Can Francis complete his mission in time? That very much depends on what we think the 78-year-old Pope’s mission is. If we accept him at his own word it is threefold. It is to take the Catholic Church out of the sacristy and on to the streets. It is to share a Gospel that brings joy rather than judgment. And it is to be a poor Church for the poor on the peripheries. In some ways he has already achieved much of that; in others there is a long way to go. Reform, in structures as in attitudes, is essential to the whole project.
The early debate – as to whether the new Pope was just style or substance – has been settled. It was a secular question in any case. In a Church with sacrament at its heart the two are indivisible. For Francis to say Mass at an altar on the hull of a wrecked boat in Lampedusa – where desperate migrants in their thousands are washed up on Europe’s shores – was more than a potent piece of politics. And when he embraced and kissed Vinicio Riva, a man whose entire body was covered in repulsive disfiguring growths – without knowing whether the man might be infectious – he was showing the world that there is a difference between curing, which merely removes a disease, and healing, which brings us into wholeness. It was not just Vinicio who was healed; we healthy onlookers were healed, too. That part of his mission is already complete.
This is a lesson that bears constant repetition, of course – which is why he spelt out for the curial cardinals and archbishops at Christmas the 15 spiritual diseases which afflict men of power and position. “Who am I to judge?” may have become the single most celebrated sentence of his pontificate to date (though he has been quick enough to judge “savage capitalism” and much else). But his message is that while Christians should not judge others, we should each be swift to judge ourselves. We can only progress on our Christian journey if we are capable of judging ourselves first, as Francis said at his morning Mass at his residence, the Domus Sanctae Marthae, just the other day.
But in other areas Francis’s mission remains incomplete. At the last consistory his council of nine cardinal advisers tabled a fairly modest proposal. It was modest, at any rate, by comparison with some of the radical ideas it had been suggested they might deliver. The brief they had been given by the Pontiff was to rewrite completely the constitution that governs the way the Vatican bureaucracy is run. Pope Francis told them not simply to revise the current system, as set out in Pope John Paul II’s 1988 document Pastor Bonus; he told them to start afresh. It was a measure of how dysfunctional the Roman Curia was widely reckoned to be. Cardinal after cardinal had said so in the discussions before the conclave that elected Francis. The new Pope saw that as a mandate for reform.
When the cardinals gathered in Rome last month they were presented with a plan to merge a number of pontifical councils – the Vatican equivalent of think tanks – into two new Congregations. These more powerful decision-making bodies would encompass a range of areas concerning first, the laity, and secondly, various issues under the broad sweep of justice and peace.
But if the Pope and his advisers thought that this little organisational reshuffle – as an appetiser, perhaps, for more profound changes to come – would not scare the horses, they were wrong. A number of cardinals raised objections. Some were concerned about organisational effectiveness. Others seemed to be seeking to protect vested interests in ways that the Pope would criticise as clerical careerism. This was going to be more difficult than Francis and his advisers had perhaps anticipated.
Reporting on the event, the veteran Vaticanista John Thavis – who was for 25 years head of the Rome bureau of the US Catholic News Service – concluded that it was time to “downsize expectations”. The consistory had been offered only “a vague outline” of a proposal to combine “six or seven” pontifical councils into two new Congregations, and yet resistance was immediate. Vatican insiders concluded that “it could take years” to complete a full programme of reforms. Comparison was made to Pope John Paul II’s modifications to the Curia, which took 10 years to design and implement, with multiple stages of consultation and approval. “I’m not sure Pope Francis has 10 years to dedicate to this project,” Thavis observed drily. The enterprise might never get beyond the “endless study” phase without “some forceful leadership moves” by the Pontiff to advance the reform agenda.
Though curial reform may seem to be stumbling, there can be no doubt as to the efficacy of the far-reaching changes Francis has wrought in other spheres. Take Church finances. The scandal-ridden Vatican bank has been swept clean from the top floor to the bottom of the former medieval dungeon that houses an institution which was, until very recently, a byword for Mafia money-laundering, tax-dodging and shady dealing. The Pope’s shrewd appointment of the pugnacious Cardinal George Pell to take charge of Vatican finances has been important. But Francis has also brought in a whole range of important personnel – many of them lay experts in banking, compliance and systems management – to cleanse an Augean stable.
The Pope has resolutely backed Cardinal Pell despite a succession of dirty-tricks stories planted in the Italian media by a curial old guard out to discredit the bulldozing reformer. Whatever happens next, it is hard to imagine how some of the changes Francis has put in place could be unpicked. Vatican departments now have to compile budgets, monitor expenditure and publish audited accounts. It seems impossible that Francis’s Mission Accomplished on such matters could be overturned by self-serving survivors in the Curia in years to come.
