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Pope Francis has followed a similar path to Pius IX

Both popes were hailed as liberal reformers and laboured under huge expectations. But there are also profound differences

When none of my historian friends are looking, I like to draw parallels between Pope Francis and Blessed Pope Pius IX. Of course the pairing is on its face unlikely. Francis is the cool pope, a mascot for those who believe that Christ came 2,000 years before the fullness of time, which will only arrive when we live up to the latest set of liberal platitudes. Pius is the great reactionary, the intransigent anti-modernist, the very opposite of “the great reformer”.

But the two men have much in common. Francis, like Pius before him, projects a much warmer persona than his immediate predecessor did. Benedict XVI was caricatured as “Pope Palpatine”, and people who thought him too severe thrilled at the sight of Pope Francis. Something similar happened when Pius succeeded Gregory XVI. “After the dour Pope Gregory,” David Kertzer writes in his recent book on Pius, “Pio Nono was the pope who smiled.”

Like Pius, Francis has been celebrated for his spontaneous displays of kindness. A widely reported story in 2013 described Francis sneaking out at night to help the homeless. We have similar reports of Pius. “Stories circulated of his acts of charity,” writes Kertzer, “coming to the aid of a crying boy whose father was in debtor’s prison, or taking the hand of a widow and offering help.”

Like Pius (and, for that matter, like St Peter), Francis is less well educated than some of the men around him. Pius’s studies at a seminary in Rome were interrupted by political turmoil in 1810, and he was able to resume them only after Napoleon’s defeat in 1814. As a result, writes Kertzer, Pius “never felt fully versed in theological and cultural matters”. Francis, who stopped his doctoral work on Romano Guardini after four months, likewise had an interrupted education.

In both cases, admirers of the men saw their lack of intellectual refinement as a sign of their approachability. Margaret Fuller, an American journalist in Rome, wrote that Pius “has not in his expression the signs of intellectual greatness so much as of nobleness and tenderness of heart, of large and liberal sympathies”.

Fuller’s admiration of Pius was part of a widespread media infatuation. She praised his “expression of melting love … which assures all who look on him that, were his power equal to his will, no living thing would ever suffer more.” Such effusions did not prevent Fuller from turning on Pius later, just as some journalists who began by praising Francis have recently soured on him.

Both pontificates began amid expectations of liberal reform. “When I came to Rome, the people were in the intoxication of joy at the first serious measures of reform taken by the Pope,” Fuller wrote. Pius permitted some Jews to move out of the Roman ghetto, and left its gates open at night. He involved laymen in the theretofore clerical government of the city.

In time, he regretted these reforms and undid many of them. Something similar has occurred with Francis. Hailed as a great reformer, Francis hired the Vatican’s first auditor-general – who was then forced out. He appointed Greg Burke to lead a communications reform – and now Burke has left, in circumstances that seem unhappy. Francis approved an abuse tribunal for bishops – then scrapped the idea, disappointing prominent advocates of abuse survivors such as David Clohessy and Marie Collins. Reforming the Vatican is famously difficult, of course. What is notable here is not merely the lack of progress, but the disappointment of the high expectations that Francis, like Pius, at first encouraged.

Both popes also have become known for their tempers. Kertzer describes Pius as a “naturally warm, generous, gregarious” man who showed “flashes of ill temper”. The most famous instance is described by John O’Malley in his recent book on Vatican I. When Cardinal Guidi spoke against certain conceptions of papal infallibility at the Council, Pius dressed him down: “I, I am tradition! I, I am the Church!” Similarly, at the end of the 2015 family synod, Francis denounced conservatives as having “closed hearts” and aspiring to “sit in the chair of Moses and judge”.

An apt description of Pius was offered by Lord Minto, a British emissary to Rome: “He wishes to make his people happy, to give them a good government, good laws … He wishes above all to be beloved and trusted by them. But then he is resolved that they should hold all these good things solely at his will and pleasure … What he would like is liberal measures and arbitrary rule.”

Francis, likewise, wants reform, but he mistrusts procedures, preferring his own judgment and that of those loyal to him. In the now infamous Inzoli case, Francis ignored a recommendation from the CDF that he laicise a predatory priest. The offender went on to speak at a pro-family gathering.

Over time, Pius’ reputation as a reformer gave way to the image of (to borrow the title of Kertzer’s book) “The Pope Who Would Be King.” As Carlo Cattaneo, one of the leaders of Italian unification, put it: “Pius IX was a fairy tale … Pius IX was a poem.” The same could be said of the early image of Pope Francis as “the Great Reformer”.

For all their similarities of style and biography, their tendencies remain opposed. Unlike Pius, Francis does not reject modern ideas in the name of the institution he leads, but denigrates institutional forms while hailing modernity.