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Pope Francis’s words are being drowned out by the abuse crisis

Pope Francis prays during his weekly general audience (Getty Images)

His interviews and new documents aren't gaining as much attention as before. What really matters now is his governance of the Church

Pope Francis can’t seem to gain traction in the press this week, several major media events notwithstanding, in which he made several quotable statements. There was no shortage of controversial issues from which to choose, either. It’s just that — with rare pertinent exceptions — we’ve heard it all before.

Despite being hailed as, “Magna Carta of youth and vocational pastoral ministry in the various ecclesial communities,” by the General Secretary of the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the post-synodal apostolic exhortation hasn’t generated much interest one way or the other.

There are some terrific passages in the document, to be sure. A few sentences really hit, like these, which Pope Francis addressed to young people directly:

“You can become what God your Creator knows you are, if only you realise that you are called to something greater. Ask the help of the Holy Spirit and confidently aim for the great goal of holiness.”

They were in Paragraph 107, though, and came on the heels of several lengthy disquisitions about young people and the world in which they live. Those sentences came well into the document, at 73 paragraphs’ remove from an earlier one Pope Francis began by stating: “Youth is more than simply a period of time; it is a state of mind.”

Though you tout them to the moon and back, 65 pages of mostly “meh” are still going to be 65 pages of mostly “meh”. As a writer, Francis’s biggest problem is he needs an editor — one, who will help him figure out what works, and tell him flatly what doesn’t.

Francis’s in-flight presser on the return from Morocco did not garner the attention those things usually do, either. Again, it wasn’t for a lack of quotable — or quibble-able — statements. On the embattled Archbishop of Lyon, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, who was recently convicted of criminal failure to report child sexual abuse and has submitted his resignation to Pope Francis: “[M]orally I cannot accept [the resignation] because juridically, but also in the classic global jurisprudence, there is a presumption of innocence during the time the cause is open.”

Barbarin is appealing the criminal conviction, but has admitted his handling of matters was not up to scratch. Francis could have accepted Barbarin’s resignation — or made an example of him by invoking his signature and made-to-purpose legislation, Come una madre amorevole, to force him out — as soon as he admitted his failure.

Nor did a wide-ranging interview with Jordi Évole on last Sunday’s episode of Salvados, which airs on Spain’s LaSexta television network, though it included several statements that, even six months ago, would have made headlines, chewed up analytical column inches, and set fire to opinion pages for at least a week.

One, in response to a question about the general dissatisfaction with the recent child protection summit at the Vatican, was: “[I]f I had hanged 100 abusive priests in St Peter Square, it’s a concrete fact, I would have occupied space.” Nevertheless, “[M]y interest is not to occupy spaces, but to start healing processes,” Francis continued.

Abuse survivor and victim advocate Marie Collins responded by saying: “This statement by the Pope insults survivors and deliberately misrepresents good, sincere people calling for ‘concrete’ actions.” She’s not wrong.

Francis is frustrated. That much is clear. He does not seem to understand why people are so upset, though. Whether he is deliberately obtuse, or simply incapable of grasping the matter, is a legitimate question.

During the in-flight presser en route to Rome out of Rabat, Francis said he blocked the US Bishops’ reform proposals in November 2018, “because the proposals were too much of an organisation, of methodologies, a bit without meaning to, but [they] had neglected this second spiritual dimension, with the laity, with everyone.”

“There is nothing ‘spiritual’ about a man sexually assaulting a child,” Marie Collins offered on Twitter by way of rejoinder. “Why should there be any ‘spiritual dimension’ to the policy to prevent and punish it?” She went on to say: “This is the core problem with reluctance to put proper procedures in place. This resistance [is] now backed by the Pope himself.”

So, here we are, largely uninterested, it seems, in talking any more about what Francis has to say in any specific regard or with respect to the global crisis of leadership more generally — and that is largely because it seems Francis is uninterested in governing the Church.

“I understand people who have remained dissatisfied,” Francis told La Sexta in the interview that aired on Sunday, “because when there is an error you have to keep quiet, pray, cry, and accompany” — and always be ready to explain why you haven’t taken action worth the name.

To be perfectly honest, it really doesn’t matter what he says anymore. Arguably, it never did. I recall a former Vatican official who said to me some years ago, à propos of Paul VI, who wrote and spoke beautifully, “He isn’t remembered for his homilies. He is remembered for his governance.”