Is Francis becoming the new prisoner of the Vatican?

Pope Francis in St Peter's Square (AP)

You can say what you want about Pope Francis, and many do. We have grown used to soundbites lifted from off-the-cuff remarks, second hand accounts of midnight phone calls, and semi-reliable digests of interviews with nonagenarian atheists all making the news, followed by a maelstrom of interpretation and counter-interpretation before an eventual “clarification” comes out of the Vatican press office amounting to little more than “We don’t think any of you have it quite right”.

While it is normal for the writings of popes to be turned over, discussed and examined for clues as to what they really meant, it isn’t normal for this to happen while they are still alive and on Twitter. The paradox of Francis is that, for a Pope who speaks his mind more freely than any other, none of us actually know what he is thinking about a whole range of subjects, from the divorced and remarried to curial reform.

It is widely rumoured in Rome that he was shocked to discover, some months after the fact, the ways in which his “who am I to judge” comment had been put to use. And, while he was clear about the right of public servants to conscientiously object, we still do not know the extent to which he knew with whom he was meeting when he shook hands with Kim Davis during his recent trip to the United States.

It has been similarly interesting to see the different reactions to the family synod’s final document. Different bishops who attended and help draft the document have arrived at radically different interpretations of what it really means. So much so that the whole Church is waiting with baited breath for the Pope to say something definitive, one way or the other.

The business of interpreting Francis has become a full-time job for some commentators, and it is hard to see who, apart from them, benefits from the continued confusion. It is becoming increasingly clear that Francis himself, and his definite, if indistinct, goals, are certainly victims, as are the rest of us trying to make sense of it all.

Excepting some outlying voices, it isn’t credibly held that the Holy Father is aiming for confusion. Indeed, his interventions, when they come, seem to have an almost impatient tone at the inability of the rest of us to get with the programme, whatever it might be. So, if the Pope isn’t trying to leave himself open to constant contradictory interpretations, what is going on? The most obvious answer seems to be that the he is simply unaware of the turmoil carrying on outside the Vatican walls.

When Francis was first elected, two and a half years ago, he pointedly refused to move into the Apostolic Palace but remained in the Domus Sanctae Marthae. Much was made of this, at the time, as a public eschewing of the trappings of the papal throne – Francis preferred a hostel to a palace. Yet, while the public rooms of the Apostolic Palace are impressive to say the least, few who saw them ever described Benedict’s private apartments as anything better than threadbare, almost to the point of being shabby. The real motivation for preferring the Domus to the Palace was, it was reported, that Francis refused to be the prisoner of secretaries. The papal apartments have only one door in, and to enter one literally has to go through a gamut of guards and gatekeepers. In the Domus, it was hoped, Francis could be a more free-range Pope, bumping into people and retaining some spontaneous contact with the outside world. Yet, despite this dramatic statement of intent, Francis seems, in many ways, to be more remote than either of the two previous popes; he seems unable to avoid confusion over whatever he says, or to hear clearly the questions he’s being so earnestly asked to address. But why?

Earlier this year, in an interview with an Argentine newspaper, it came out that the Pope had not watched television for more than 20 years, did not use the internet, and read only one newspaper. When we really think about what this means in terms of the Holy Father’s exposure to and appreciation of what is going on in the wider Church and world, it seems that he has, perhaps unwittingly, become even more of a creature of his advisors then they ever could have achieved through keeping him locked in the papal apartments. It certainly makes sense of Francis’s seeming reticence to weigh in on increasingly heated debates about what he meant when he said X – he isn’t necessarily aware there is a debate.

There is a real danger that Francis is becoming the new prisoner of the Vatican, and it’s a jail of bad advice and lack of information. The results of his being totally reliant on what his advisors tell him are a real roadblock to his own financial reforms of the Vatican and beginning to seriously undermine the credibility of his appointments. This can be seen, for example, in the otherwise inexplicable decision to invite a man as compromised as Cardinal Danneels to the synod (on the family of all things!) despite the scandal surrounding his reported attempts to silence victims of sexual abuse.

Pope Francis has been clear on one thing: he is determined to reform the Church, in its structure and its outlook. No one doubts his conviction. But, until he can get out from under his handlers and gain an unfiltered view of the Church and the world, he will be unable to fully grasp the problems, let alone articulate his solutions.