His message is one of openness and reform, but have the actions of Pope Francis matched his radical rhetoric?
His message is one of openness and reform, but have the Pope’s actions matched his radical rhetoric? As Ireland readies itself for a long-awaited papal visit this summer, Peter Stanford looks back at five years of Pope Francis
On his visit ‘home’ to Latin America in January, Pope Francis treated the vast crowds of Chileans and Peruvians who turned out to greet him with what have become, these past five years since his surprise election as head of the worldwide Catholic Church, the hallmarks of an eye-catching papacy. For good and for bad.
From his debut on the world stage on the evening of March 13, 2013, when he appeared as the new Pope on a balcony high above St Peter’s Square in Rome, Francis has been firing the imagination of believers and non-believers alike, with his humanity, wit and warmth, and his willingness to be more outspoken than any other Pope in recent memory. He has chosen to use the moral authority of his ancient office not to lecture the world on the dangers of sex, but rather to champion the causes of migrants, refugees, the economically marginalised and the environment.
During his trip to Peru, Francis was in his usual bold, uncompromising mood, the master of the dramatic gesture. He stood alongside Amazonian tribespeople to condemn the “extractivism” of multinationals who are destroying the rainforest, and was the fearless speaker of truth to power when he launched a full-frontal attack on the “virus” of corruption among politicians, from a stage he was sharing with the country’s embattled president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, himself currently embroiled in a financial scandal.
Francis’s words carry extra force, inside and outside the Church, because what everyone knows about him is that he practises what he preaches. There’s his refusal, for instance, to move into the gilded papal residence, living instead in a small apartment in a Vatican guest house; there’s his preference for simple suppers around a refectory table talking to any fellow guest who happens to be passing through; and his rejection of large, luxury ‘Popemobiles’ in favour of Fiat 500s to deliver him to and from airports on his many overseas tours.
But there is another side to Francis, one less often seen, but on display later during that same Latin American trip. When challenged in Chile by journalists about his controversial decision to appoint local priest Juan Barros as a bishop, despite allegations that Barros had been involved in covering up sexual abuse of minors by a fellow cleric, Francis suddenly came over all authoritarian and snapped back at them: “The day they bring me proof against the bishop, then I will speak. There is not a single proof against him. This is calumny! Is that clear?”
It was an extraordinary outburst, and prompted the head of Francis’s own Vatican sex-abuse commission to publicly rebuke his boss, ever so gently, for talking of “proof” rather than evidence (only the latter, of course, is required to justify an investigation). It also added fuel to the fire of abuse survivors who argue that, for all the dazzling rhetoric about wanting to make the Church a more open and equal community, underneath it all, the Pope is just as autocratic and unfeeling as his predecessors, and wants to brush survivors’ suffering under the carpet.
“When it comes to his brother priests,” said Mary Dispenza, a former nun who has accused her parish priest of raping her when she was seven years old, “Francis protects them at the cost of heaping pain and shame upon victims.”
Which of these two faces of Francis is the real one — the charismatic reformer, determined to drag Catholicism into the 21st Century by the force of his personality and the sincerity of his message; or the traditional Prince of the Church, whose first instinct is to protect the institution, even if that means riding roughshod over the feelings of victims of clergy abuse?
Good at PR
“I am always being told by people I meet that, ‘You Catholics have a liberal Pope,”’ reflects Ann Widdecombe, the UK Tory former minister, unlikely reality-TV star and convert to Rome. “And he is certainly very, very good at PR, which is no bad thing given how the Church is usually presented, but I always reply, ‘What exactly has he changed?”’
And it is true: Francis has sounded liberal, especially on same-sex relationships (“Who am I to judge?” he remarked early in his papacy), but has also seemed content over the past five years for the catechism of the Catholic Church to continue to label homosexuality, contraception, abortion, and sex before marriage as sinful.
“Perhaps in 20 years’ time it will all be different, but people no longer seem to believe that change can happen in a great leap and bound. And that’s what is making them edgy,” says Widdecombe. “They don’t quite know what’s going on right now. They don’t know what to make of him.”
One answer is to judge him by the goals he set himself at the time of his election. Top of the list was reform of the Roman Curia, or civil service, which stood accused of corruption on an industrial scale.
It had been the Vatileaks scandal — an episode of Curial skulduggery involving stolen private papers and the Pope’s personal butler — that was said to have convinced Francis’s ailing predecessor, Benedict XVI, to break with 600 years of tradition that Popes must die in post and announce (in Latin) his resignation at the age of 85.