Big challenges remain. Pope Francis needs to turn the same resolute scrutiny and urgency to the question of clerical sex abuse – and episcopal cover-up.
Francis has endorsed Benedict XVI’s “zero tolerance” policy towards clerical abusers and created, after a puzzling delay of almost a year, a pontifical commission to combat abuse, two of whose members are abuse survivors. But it took him 16 months to meet abuse victims at the Vatican. Progress on all this has been inexplicably slow. Were Francis, in his own words, to be “called to the House of the Father” before creating some mechanism to discipline bishops who cover-up sex abuse, then he might be deemed to have failed in dealing with one of the biggest problems he inherited.
But completion is too bald a concept to evaluate much of what Pope Francis has set out to achieve. There have been paradoxes aplenty about a Pope who acts unilaterally in the cause of collegiality, who centralises to achieve decentralisation and who seeks to undermine the model of papal monarchy by bypassing established systems. He seems untroubled by such inconsistencies.
With his wilfully imprecise way of speaking, he has set out to devalue the currency of papal utterance with a plethora of interviews, press conferences, homely homilies and pastoral phone calls whose details are often leaked. It is part of what in Rome they are now calling “the scandal of normality”. As Francis himself has said: “The Pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps calmly and has friends like everyone else. A normal person.”
Reducing the status of the Pope from infallible emperor to “first among equals” in the College of Cardinals – or, indeed, the Synod of Bishops – is what this is all about. At the same time, Francis is seeking to persuade the bishops to be more bold. When a Brazilian prelate asked if married men might be admitted to the priesthood to address his problem of having just 27 priests for 700,000 faithful in 800 church communities, the Pope responded: “You tell me.”
Francis is attempting the same thing in unleashing the debate around the family. First, in an unprecedented move, the laity were asked what they thought in a questionnaire. Then Cardinal Walter Kasper was selected by Francis to provoke the cardinals with his thoughts on lifting the ban on Communion for the remarried. Next, the bishops were told at the extraordinary synod to “speak boldly” and “listen with humility” – with some of them clearly better at the former than the latter.
The free debate that ensued stood in contrast to the attempts at previous synods to restrict discussion to along approved lines. Francis relished the resulting furore. “It’s healthy to get things out into the open,” he said. Different points of view were “not something dirty”. Animated discussion was better than “stealthy mumbling”. He insisted: “I am not worried. It all seems normal to me. If there were no difference of opinions, that wouldn’t be normal.”
Where this will all end, Francis does not know. But he wants the Holy Spirit to blow through the whole Church, eddying in what were once airless corners.
In one sense, that part of Francis’s mission is already accomplished, too. He acknowledges to those close to him that he wants to see the remarried readmitted to Communion. But more important to him is that the Church changes the way it reaches such decisions, which is why he has not so far issued a liberalising fiat on the subject.
Conservatives often accuse Francis of being a stealthy liberal. But scrutinise his major episcopal appointments – as in Cologne, Sydney and Chicago – and he has appointed more conservatives than liberals. The defenestration of the arch-conservative Cardinal Raymond Burke is part of Francis moving the Church back to the theological centre rather than to some progressive utopia.
But it is more than that. “Francis plays on the same team as us but he kicks the ball in an entirely different direction,” one cardinal memorably said to me. Pope Francis sees the same world through a different lens, that of mercy. He cares more that his new bishops, like his new cardinals, should be compassionate and collegial than that they hold particular doctrinal positions – or prestigious metropolitan sees. They should be pastoral rather than judgmental.
Given enough time, Francis could remake the College of Cardinals – and a future conclave – in a rather different mould. But he may not be granted the years to do that. The witness of the Pope who takes the bus and eats in the Vatican canteen has allowed the faithful to pose some awkward questions to bishops of bling or those whose heads sometimes swell to fit their mitres. That could revert with a papal successor of a different style.
Yet some things cannot be changed. After a philosopher and a theologian in the Vatican, we now have a pastor. More than that, we have a pastor who said to the world’s young people gathered in Brazil that they should get out and cause a stir – or make a mess, depending on which translation of the Spanish lío you prefer. For Francis, this is a model not just for the young. It is a model for his own mission.
What this has done, after two papacies of philosophically precise, restrictive deontology, is to legitimise an alternative. Pastoral warmth can be preferred to doctrinal particularity. A balanced Church needs love as well as discipline, the local as well as the universal. Disagreement is not dissent; it can be the essential prerequisite for discernment.
The years to come may offer much more. But already Francis has shown us not just a different way of being pope, but also a different way of being a Catholic.
Paul Vallely is currently working on a second edition of his best-selling biography Pope Francis: Untying the Knots. It will be published by Bloomsbury later in the year
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (13/3/15).
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