Henry Sire: Pope Francis’s papacy – where is the reformer behind the media idol?

Vatican_CityIn my Phoenix from the Ashes, published in July 2015, I included an interim estimate of Pope Francis’s papacy, in the form of two pages which were in fact written in late 2014. At that time it was too early to make a meaningful assessment of the Pope’s administrative record, but as we approach the third anniversary of his election the elements for a valid judgment are becoming clearer. What was already safe enough a year ago was the estimate that had been made of Francis on the basis of his record as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. In my book, I quoted the public letter by Lucrecia Rego de Planas, who had known Archbishop Bergoglio well for many years, stating her conclusion that the only explanation she could find of his many contradictory acts and utterances was that he was guided by a constant desire to please everyone and a pursuit of facile popularity. Every month that passes with Francis on the papal throne makes that assessment stronger.

So far, Pope Francis has maintained the capacity to attract adulation from the media, which hail him as a man equipped to bring about a miraculous rejuvenation of the Church – this despite the fact that his time at the head of the Church in Argentina was marked by a decline at least as serious as in the rest of Latin America. It is time however to talk about practical achievements and examine the reforms that this radical pope has set himself.

We can begin with the reform of the Church’s finances, where, under the direction of Cardinal Pell, changes are undoubtedly taking place in Rome. The Vatican finances have been an Augean Stables ever since Paul VI let Archbishop Marcinkus loose on them in the 1970s, and the problem continued unchecked throughout the reign of John Paul II. Benedict XVI abdicated partly because of the visible crisis to which matters had come. Pope Francis deserves the credit for beginning to do something about the problem, but one can add that this has been a duty forced upon him, not a case of a fresh-sighted reformer stepping in to address a need that nobody else had seen.

The financial scandal was one aspect of a more general crisis in the Curia which provided the immediate reason for Pope Benedict’s abdication. The problem he faced was divided into two parts: on the one hand there was the phenomenon of a bureaucracy which had for many years entrenched its own programme, to the extent that it was visibly resisting carrying out the will of the Pope; and on the other hand there was the evidence of grave moral corruption which emerged in the last weeks of Pope Benedict’s pontificate and left him feeling that he lacked the strength to deal with it.

In the three years of Francis’s reign so far, there has certainly been a shaking up of the Curia; the question is whether it is the shaking up that is needed. One can begin by remarking that the work of reforming the Curia is one that, ideally, would call for an insider to carry out effectively, and that is a qualification that Pope Francis inevitably does not enjoy. Given that disadvantage, however, one could point to methods that anyone could be expected to use or to eschew. A reformer who knew what he was doing would begin by quietly picking out the bad apples in the papal administration and throwing them a long way from him; in that way, the men of integrity and worth would be given the confidence that merit was secure. That, unfortunately, has not been Pope Francis’s way. He has approached the task in his characteristic style of indiscriminate accusation, leaving his officials in a state of chronic unease, not knowing when they may be held up to public denunciation and ridicule. It seems another example of the general tone of Pope Francis’ pontificate – sound and fury signifying nothing, or at least nothing that a sincere Catholic can take comfort in.

Particular examples show that the criteria for reform in the Curia have not been those of good administration. Perhaps the prime case is the removal of Cardinal Raymond Burke in 2014 from his post as Prefect of the Segnatura. This change was certainly not justified by any considerations of lack of competence or of personal integrity; it was ideological in its motivation. In fact, one can say that Cardinal Burke’s influence in Rome has probably grown since his demotion, as he appears more and more a rallying point for those disturbed at the way things are going. There are several other dismissals in the past three years that can be placed in a similar category.

Admirers of Pope Francis make much of the breath of fresh air that he is bringing into the Church, and point to his programme of the New Evangelisation, for whose promotion a whole new Pontifical Council has been created. Those familiar with the Vatican are likely to be unconvinced when they know that the prelate appointed to a key role in this Council is an unlovely personality who was responsible for a poisonous atmosphere in the previous curial department he was in charge of.

But the reasons for unease go deeper. In October 2015 we saw the spectacle of a senior member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Mgr Charamsa, openly declaring that he was an active homosexual. He produced a tirade in favour of homosexuality, echoing the usual modern twaddle on the subject, which showed that he comprehensively rejected the Catholic moral teaching of which he had been supposed, in his recent office, to be the guardian. Let us note that this official had not been one of the victims of Pope Francis’s clearances: it took an open act of defiance on his part to prompt his dismissal from a duty he had so plainly betrayed.

As part of his disclosures, Mgr Charamsa asserted that there were numerous homosexuals working in the Curia, men who are secretly as much the enemies of Catholic moral teaching as he was. This fact was indeed already known, and it was one of the revelations that had proved too much for Pope Benedict and provoked his abdication in 2013. Yet these are not the bad apples that Pope Francis has been concerning himself to remove. It is often forgotten that his notorious “Who am I to judge?” comment in July 2013 was in response to a journalist’s question about the existence of a homosexual lobby in the Vatican and the appointment of an obvious homosexual to a senior post. On the other hand, in December 2014 Pope Francis treated his Curia to a protracted scolding, listing seventeen ways in which they were corrupt. Reluctance to judge, or even a concern to avoid indiscriminate condemnation, was not the impression his officials gained on that occasion. Apparently it is only those who are morally unfit for their posts who can claim the benefits of the Pope’s suspension of judgment.

After three years, we are beginning to get a clearer idea of the criterion by which the reform of the Curia is being carried out, and it seems to bear an ominous resemblance to that shown in the Synod on the Family in 2014 and 2015. What we saw there, as was shown by many outrageous appointments, was a shameless packing to advance the moral relativists and suppress those faithful to Christian teaching. It makes one wonder where the curial reform is going, and what the next Pope will find when he comes to the throne. Will it be a purified Curia, capable of being an effective instrument of the Pope’s wishes, or will he be faced in effect with the same body that defeated Pope Benedict in 2013, with all its characteristics accentuated and concentrated?

At any rate, those who have their ears open in Rome know that Pope Francis’s methods have not gained him great respect in the Curia and the College of Cardinals. No doubt these are the figures whom Francis likes to dismiss as the “pharisees” (after all, who but he is to judge?). But there are signs that the revulsion goes further. There was the case recently of a priest who reported his dismay at the number of Catholics who came to him to confess guiltily that they hate Pope Francis. The confessional is not the voting-booth, but if it were the Pope might find indications that he has been playing to the wrong gallery for the past three years. One could point to the recent figures for papal audiences, compared with those in Pope Benedict’s time, which suggest that Francis’s popularity among actual Catholics (as distinct from the secular media) has recently been plummeting. This was not a feature of the reign of “God’s Rottweiler”, whom the journalists lay in wait to attack on the slightest opportunity. The news hasn’t yet come through at The New York Times and Le Monde, but it looks as if, in the real world, the People’s Pope is being left without his people.

Copyright 2016 Henry Sire

“Vatican_City” by Oleander (2015) via Morguefile

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