So much to do, so little time
The Tablet09 March 2017 | by Paul Vallely | Comments: 0 It is four years on Monday since the election of a radical Argentinian bishop to the throne of St Peter. How far have his reforms progressed and what more does he hope to achieve?
Pope Francis was being driven through St Peter’s Square when he spotted a group enthusiastically waving the Argentinian flag. Ordering the popemobile to stop, he chatted to his fellow countrymen and took some sips from the traditional cup of maté tea that they offered him. Afterwards, his security officials told him this was not a very good idea. The Pope laughed, saying: “What harm could come from them? They are a group of pilgrims from Argentina, not cardinals from Rome.”
I’ve heard this story from several sources but have not been able to verify it. Still, you can see why it’s so frequently told. It speaks symbolically to the legend of Francis: the pope from a far-off place, warming to the poor folk he calls “the holy faithful people of God”, momentarily able to lower his guard in a place where he is surrounded by political machination. As one of his oldest friends said to him on the phone from Buenos Aires: “Be careful, the Borgias are still there in the Vatican.”
In his recent interview with the Spanish daily El País, Francis was asked: “Your Holiness, after nearly four years in the Vatican, what is left of that street priest that came from Buenos Aires to Rome with the return ticket in his pocket?” Francis replied: “He is still a street priest. Because, as soon as I can go out on the streets to greet people at the general audiences, or when I am travelling … my character has not changed … My street soul is alive, and you can see it.”
Yet it is clear that, as the fourth anniversary of his election to the papacy approaches, away from those streets and in the corridors of Church power, opposition to Francis is reaching unprecedented levels, with some cardinals publicly raising doubts about his teaching and one even threatening the pontiff with a “a formal act of correction”. There are suggestions that the Pope’s response to all this is hardening too.
Certainly over the past six months, Francis has been addressing those he sees as obstacles to reform. He has removed conservatives from key posts in the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, a training ground for many opposed to his pastoral approach to Communion for the divorced and remarried. He instigated a sweeping reshuffle at the Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW) which will neutralise its prefect, Cardinal Robert Sarah, who was – in defiance of the Pope – pressing to reintroduce elements of the Tridentine Mass removed by the Second Vatican Council. He has just sacked three officials in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).
In his annual address to the Curia just before Christmas, he spoke of opposition to his reforms, distinguishing between “open resistance” – which he sees as constructive – and “hidden” and “malicious” resistance, which “sprouts in distorted minds and shows itself when the devil inspires bad intentions, often wrapped in sheep’s clothing”. Ouch.
On New Year’s Eve, he inveighed against Christians who were “narrow-minded”, who succumbed to “sterile nostalgia” or were “prisoners of an all-or-nothing attitude”. At Epiphany, he bemoaned those who resist change in favour of “the usual fare”, calling them “prophets of doom” – a phrase used by John XXIII of those conservatives who resisted the idea of calling the Second Vatican Council. Asked directly what he thought of criticism from hard-line conservatives, he told the Italian bishops’ newspaper Avvenire: “I don’t lose any sleep over it.”
The outlines of Francis’ vision are now pretty unmistakable. Socially and economically, his focus is the poor; pastorally, it is the holy faithful people of God; theologically, it is refocusing the Church on the Gospel and its message that, to quote him as he opened the Holy Door: “We have to put mercy before judgement, and in every case God’s judgement will always be in the light of his mercy.” Ecclesiologically his emphasis is on the collegial and synodical – and on a programme of subsidiarity which, in secular terms, might be called decentralisation.
It is a vision of Catholicism that makes traditionalists uncomfortable. That is clear from the uneasy reactions to each of his major teaching documents. Evangelii Gaudium was the first to signal that “the Church has rules or precepts which may have been quite effective in their time, but no longer have the same usefulness for directing and shaping people’s lives”. Then came Laudato Si’, which was billed as an eco-encyclical but offers a profound critique not only of pollution and climate change but also of the unexamined assumptions of a consumer capitalism rooted in an economy of exclusion – “such an economy kills”, as he bluntly put it. But it has been Amoris Laetitia that has proved the casus belli for the Pope’s conservative opponents.
The Amoris Laetitia wars are nominally about a footnote in this post-synodal exhortation of the family that opens the door for divorced and remarried Catholics to take Holy Communion. But the real issue at stake is whether a pastoral enactment of the Gospel takes precedence over the authority of canon law – whether, in one of the Pope’s favourite phrases “realities are more important than ideas”. The dispute is ideological rather than theological.
