The focus of intense and exaggerated media attention over the last two months, St Peter’s Square has again played its part as a magnificent stage. Fleeing snowbound Paris, I arrived in Rome on the second day of the Conclave, when all cameras were fixed on a dove that had alighted on the famous chimney—an auspicious omen! Shortly after that the spume of white smoke was sighted, and I watched the balcony proceedings in the bar of the Hotel Cicerone, amid a bunch of American pilgrims. The prescribed ritual worked perfectly: Cardinal Tauran recited the hallowed formula, ‘Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: habemus papam,’ with a hint of merriment in his voice and manner. The pre-conclave hum of the past month was a time of possibilities, of hopes, a euphoric interlude. Would an anticlimax now follow, or a chill of dismay in face of the chosen one?
No need to worry; the emergence of Pope Francis, immobile, in unadorned white, had the qualities of a coup de théâtre, though the hotel pilgrims did not seem particularly excited. Like all good surprises it was retrospectively no surprise at all. Jorge Bergoglio was the only name to resist Joseph Ratzinger’s at the last conclave, with 10, 35, 40, 26 votes reportedly going to him in the four ballots. It is said that at a lunch break between ballots he urged his supporters to desist, as he felt unprepared for the job. Due to his age, 76, the journalistic and clerical commentariat had left him on the fringes of their speculation.
A month has already passed since then, yet in a sense the suspense of the interregnum and conclave continues. The suspense could be felt in St Peter’s Square on the morning of his inaugural masson on one of those lovely spring days that showed the great city at its best. It was not a euphoric crowd, and the efforts of the agents of Comunione e Liberazione to launch their inane chant of ‘Fran-ces-co’ met no response. The people of God, clearly, were looking for substance, not spin.
A Game Changer?
But what counts as substance? Despite the general satisfaction with his election, Francis produces for some suspicious observers a déjà vu or ‘same old, same old’ effect. Is he a ‘game changer,’ and in what sense? Does he walk away from the old games, the old issues, to project instead a simplified vision of churchhood as reaching out to the poor? Or will he tackle the old issues – including such prickly topics as celibacy, women’s ordination, academic freedom of theologians – in an inspiring new way? Or perhaps he will not change the game at all, but merely present the old policies with a new, smiling face.
None deny that the new pontiff is a good and holy man, who articulates and enacts pastoral and evangelical attitudes that can only have a wholesome impact. But it is hard to think of a recent pope of which the same could not be said. Francis says mass in prison and washes prisoners’s feet; but Benedict said mass in the same prison, championing prisoners’ rights, at Christmas, and washed the feet of laymen, in his first years, on Holy Thursday. Francis washed women’s feet, overriding the rubrical prescription ‘viri,’ but John Paul II washed boys’ feet, and the rubrics do not explicitly rule out women. Francis has no taste for Benedict’s splendid vestments; but that is merely a return to the simplicity of John Paul II and even of Paul VI, whose majestic presence had no need of props. Francis has a warm relationship to crowds, kisses babies; but for this kind of populist appeal he is no match for John Paul II. Francis speaks of the fundamental role of women in the Church, perhaps more warmly than, but not really differently from his predecessors. Francis lives a simple, ascetic life; but so did they.
The wishful attempts to draw a contrast between Francis and Benedict keep falling flat. Francis is lauded for not nagging about the dictatorship of relativism, but then in his address to the diplomatic corps he cites Benedict on that very point. Pope Benedict made the scandal of sexual abuse a central concern of his pontificate, and was scolded for not speaking of it often enough. Pope Francis did not speak of it immediately, and everyone seemed happy with that, as if wishing the topic would simply go away. His April 5th statement to the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which urged that the issue be pursued ‘constinuing along the lines set by Benedict XVI,’ was portrayed by the media as another stirring initiative, whereas SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) greeted it with sarcasm.
As a Jesuit, who has no doubt given retreats based on the Spiritual Exercises, Francis must be versed in discernment, and his frequent references to the devil reflect St Ignatius’s warnings to be alert to the ruses of the adversary. Effective moral preaching will not be enough to solve these problems. An honest look at the clerical culture and structures of the church will demand wide consultation and dialogue. This would entail above all a change in the adversarial relationship between the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the church’s teachers and pastors, especially women religious. On April 15 Francis announced that he would be continuing the doctrinal investigation into American sisters.
