Two years ago this month, the Catholic Church got a new pope following the shock resignation of Benedict XVI. No sooner had the white smoke over the Sistine Chapel disappeared than Jorge Mario Bergoglio — who chose the name of Francis — made it clear that his papacy would be very different from that of his predecessor.
There had been a philosopher-pope from Poland and a theologian-pope from Germany; now there would be a pastoral and reforming pope from Argentina, the first ever from South America and the first Jesuit to occupy the chair of Peter.
That was the early promise, but how well has it been realised? Francis’s papacy has certainly been different. A change of style was immediately signalled when the new pope abandoned the ornate, medieval robes and red shoes so loved by Benedict. Then there was his decision to live in the Casa Santa Marta (a guesthouse) rather than the splendour of the Vatican apartments.
Simplicity of lifestyle was the theme, in keeping with the agenda of a pope who said he wanted “a church that was poor and for the poor”. Some reforms followed, with the aim, according to the Pope’s latest biographer, of restoring a more collegial system of governance in the Church.
Austen Ivereigh, author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, cites the decision by the Pope, less than a month after his election, to create a council of eight cardinals — the so-called C8 — to “advise him in the governance of the universal Church and to plan the reform of the Roman curia” (the Church’s central bureaucracy) .
It was clear, says Ivereigh, a former deputy editor of the English Catholic weekly The Tablet, “from the two-day meeting of the whole College of Cardinals in February 2014, that Francis wants them to take a larger role in governance of the universal Church, as in the days before the Reformation, when it acted as something akin to a senate... Francis has been overhauling the centralist, monarchic model of the Vatican and putting in places structures that can only be described as republican.”
This may be overstating things a bit, but there is no doubt that Francis favours collegial expressions of governance in ways that neither Pope John Paul II, during his 27-year pontificate, nor Benedict XVI, during his eight years in office, never embraced nor encouraged. On the contrary, these two popes not only ignored collegiality, they saw it as a threat. Accordingly, the Synod of Bishops was, effectively, emasculated. In his book, Inside the Vatican, Thomas J Reese described the importance of the synod: “With elected delegates from episcopal conferences, the Synod of Bishops is the closest thing to an international representative institution in the Catholic Church. In the absence of an Ecumenical Council, the Synod of Bishops is the institutionalised voice of the College of Bishops.”
To successfully function, however, the synod must have its own voice, and hitherto that was not the case. The problem began with Pope Paul VI, when he established the synod in 1965, just before the end of Vatican II: Its terms of reference were strictly limited.
“Liberals have been disappointed with the synod as a weak instrument for expressing different views in the Church,” says Reese.
It was made even weaker under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, so much so that some bishops complained that participating was a waste of time, as little got done. It was always made clear to bishops in advance that there was a “party line” to be followed. Even if some had the temerity to go beyond this, their views were suppressed or just ignored.
Francis moved quickly to change this. In January 2014, the C8 chairman, Cardinal Rodriguez, said that high on the pPope’s agenda was making the synod a “useful and powerful tool of collegial leadership”. Proof of this came in October 2014, when the Synod on the Family opened in Rome. Delegates were urged by the Pope to speak their minds. He warned the bishops not to say what they thought he wanted to hear: “Say everything that you feel.”
It was the first time since 1967 (when the Synod of Bishops met for its inaugural session) that the bishops had been given such encouragement. It will be interesting to see what the two-part process — the synod in October 2014 will be followed by another synod in October this year — finally produces.
Reform of the Roman curia has proved more problematic. If Pope Francis had doubts before, he certainly can’t have any now that the Borgias are still in the Vatican. Yes, there have been changes. The Pope appointed a new secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, a 60-year-old Italian career diplomat, described by Ivereigh as “the antithesis of his predecessors”. The Australian cardinal, George Pell, was brought in to lead a new secretariat for the economy and, in July 2014 he announced a series of reforms to the scandal-ridden Vatican Bank. These included the shutting down of roughly 3,000 accounts that did not fit the new profile.
Pell, the former archbishop of Sydney, also announced an 11-member media commission, headed by former BBC chairman Lord Patton to streamline the Vatican’s overlapping communications outlets. The need for wider reforms was signalled by the Pope before Christmas in an address to the heads of the Vatican congregations (roughly equivalent to government departments), warning them against putting “careerism” above the interests of the Church. The road to wide-ranging curial reforms, however, is going to prove a rocky one: Like all bureaucracies, the Roman curia has powerful self-preservative instincts.
Francis has also unwittingly played into the hands of his critics within the Vatican. His fondness for impromptu talkfests on aeroplanes with journalists, and his penchant for colloquialisms, are causing not just new worries; they have required the issuing of one apology (for offending large families by saying that there was no need for Catholics to “breed like rabbits”), and a number of clarifications.
The most recent of these came last month when it was revealed that the secretariat of state had sent an explanatory note to the Mexican ambassador to the Holy See, reassuring him that Pope Francis had no desire to “wound the sentiments of the Mexican people”. The note was prompted by media reports that the Pope had warned against the “Mexicanisation” of Argentina’s growing drug trade.
Earlier in February, the Pope was criticised by former president Mary McAleese, among others, for his apparent support of parents smacking their children. All that aside, there is no doubting the popularity of this pope, who is 78, but whether he is the “great reformer” that Ivereigh seems to already believe, remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, opponents of reform (of whom there are many inside the Vatican and beyond) will have been emboldened by the Pope’s surprising statement at the weekend (in an interview with Mexican television to mark the second anniversary of his election) that his papacy is likely to be short, and that he may follow the example of Benedict by resigning, perhaps even after another two or three years. “I have the feeling that my pontificate will be brief: four or five years. I do not know, even two or three.” This may indicate again that he is a man in a hurry, but it also raises doubts about his commitment to further reform. In legal parlance, the jury is still out on Pope Francis.
More analysis and comment here