The hierarchs of the ancien régime are also deeply unsettled by Francis’ instinct for shifting decisions away from Rome and allowing them to be taken at a lower level, in local churches – abandoning the monarchical model of papacy in favour of the collegial and consultative decision-making process that characterised the early Church, and to which the fathers of the Second Vatican Council wanted the Church to return. He wants the Vatican to become the servant of the Church rather than its master. He desires, in the words of Timothy Radcliffe, “a Church for grown-ups”.
The result is what conservatives call “confusion” – their codeword for anything Francis does or says that they do not like. Thus they lament that bishops in Argentina, Germany and Malta have drawn up guidelines allowing for remarried Catholics to take Communion in certain circumstances, while those in Poland, Philadelphia and Portsmouth have done the opposite. While the Pope does not talk of doctrine on marriage and the Eucharist changing, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, his chosen interpreter of Amoris Laetitia, speaks of teaching undergoing an “organic development”. Or, in the words last month of Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, the president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts and the Vatican’s chief interpreter of canon law: “It is always the same doctrine, but it takes account of the concrete situation.”
By contrast, the Pope’s critics see contradiction. The boldest – four cardinals – have gone so far as to make public their 13-page letter to Francis containing “theological censures” of 11 “heretical” statements in Amoris Laetitia, and eight lesser but still scandalous errors. In an act of disrespect that would have been unthinkable under the previous two pontiffs, they actually demanded Yes-or-No answers.
The Pope has refused to pick up the gauntlet. In part that is because he thinks that the wider Church has already given the answer through a process that encompassed a questionnaire of the laity, two episcopal synods, a year of wider Catholic debate, and a papal apostolic exhortation synthesising the conclusions. The dubia of the four men is an impertinence in the face of the measured consideration of the whole Church.
Instead, Francis wrote to the Argentinian bishops endorsing their guidelines, declaring “there is no other interpretation” possible of Amoris Laetitia. In the area in which the Pope has most direct pastoral influence, the Diocese of Rome, Cardinal Agostino Vallini, the Vicar General of Rome, has published similar advice. And the official Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, has printed the Maltese and the German guidelines in full.
But the Pope has engaged battle in another way. The conflict over the Order of Malta, a small but powerful Catholic organisation that traces its lineage back to the Crusades, has become a proxy war between Francis and the conservatives. Nominally the row is about whether condoms were distributed in one of the order’s foreign aid programmes, though there are also murky financial dealings lurking in the background. But it, too, has become a battleground on which the authority of the Pope is being challenged. Here Francis is brooking no disagreement.
The Patron of the order is the American Cardinal Raymond Burke, who first grabbed international headlines in 2004 by threatening to withhold Communion from the US presidential candidate John Kerry, a pro-choice Catholic. Burke was promoted by Pope Benedict XVI to head the Church’s highest court, but was then removed from the job by Francis in 2014 because of his stubborn resistance to marriage annulment reforms. He was given the ceremonial post at the Order of Malta, whose leaders have a fondness for medieval finery that he shares.
Burke’s supporters claim he was purged as Rome’s top lawyer because of his theological views. In fact, Pope Francis is happy to have conservatives in his top team, as the presence of Cardinal Gerhard Müller at the CDF and Cardinal Sarah at the CDW testify. Disagreement, Francis told the Argentinian newspaper, La Nación, after the extraordinary synod, is helpful: “Resistance is now more evident. But that’s a good sign for me. It’s out in the open and there is no stealthy mumbling when there’s disagreement. I am not worried. It all seems normal to me.”
And he continued: “You could ask me, ‘Are there any individuals who are completely obstinate in their positions?’ Yes, there surely are. But that doesn’t worry me. It’s a question of praying for the Holy Spirit to convert them, if there are such people. The prevailing feeling was a brotherly one.”
One of his supporters decoded that for me in the second edition of my biography of Francis: “Burke is a mischievous man. It was not his vanity that got too much for Pope Francis but his obstructive, aggressive opposition. Francis wants an inclusive Church. Whatever your views, unless you’re a really awkward plotter, like Cardinal Burke, he wants you inside the tent.” Cardinal Müller, a CDF source told me, is a conservative but open-minded, collegial and a team-player rather than a troublemaker: “Müller is part of a loyal opposition; Burke has a touch of disloyalty about him. Jesuits have a very clear idea of where the line is on these matters.”
