Pope Francis is criticised as both too open to change and not being open enough, writes Dan Buckley
There is one thing that campaigners and abuse survivors in Ireland, the US, UK, and elsewhere agree on: While the words and mea culpas of Pope Francis are welcome, it is now time for him to take action and root out not only the abusers but those who covered up for them.
According to Maeve Lewis, chief executive of One in Four, that has to include mandatory disclosure of cases of child abuse, the immediate dismissal of clergymen who shield offenders, and giving civil authorities access to the Vatican’s own vast archives on allegations of abuse so that criminal proceedings can be launched.
At a session last Saturday, during the World Meeting of Families, on safeguarding children, campaigner Marie Collins echoed those demands and called on the Pope to face down powerful forces within the Curia — the Vatican’s governing body — who are resisting change.
Having served on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, set up as an advisory group by Pope Francis, she quit last year in frustration at the failure of the Vatican to act on its recommendations.
“The Pope must know who they are. It’s these people who must be dismissed, and dismissed immediately,” she said.
This absolutist view of papal power is one shared by many lay people, clerics, and even theologians.
Among those who attended Saturday’s meeting was American Tom Doyle, a canon lawyer, former priest, and advocate for victims who sees the Pope as the world’s last absolute monarch with direct authority that reaches down to individual members of the Church.
That may be an overstated or even a mistaken view of what the catechism of the Catholic Church calls the Pope’s “full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church”. It is true that within the Vatican there is no separation of Church and state and that the executive, legislative, and judicial roles are all vested in the Pope, but tradition makes clear that Popes must govern the Church with the bishops — a principle known as collegiality.
The Pope’s power is not — and never has been — either full, supreme, or universal even when it comes to his prime function, that of appointing bishops.
In any event, such perceived papal power is a historical novelty. It dates no further back than the fall of the Papal States to the Kingdom of Italy in 1870 when bishops from around the world, fearful of the rise of anticlerical governments, declared the Pope infallible on matters of faith and morals and recognised the primacy of his jurisdiction over the Church worldwide.
Up until that time, the Pope could only appoint bishops from within the Papal States. All other bishops were selected by local clergy and the Vatican was simply informed of the decision.
Even today, the Pope’s power to choose bishops isn’t absolute in practice. In February, Pope Francis backed down in a long struggle over a Nigerian diocese with priests who had refused to accept a bishop from another ethnic group. In April, the prospect of him agreeing to let China’s Communist government control his selection of the country’s Catholic bishops stirred huge controversy, with critics calling the plan a betrayal and a capitulation.
The Vatican hopes that an agreement on the appointment of bishops could open the way for an eventual resumption of diplomatic relations with the Holy See nearly 70 years after they were cut during the Communist takeover of China.
Catholics in China are split between those in underground communities that recognise the Pope and those belonging to a state-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association where bishops are appointed by the government in collaboration with local Church communities.
Francis also faces a challenge to his authority from doctrinal conservatives, a group that used to pride themselves on their unswerving loyalty to the Pope but have now become dissenters. Principal among them is US Cardinal Raymond Burke who has publicly admonished the Pope for his 2016 apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, that envisions a way for some divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion.
He angered traditionalists in April when he appointed three women as consultors to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an institution formerly run by Cardinal Ratzinger before he became Pope Benedict XVI.
It marks the first time women and lay people have been named as active contributors rather than support staff to the institution which has its origins in the notorious Inquisition.
Thus, Pope Francis is between a rock and a hard place — criticised by ultra conservatives for being too open to change and by liberals for not being open enough.
The scandals of clerical abuse and cover-ups, which have festered for decades, have brought that conflict into the open, exposing Francis to the accusation of being a pontifical lightweight.
While Popes through the ages have always been keen to exercise ‘soft’ power by aligning themselves with powerful monarchs, in modern times the success of that attempt to influence has tended to rely on the personality of the holder of the office.
While even his most trenchant opponents would agree that Pope Francis is a kindly, affable man, he has neither the charisma of John Paul II nor the intellect of Benedict.
He may, though, have more diplomatic skills than either of his immediate predecessors to enable him to exercise moral authority on a grand scale. History reveals that, whatever Church doctrine may declare, a Pope’s power is contingent on political realities, both inside and outside the Vatican.
He has already shown a willingness to circumvent the senior ministry of the Catholic Church and appeal directly to the worldwide communion of 1.5bn souls.
He did so with a lengthy apology in the wake of the grand jury report in Pennsylvania, finding that 301 priests in the US state had sexually abused more than 1,000 minors in a cover-up lasting 70 years.
He did so again in Dublin, meeting directly with abuse survivors and making clear his abhorrence of abuse and cover-ups, using surprisingly vernacular language to get the message across.
This direct appeal to the masses has the capacity to either undo his papacy or make him into a 21st-century crusader.