TP O'Mahony: Pope Francis remains a contradictory leader

Pope Francis celebrated his 84th birthday recently. While some very good things have happened on his watch, we should register some failings, writes TP O’Mahony
TP O'Mahony: Pope Francis remains a contradictory leader

Pope Francis celebrated his 84th birthday this week. File image: Vincenzo Pinto/AP

When Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope in March 2013, an astute observer in Rome remembered the title of a 1949 book by theologian Paul Tillich - Shaking the Foundations - and predicted that this would be the effect of the pontificate of the Pope called Francis.

The foundations had been well and truly shaken once before during the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), but during the long pontificate of John Paul II and that of his successor Benedict XVI concerted efforts had been made to roll back the reforms of that Council.

From the outset, Pope Francis - the first Jesuit and the first south American to be elected as Bishop of Rome - made it clear that he was committed to the restoration and implementation of the vision of the Church shaped by Vatican II.

So how has he fared? He celebrated his 84th birthday this week and while some very good things have happened on his watch, it is also only fair to register some significant failings. 

One of his early biographers, writing a year after his election, described him as “the great reformer” and predicted that Francis would be “a radical Pope”. That prediction would need to be readjusted now.

In keeping with the spirit of Vatican II, he has promoted the concept of synodality, opening the way for a more collegial Church. And by appointing an advisory group of nine Cardinals - C9 as they came to be known - he set a good example. 

He has also in his writings stressed the importance of “mercy”, urging a Church that is less condemnatory and less judgemental. His famous reply to a question about homosexuality - “Who am I to judge?” - testified to this, though it horrified his critics of which today he has many, both inside and outside the Church.

His two greatest failings have been in relation to the scandal of clerical sex abuse, where action not words on the part of Rome are called for, and his seeming inability to comprehend the desire of women to participate more fully in the governance of the Church.

The plague of clerical sex abuse was always more extensive and pervasive than the Vatican was prepared to publicly acknowledge. Francis must bear a good deal of responsibility for this. Describing it as “a grave scandal” is one thing, but it is his inaction that has proved so disappointing, and that has angered many, not least the many victims of this rampant abuse.

In his three encyclicals, the most recent of which, Fratelli Tutti (“Brothers all”), was published in October, he has been very eloquent in his support for a “greener world”, warning that we are custodians of the Earth and have a duty to care for it. 

He has also come to be seen as a scourge of globalised capitalism, which has annoyed his detractors, especially those in the USA, and left him open to claims that he is too influenced by Marxism, charges he rejects. He insists that his critique of capitalism is based on Catholic social teaching.

Those who have looked to him for reform, have been disappointed by his tendency to support initiatives in regard to the Church’s teaching on homosexuality (as in a documentary entitled Francesco, shown at the Rome film festival in late October), and in regard to admission of suitably qualified married men to the priesthood, only then to fail to follow through with formal measures.

Pope Francis remains now, as much as he did back in 2013, an enigma, in many ways the Pope of contradictions. File image: Vincenzo Pinto/AP
Pope Francis remains now, as much as he did back in 2013, an enigma, in many ways the Pope of contradictions. File image: Vincenzo Pinto/AP

This has led even some of his most fervent admirers to admit that they find his behaviour very puzzling at times, citing the fact that, after nearly eight years as Bishop of Rome, it is not at all clear what he actually thinks or wants. 

For instance, he has expressed his dislike of ecclesiastical titles redolent of a monarchical papacy - titles like “Your Eminence”, “Your Grace”, “My Lord” - and even “Your Holiness”. Yet they remain in use, and he has not moved at all to abolish them.

More seriously, having declared early on that he wanted a Church that “would be poor and for the poor”, he has continued the practice of foreign trips so beloved of John Paul II. In the latter case they embellished his narcissism - a quality he possessed in equal measure to Donald Trump. But it was thought that Francis would adopt another way of exercising his ministry, that he might take a road less travelled.

Alas, this has not happened. He has continued with these trips, even though they achieve very little, are dreadfully expensive, and can even - as in the case of his visits to Chile and Myanmar - undermine his moral authority.

His two-day visit to Ireland in August 2018 turned out to be something of a damp squib, but a squib that left the Irish Church and the State with an estimated bill of €32 million. And for what? Yes, it did provide the then Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, with an opportunity to call for a new covenant between Church and State. But that didn’t require the presence of the Pope.

Of course Francis cannot be blamed for the fact that his visit was overshadowed by the controversy sparked by the release of a letter from Cardinal Carlo Maria Vigano, a former papal nuncio in Washington DC, calling on Francis to resign over the scandal of the former Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. 

He had been elevated to that post by John Paul II in 2000, and both he and Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI downplayed or dismissed reports that McCarrick had slept with seminarians. Francis eventually removed McCarrick from the priesthood and the Collage of Cardinals - but that whole sordid episode is now the subject of a 400-page report in the Vatican

But will blame be apportioned? Few expect that to happen.

Back in August 2011, just prior to a visit to Madrid by Pope Benedict XVI, more than 100 priests from that city’s poorest parishes joined the clamour of protest over the cost of the papal visit, which had been estimated at €60 million. An umbrella group - the Priests’ Forum - pointedly objected to the multinationals with which the Spanish Church had had to ally itself to cover the cost of the ‘showmanship” of the event.

Benedict, to his credit, may not have indulged in “showmanship” to the extent so beloved of his Polish predecessor, but Francis, from the very first days of his papacy, presented himself as a “people’s Pope”, a man who took steps very early on to shed the trappings of a monarchical Papacy. This was signalled by his refusal to reside in the medieval splendour of the papal apartments, settling instead for an apartment in a Vatican guesthouse. 

With this kind of beginning, many thought he would discontinue the practice of expensive, wasteful and very often pointless foreign travels. Something more and different was expected from Francis.

After the 2019 Synod on the Amazon, Francis published a post-synodal apostolic exhortation (“Beloved Amazonia”) which was an elegant reflection on the future of our planet, and a criticism of the exploitation of its poorest peoples, but disappointing in its view of the role of women. This has long been one of Francis’s blind spots, and not even his appointment of six women to oversee the Vatican finances last August changes this assessment. 

The work of these women will be blocked and frustrated by the male-dominated Roman Curia, and without papal support they will achieve precious little. 

Past experience suggests they will be left to fend for themselves.

Quick to condemn clericalism and misogyny elsewhere, he is not entirely free of these characteristics himself. He can talk in lofty terms about the importance of women in the Church, yet when it comes to their role in the Church he is decidedly old-fashioned, and he is steadfast in his dismissal of women’s ordination - not least because it would make them more “clerical”, and there is already in his view a surfeit of clericalism in the Church.

“It would be easy to walk away if the Catholic Church were entirely misogynist,” wrote Catherine Pepinster, former editor of the English Catholic weekly The Tablet, after the Pope’s post-synodal publication. “But its messages are mixed and confusing.”  And that has become the hallmark of the pontificate of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now in its eight year. 

He remains now, as much as he did back in 2013, an enigma, in many ways the Pope of contradictions.

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