Sr Jeannine Gramick of New Ways Ministry sees Francis as bringing in a new dialogue with gays and the media make much of his supposed acceptance of civil unions in Argentina. In reality his attitude is that of the French bishops: he led a massive campaign against gay marriage in Argentina, calling it ‘a machination of the Evil One to deceive the children of God,’ prompting many to ask, as in France, why Catholic youth could not be galvanized on social justice issues instead. He proposed tolerance of civil unions as a lesser evil, much as the French bishops do, and was not followed in this by his fellow bishops. But to say that he rallied to the anti-gay-marriage campaign only in solidarity with them and not from personal conviction is again wishful, and would in any case put his integrity in question. Eamon Duffy noted that the reference to laws inscribed in our nature in the homily at the inaugural mass is from the anti-gay-marriage lexicon; it seems that Francis associates gay marriage with environmental degradation just as Benedict did. In all probability Francis will seal the entrenched Catholic opposition ot gay marriage. Generally speaking, the best hermeneutic for deciphering his views is to assume that they are the same as Benedict’s.
The ‘Francis Effect’
Beatific Catholics and non-Catholics exude enthusiasm about Francis’s human touch, as seen in gestures such as paying his own hotel bill, or phoning Argentina to cancel his newpaper subscription, or breaking security protocol to shake hands with the people, or refusing to live in his offician residence. Before his election, the mood in the church was morose, with talk of crisis. Suddenly all this has been washed away and a new age of fraternity, fratellanza, has come in. It is as if Francis of Assisi had become pope! The idea that the personality of a pope can provide sustenance for the entire Catholic community is an unrealistic one, and it is fortunate that Francis, for all his merits, is a less overwhelming personality than most of his predecessors.
His election is hardly a new Pentecost but it certainly has brought a Catholic springtime. He has generated a sense that ‘one touch of nature makes the whole world kin,’ and has suddenly made Catholicism seem attractive again. The Jesuits have seen a massive increase in inquiries by potential candidates. Bishops here and there seem to be altering their style to match that of the new pope. But spring is a brief and fickle season. May ripe summer and rich harvest follow!
The most charming traits of the new pope, such as his bonhomie and his disarming directness, are those he owes to his Argentinian background. Argentina is the most European country outside of Europe, and its various ethnic groups cherish the memory of their origins and their diaspora experience (at the expense of a successfully integrated national identity). The favorite poet of Argentina has long been the NicaraguanRubén Darío (1867-1916), who was steeped in romantic nostalgia for an idealized Europe. The majority of Argentinians are of Italian extraction, and it is clear that Francis cherishes his Italian identity, citing Dante and Manzoni as his favorite authors (as one might cite Shakespeare and Dickens as badges of Englishness), with particular reference to a scene in I promessi sposiin which Cardinal Borromeo converts an unhappy man by the warmth of his charity. Perhaps the joyful way he has embraced his new role (in contrast to his rather reserved persona as archbishop of Buenos Aires) is partly due to the fact that he has been reborn as an Italian. His ancestral tongue would be the Piedmontese dialect, and to Roman ears his Italian sounds strange, less correct than Benedict’s; but this will soon be remedied. His greetings of ‘Buona sera,’ and ‘Buona Domenica e buon pranza,’ introduce him into the intimacy of Roman family life (though here again the constrast with his predecessor is overdrawn; Benedict would say ‘buona notte’ to the crowds).
Francis is seen as a man of dialogue, and as bringing in a new culture of dialogue and discussion in Catholicism. His citing of Cardinal Kasper in his first Angelus message suggests warm ecumenical sympathies, in contrast to the chill prevailing since Dominus Iesus (2000) and the Anglican Ordinariate (which Francis deemed unnecessary). Francis sustains a warm friendship with the Jews, in the spirit of John Paul II.
Will all of this translate into a new culture of dialogue within the church? Dialogue, here, means not merely niceness and cordiality but adult debate and consultation. Francis is not an intellectual, and does not have a doctorate in theology, and may thus not be the ideal person to address the theological issues in all their complexity. This, too, is a structural issue. If the Vatican wants a culture of dialogue it should promote the setting-up of forums for this purpose. A pseudo-dialogue between a populist leader and the crowd would actually undercut adult exchanges among Catholics and between the faithful and their pastors.
