acts as an “interlocutor” for everything that goes on in the Holy See. It was a senior official in the secretariat who signed the letter suspending the PwC audit and led to a highly unusual public row between Pell and the department. This is strange, given that Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State, is an ally of the Pope and favours greater transparency. Sources in the Vatican, however, say it is not the cardinal but elements lower down in his department that are behind the opposition to the audit.
Why did Francis allow the audit to be suspended? Some argue that it is strategic; that having a “struggle” is the Jesuit way.
Another, more worrying explanation for Catholics who were hoping for reform, is that the Pope is becoming somewhat institutionalised. Now more than three years into his papacy, he has realised that he needs the Secretariat of State and other parts of the Vatican bureaucracy to do his job. He is no longer the outsider.
For their part Vatican civil servants will be encouraging the Pope to see things from their point of view. They believe that the Holy See is a unique organisation: a sovereign entity which should not be treated like a multi-national corporation. It now seems that an audit will not be completed for the latest financial year and that PwC’s work may shift to help support Vatican departments in getting their accounts in order.
There is also the matter of Cardinal Parolin. He is relatively new in a department where a number of officials still have allegiances to a long-serving former Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who is the Dean of the College of Cardinals. At 88, he remains an active centre of power in Rome.
“When I went to see him it was like a revolving door: as I walked in an ambassador walked out, and as I walked out a papal nuncio walked in,” one diplomat told me recently.
Sodano is not the only octogenarian in the Vatican who looms over Francis: Benedict XVI, while frail, still regularly receives visitors, many of them conservatives looking for a shoulder to cry on and none of them consoled by the recent landmark papal document on the family. While traditionalists initially dismissed the text as nothing new, they now increasingly view the document as a ticking time bomb due to Francis’ “abdication” of magisterial power where issues like communion for divorced and remarried Catholics are concerned. “Chaos was raised to a principle by the stroke of a pen,” said the highly regarded German conservative philosopher Robert Spaemann, at the end of last month. “In case the Pope is not ready to make corrections, it remains reserved for a later Pope to officially make things right.”
Meanwhile in the US the chorus of unhappy bishops is growing louder; many of them were appointed under previous pontificates when doctrinal clarity was the acid test for promotion. Last month, Fr Gerald Murray, a New York priest known to be close to his boss Cardinal Timothy Dolan, upped the ante by warning that many in the hierarchy will be complaining about the Pope’s family synod text. “When you do something in public that contradicts what your predecessor did, there has to be an accounting for it and a responsibility to upholding the Gospel and I think that’s what many bishops, cardinals and priests will call for,” he told EWTN, the conservative Catholic broadcaster.
But Francis refuses to be trapped by this game. While the “doctors of the law” are asking him to make a move in their game of chess, he has decided to play billiards with someone else. The Pope believes it is fine to leave things open on certain doctrinal matters – what matters is showing that the Church is merciful.
After all, he seems to have a fairly low opinion of the performance of many of his bishops. Over the last nine months, he has made speeches in Washington, Florence, Mexico and in the Vatican where he has criticised hierarchies for their failure to offer a credible Gospel witness. Making the Church credible is at the heart of Francis’ mission. This is no easy task. Among some in the Vatican there is a mentality that the media and the world “out there” simply don’t understand them.
But the Jesuit Pope has decided to take his message to lay Catholics, and to the world. His radical message of mercy and peace has dramatically shifted perceptions, not only among many Catholic laypeople, but also in the wider, non-Catholic, secular world. Francis is urging a “pastoral conversion” where bishops serve the poor, where rules take second place to being close to people and their needs.
It is a bottom-up theology which has its roots in Latin America and now has a Pope bringing it onto the world stage – but it was never going to be easy to have this implemented in Rome, and the critics are sharpening their claws.
YouGov interpreted Francis’ drop in popularity to people believing that he is becoming institutionalised. The signs, though, are that he is not, so far. From the small hours of the morning and late into the evening the Pope, who refuses to take a holiday, works away in the Vatican’s Santa Marta guest house, trying to set a new course for the Church; seeking to bring about a rebirth of the Gospel. He is, effectively, pushing his vision like a missionary Jesuit in a foreign field.