There’s a lot of talk about the Pope’s ‘hundred days’. That makes me nervous: Napoleon’s, after all, did not end well for him

Pope Francis (Photo: CNS)

The first “hundred days” of modern leaders is a historical parallel derived from the fabled hundred days of Napoleon, and is, one would have thought (given that in Napoleon’s case they were actually his last hundred days, and ended with his defeat at Waterloo) a somewhat dicey metaphor to describe a period during which hopeful policies are laid down, or the tone set, for what is intended to be a long and successful period of rule.

What they are all thinking of, of course, is the excitement of Napoleon’s escape from Elba and his jubilant reassumption of his Imperial throne in Paris: his triumphant route through the Alps is known to this day as the “route Napoleon” by the French, who still have a dreamy hero-worship for this first totalitarian dictator of modern times (the famous picture of Hitler paying homage at Napoleon’s tomb tells you everything you need to know about the Corsican monster). The point here is that the famous hundred days ended exceptionally badly for him.

So the employment of this expression by supporters of FD Roosevelt to describe the period marked by a torrent of interventionist legislation with which he began his own period of government was distinctly risky, but worked out well enough politically, for FDR at least: and it was of Roosevelt that American journalists were no doubt thinking when they employed it prematurely as a designation for Kennedy’s first hundred days, which began with his inspiring inaugural address, but ended with the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs débâcle and the early stages of America’s increasingly disastrous embroilment in South East Asia; the end of Camelot was a little way ahead, but not that far.

So this first “hundred days” of Pope Francis that everyone is going on about is beginning to make me feel distinctly nervous. The main thing to be said about these three months is that there’s been a lot of rather good pastoral atmospherics, but almost no doctrinal or political substance, in the sense of a positioning of the Church vis-à-vis the surrounding culture and unfolding events. And maybe sometimes that hasn’t always been such a good thing.

The recent case, for instance, of the assumption by the Catholic Church, and in particular by the admirable Cardinal Archbishop Vingt-Trois of Paris, of the leadership of an impressive national coalition of intellectuals and political leaders of different (and by no means all Catholic) views, against the looming threat of the legalisation of homosexual marriage (now tragically achieved, as it has been here, though without any semblance in England of such a feisty archiepiscopal struggle against it), is a notable example of Francis’s papal leadership policy. He was expected to say something in support of the action of the Church in France, but even when on June 15 he received at the Vatican the members of parliament of the “Group of friendship France-Holy See”, he said nothing at all about it, even in passing. The previous November, Pope Benedict had made his views on the position of the Catholic Church clear, urging about 40 bishops from France on their ad limina visit to “take care to pay attention to proposed civil legislation that could undermine the protection of marriage between a man and a woman”. But Francis has made a point of not intervening to support national Churches in their local political struggles. Is this a good policy? I simply ask the question, genuinely unsure of the answer.

“It is to be expected,” comments Sandro Magister, “that in the future Francis will continue to adhere to this reserve of his on questions that concern the political sphere. A reserve that will also gag the Secretariat of State. It is the Pope’s conviction that such statements are the preserve of the bishops of each nation. He has told those of Italy in unmistakable words: “The dialogue with political institutions is your affair.”

“There is much that is risky,” continues Magister, “in this delegation, given the pessimistic judgment that Bergoglio has on the average quality of the bishops of the world. Who are in turn tempted to delegate the decisions to lay men also of dubious reliability, renouncing the role of leadership that belongs to those who are marked with the episcopal character. But it is a risk that Francis is not afraid to face, convinced as he is – he has said so – that if the bishop is unsure, ‘the flock itself has the scent in finding the way’.”

Well, we have had a good taste in this country of the flock itself having to develop “the scent in finding the way”: but if your bishop is just no good, what use is that? The fact is that when there is no episcopal leadership, the flock looks to the Pope for leadership. What use is it to be told, if you live today in the Archdiocese of Westminster, that the Pope will not be intervening on your behalf? Will this non-interventionist policy be extended to the CDF? If so, how are such archiepiscopally sponsored scandals as the Soho Masses to be addressed by the Church?

From what I have said, I can see that it might be thought that I am accusing Pope Francis of abandoning his flock out in the world’s dioceses: God forbid I should suggest anything of the sort. But my fear is, and I may be wrong, that there’s at least the appearance that a cognitive dissonance may be developing between the doctrinal and the pastoral functions of the Church.

Pastorally everything looks fine. Have a look at this, by John L Allen, often an acute observer. “Around the world,” he writes, “there are anecdotal accounts of spikes in Mass attendance and demand for Confession, which many attribute to a ‘Francis effect’. Polls, such as a mid-April survey in the United States by the Pew Forum, show overwhelming approval ratings, and the global media remains fascinated well beyond the customary honeymoon period. All indications are that the trip to Rio will shape up as the biggest blowout Catholic party of the early 21st century. In other words, Vaticanology and the vox populi are at odds. [My emphasis]

“Perhaps the key to resolving the conflict boils down to this: Francis seems determined to function as a pastor, at least as much as a primate or politician, so the right model may not be the one used to assess chief executives. Rather, it’s how Catholics tend to think about a parish priest. Their basic question usually isn’t what his policy positions are, but whether he inspires. Perhaps the root lesson of Francis’s first 100 days is that when it comes to spiritual leadership, sometimes style really is substance.”

My difficulty with that is that spiritual leadership, like any other kind of leadership, sometimes has to include firm guidance not only as to where to go and what to avoid, but also and above all — because all else comes from it, what to believe. The continuing secular popularity of Pope Francis, thinks Sandro Magister, has a good reason, which “explains better than any other the benevolence of worldwide secular public opinion toward Francis… — his silence in the political camp, especially on the minefield that sees the greatest opposition between the Catholic Church and the dominant culture. Abortion, euthanasia, homosexual marriage are terms that the preaching of Francis has so far deliberately avoided pronouncing.”

But that can’t continue indefinitely, can it? And I’m sure it won’t. Pope Francis is taking his time to ease himself into his papal functions, and I’m sure he’s wise to do so. It’s early days. I’m personally of a more impatient temperament, I want to see things happening. Of course, it’s pleasant to see our Pope so universally popular. But in the end, the honeymoon with the secular world will have to come to an end. It’s all about what Catholicism actually is, about its real vocation in the world. We are all of us (and above all the pope, whoever he is), in Pope John Paul II’s indispensable words, “signs of contradiction” — for if we are not, we are nothing.