Exiled from power, Cardinal Burke has become the darling of the embittered vituperative opposition to Pope Francis. He not only signed the dubia but went furthest in suggesting that he might trigger “a formal act of correction of a serious error”, the preliminary to the Church declaring someone a heretic. And he continued giving pugnacious interviews, disloyal private briefings and building a platform generally antipathetic to Francis’ vision of the Church.
In 2014, Burke met Steve Bannon, the founder of the far-right news website Breitbart, notorious for its conspiracy theories and intentionally misleading stories; he and Bannon, now the chief White House adviser to Donald Trump, share a conservative cultural world view and deep hostility to Islam, and are said to remain in email contact.
The Pope’s chance to move against the recalcitrant cardinal came when the grand chancellor of the Order of Malta, Albrecht Boeselager, was fired by its grand master, Matthew Festing, who, it is claimed, was told by Burke that the Pope required the dismissal. The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, then stepped in to insist that the Pope had said the exact opposite and the Vatican launched an inquiry into the order.
When the grand master resisted, the Pope summoned him and demanded his resignation. Festing resigned, Boeselager was reinstated and Archbishop Angelo Becciu was appointed as the Pope’s personal delegate “with all necessary powers” to oversee the “spiritual and moral renewal of the order” in his stead. Cardinal Burke, who was seen by Francis’ allies as behind the whole affair, was sidelined.
The Pope’s opponents responded with unprecedented boldness. Anonymous posters appeared on walls around Rome, showing a grumpy-looking Francis, accusing him of removing priests, decapitating the Knights of Malta and ignoring cardinals. Satirical anti-Amoris Laetitia videos appeared on the internet. A fake front page of L’Osservatore Romano mocking Francis was circulated within the Curia. So much, one conservative grumbled, for Bergoglio’s great transformation in Córdoba from an authoritarian Jesuit Provincial into the collegial and consultative “Bishop of the Slums” of Buenos Aires. The old Bergoglio’s autocratic style, it was claimed, was now becoming visible beneath the simple papal cassock of humility.
Pope Francis sees no such inconsistency. In his El País interview he shrugged off dissent, in terms that recalled the language he used after the extraordinary synod: “There are some who don’t agree, of course, and they have the right, because, if I felt bad because someone disagrees with me, I would have the germ of a dictator in me. They have the right to disagree … provided they talk, that they don’t hide behind others. Nobody has the right to do that.” No prizes for guessing whom the pontiff had in his sights.
Francis seems unfazed by the opposition to him. It is very vocal, particularly on the internet, but it represents what his fellow Jesuit, Fr Antonio Spadaro, called a noisy but small “echo chamber”. Among ordinary Catholics this pope’s popularity seems constantly rising, even in the US, the centre of much of the ideological opposition to him. The latest Pew opinion poll shows that 87 per cent of US Catholics approve of him. Ordinary lay American Catholics seem, on the evidence of my visits, to be much more relaxed about their Pope than do many of their bishops.
Francis says there will always be disagreement: “You are in the boat of Peter. This, historically, both now and in the past, can be unsurprisingly shaken by the waves. And the same sailors called to row in the boat of Peter can row in the opposite direction. It has always happened,” he told the staff of the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica last month.
Still, it is hard to escape the feeling that the Pope is stepping up a gear. Now aged 80, he clearly feels he still has much to do. His reforms of the Vatican finances seem well entrenched, but those of the Curia are yet to really begin, and his development of synodical government is a long-term project. He has now appointed a third of the cardinals who will vote in the next conclave; imminent retirements mean he will be able to appoint 32 more over the next five years if he sticks to the current size limit for the College of Cardinals.
But though he has diversified the geographical base of the next conclave, he will not be in a position, within the next half decade, to appoint a majority of those who will elect his successor. He has made little progress on a topic that perplexes him, the role of women in the Church. And the resignation last week of Marie Collins, the sole remaining survivor on the pontifical sex abuse commission, suggests he is not winning the hidden civil war being waged inside the Curia between the reformers and those who are consistently blocking important remedial action on paedophile priests and episcopal cover-ups.
The pace of change may be about to accelerate. Pope Francis is an old man in a hurry.
Paul Vallely is a writer and consultant on religion, international development and business ethics. His most recent book, Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism, is published by Bloomsbury.