The Pope of the Poor
Catholic children throughout the world are now talking of ‘the pope of the poor.’ This should bring a refocusing of Catholic identity on works of charity, rather than on the neurotic defence of truth and orthodoxy that had become the badge of Catholicism in some circles. If concern for the poor became the central plank of the World Youth Day and of the new Catholic movements, that would surely be a salutary development. Francis impressed his fellow cardinals in the days before the conclave by saying that the Church must stop looking inward in a narcissistic way and instead go out to the poor and marginalised in society. Such language is reminiscent of the Aparecida document produced by the Conference of Latin American bishops in 2007, with its polemic against ‘extreme affirmation of individual and subjective rights’ (n. 47). But the older documents of Medellin (1968) and even Puebla (1979) had more to say on the integration of justice and peace concerns with preaching the Kingdom of God. The rejection of liberation theology and its efforts at penetrating social analysis and at creating a coresponding church praxis (Basic Ecclesial Communities) has left a vacuum in Catholic social teaching, which cannot be filled by pastoral good will. The enemies of liberation theology saw the effort to think structurally about the Church’s social gospel as a form of Marxism. It is not clear that the new pope will bring a reversal of Vatican policy on this issue.
The Challenge of Collegiality
I strongly hope that the commentators who see in Pope Francis a new John XXIII are right. Hans Küng speaks of perestroika, a restructuring comparable to what Michael Gorbachev brought about in Russia. Cardinal Kasper speaks of a new phase in the reception of Vatican II. Leonardo Boff augurs ‘the end of the winter of the church.’ The Bologna school historians Alberto Melloni and Massimo Faggioli are hopeful that the full enactment of Vatican II is now at hand. Archbishop Peter Smith, in his commentary on the inaugural mass for the BBC World Service, spoke of collegiality, and hoped that the new pope would put the Curia at the service of the world’s bishops rather than allowing it to lord it over them (echoing the main theme of Mary McAleese’s book, Quo Vadis?).
All of these theologians believe in the necessity of structural reform in order to solve a perceived crisis of the Catholic Church. It is not yet clear whether Pope Francis shares this perception. Francis is praying intensely, at the tombs of his predecessors, and is surely benefiting from the advice of his immediate predecessor. The Spirit may guide him to inspired decisions. One may hope that he is also consulting theologians and bishops as to how to bring about structural reform of church governance and create a more collegial church. The advisory group of eight cardinals which he has set up is hardly a thrilling innovation, given that one of the chief purposes of the College of Cardinals is to advise the Pope. If they are given an effective role in governance, it may weigh in the direction of conservativism. Will Francis give more autonomy and power to the triennial Synods of bishops? That would be a truly innovative step, implementing Vatican II. Will he ensure a more effective voice to local churches in the appointment of their bishops? Will he appoint people to key curial posts who can be trusted collaborators in this immense task?
One hopeful sign is Francis’s insistence in referring to himself as Bishop of Rome, as if to underline his membership of the episcopal college, in line with the collegial emphasis of Vatican II and even Vatican I. He even referred to Benedict XVI as emeritus bishop. His stress on fraternity between pope and bishops is reassuring, but again needs to be matched by concrete steps. Collegiality and the reform of the Curia (which some bishops call ‘the bureaucracy of nothing’) have been hot topics for centuries, and again and again hopes have been raised only to be dashed. On these two points paralysis, both theoretical and practical, has always reigned. Paul VI spoke of reforming the Curia in his opening speech in 1963, and nothing was done. Yet Paul VI was an old curia hand, eleven years younger than Francis is now, with a Council behind him. Benedict spent decades in the Curia yet seems to have been defeated by its dysfunctional culture. Will Francis dare to fire powerful people and bring in a completely new and inexperienced staff? Knowing how much energy is required to fight even for small changes in parishes or academic departments, one wonders if Francis will have the energy or the strategic wiliness to implement significant change.
It is really too early to say anything substantial about the pontificate of Francis. The best we can hope is a low-key pope, who benignly encourages manifestations of Catholic vitality in every sphere. It is from below, not from above, that the life of the church springs. If every Christian stepped forward with the joyful energy and courageous love that Francis has exemplified in his papal role so far, fearless of looking foolish, the Catholic Church would once again become an inspiring and lovable community, a beacon of hope to the modern world in its ‘anonymous’ and too often discouraged quest for the Kingdom of God.
From The Furrow 64 (2013):259-64.