News Analysis

Pope Francis: Attention deficit

Blown off course by the abuse crisis (CNS)

The media are overlooking some of the Pontiff’s most important initiatives

From the start of his pontificate, Pope Francis has thrown his weight behind several causes in the realm of international politics. Above all, he has appealed to the world’s governments to prioritise the care of the environment and to welcome migrants and refugees. Francis has sought to focus attention on those who live on what he calls the “existential peripheries”.

His condemnations of “throwaway culture” and his calls for a “person-centred” economic order have been eloquent and forceful. The question in the midst of the ongoing crisis of leadership in the Church is: does anybody care at this point? If, in the world’s eyes, the Church is defined by a failure to address serious evil, will its moral voice be heard elsewhere?

Francis did not create the abuse crisis. but it has become his responsibility, if for no other reason than that he is the pope now. And his perceived failure to address the crisis adequately has arguably diminished his moral stature, without which his appeals – however worthy and noble – cannot hope to be heard.

When Francis took the reins in March 2013 he found himself with a great store of popular goodwill and a reform mandate that ensured he could do pretty much whatever he wanted for the first six months of his pontificate.

The pontificate started strongly: within a month, Pope Francis had created his “kitchen cabinet” of Cardinal Advisers – the so-called “C8” (which, with the addition of the Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, became the C9) – to reform the Roman Curia. Also in April, Francis called Church leaders to “decisive action” apt to root out sexual abuse and end cover-ups. The Pope’s homily at his installation Mass also contained an appeal that would become a hallmark of his pontificate, for concerted efforts to protect the created world. In July, he announced a new commission to reform the Institute for the Works of Religion – the “Vatican bank” – and appointed a special advisory commission on economic and financial reform.

He also enjoyed near-universal favour in the press. At first, the sheer novelty of a pontiff from a far-flung land was enough. Interwoven with his gift for homespun teaching, peppered with moments of winning grandfatherly gentility, Francis captured the attention of the media with willingness to say what was on his mind.

But curial reform soon settled into a pattern of meetings and briefings on meetings, which reported in essence that there had been a meeting. More than five years on, that is still the basic dynamic. The advisory commission soon disappeared from the scene, and the powers of the new Secretariat for the Economy were scaled back. The fun stories began to disappear, but the good press continued.

That all changed in January of this year, when Pope Francis accused Chilean abuse victims of calumny on their home turf. Since then, the international media focus on the abuse crisis has been relentless. The stories, which come from all corners of the world, have legs, and traction.

On September 1, shortly after Archbishop Maria Viganò’s extraordinary “Testimony” alleging that prelates, including Pope Francis, had known about Archbishop McCarrick’s wrongdoing, the Pope marked the World Day of Creation. As Francis launched an appeal in favour of a campaign to rid the world’s oceans of plastic refuse, commentators were ironically wondering whether there might be more immediate priorities for the Holy See.

Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago told his city’s NBC affiliate that “The Pope has a bigger agenda” than dealing with Viganò’s claims. The cardinal said, “He’s got to get on with other things”, including “talking about the environment and protecting migrants and carrying on the work of the Church”. He added: “We’re not going to go down a rabbit hole on this.”

These past weeks have seen a couple of major Vatican-backed initiatives, including a push for an international conference on November 8 at Rome’s Pontifical Urbaniana University on safe drinking water and a major speech by the Apostolic Nuncio to the United Nations at an ocean-themed conference in Bali on October 29-30. Neither event has received much coverage. Remarks to a group of Scalabrinians gathered in Rome, in which the Pope appealed for an attitude of welcome and support in solidarity with migrants, including those travelling north from Honduras in a “caravan”, also went largely unnoticed.

Some of the loss of interest will have to go to the law of diminishing returns. The fact is, though, concerns of these kinds don’t play well when the person or organisation espousing them is losing their high public appeal for unconnected reasons. Like it or not, Pope Francis has entered the rabbit hole already.

Christopher Altieri