Cue Francis, the Argentinian self-styled outsider — “the man from the ends of the earth” as he described himself on the night of his election — who was going to be the one to drain the Vatican’s very own swamp. And he set to his task with apparent gusto. In his Christmas message to the Curia in 2014, he accused his own civil servants, many of them priests and nuns, of 15 ailments including “spiritual Alzheimer’s” and of living “hypocritical double lives”. Last year, he called out among them “traitors of trust... corrupted by ambition and vainglory”. Reforming Rome, he complained bitterly, “is like cleaning the Egyptian sphinxes with a toothbrush”.
Fine words, but have they been matched by actions? “The reform of the Curia continues,” says ‘Vaticanologist’ Marco Politi, who has spent 40 years observing Popes, “and some impressive results have been achieved. The Church’s central government has become somewhat slimmer”.
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Hardly an overwhelming endorsement, you might think, given the extent of the charges laid against the Curia. While Vatican departments have been merged, more women brought in, and those who have stood in Francis’s way unceremoniously removed — including, last year, Cardinal Gerhard Muller, the German head of the all-powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — the taint of scandal has not been expunged.
Two books by Italian investigative journalists — Greed by Emiliano Fittipaldi and Vatican Inc by Gianluigi Nuzzi, both published in 2015 — revealed a level of corruption at God’s business address on Earth to rival anything imagined by Dan Brown in his Vatican-based novels.
Fittipaldi, for instance, accused figures at the Vatican’s Bambino Gesu Hospital for sick children of redirecting €400,000 from its charitable foundation to pay for the lavish refurbishment of the flat of the former secretary
of state under Pope Benedict, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. And Nuzzi lifted the lid on a culture where those who
live on Vatican sovereign territory (most of them clergy) make a healthy profit out of selling on tax-free petrol and luxury goods to outlets in the rest of Italy.
Those who defend Francis’s get-tough approach point out that charges have been made against many of those involved in such cases, including ‘Monsignor 500’ Nunzio Scarano, another senior Vatican official who allegedly only kept €500 notes in his wallet, and who, in 2014, was in court for trying to illegally import €20m in cash into Italy.
Francis has also, his admirers continue, gone much further than ever before in trying to rein in what has
long been the most scandalous element of the Vatican administration — its bank, the Institute for Religious Works (IOR). It is often mentioned as a favoured conduit for Mafia money. In the 1980s, the Vatican was forced
to pay out millions to shareholders of the failed Italian Banco Ambrosiano after the IOR was accused of complicity in the financial impropriety of Ambrosiano’s chief executive, Roberto Calvi, known as ‘God’s banker’, who was found hanged under London’s Blackfriars Bridge.
On Francis’s instructions, a new team of financial experts was appointed to take control of the IOR, and given the Pope’s blessing to do whatever was necessary to bring
the bank into line with international money-market regulations. Yet, last November, the deputy director, Giulio Mattietti, just two years in post and supposedly one of the ‘new brooms’, was swept out of his job and escorted from the building with no explanation. His departure came just five months after another official brought in to reform Vatican finances, auditor-general Libero Milone, resigned suddenly.
Their fate, Vatican insiders have suggested, is evidence that entrenched forces in the Curia are resisting Francis’s reform agenda. Milone himself has claimed he was forced out after uncovering possible illegal activity. “I couldn’t allow any longer a small group of powers to [defame] my reputation for their shady games,” he told reporters. “I wanted to do good for the Church, to reform it like I was asked, but they wouldn’t let me.”
It’s a disturbing picture he paints, but perhaps the biggest blow for Francis’s anti-corruption drive has been the loss of his key ally, Cardinal George Pell. His brief had been to re-organise and open up the Vatican’s whole financial system as part of a council of nine cardinals, known as C9, appointed specifically to support Francis in tackling entrenched, reactionary and corrupt elements in the Curia. All nine, like Francis, had little experience of working in the Vatican bureaucracy, but plenty of time spent in the real world.
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Pell had been making progress — revealing, for example, millions of euros in Vatican accounts that were unaccounted for — but last summer he was forced to take a leave of absence to defend himself against charges of child-sex abuse involving multiple complainants in his native Australia. (Pell denies the allegations.) A hearing is currently ongoing in Melbourne, and many people predict he may never return to Rome even if he is cleared of wrongdoing.
“This issue of child abuse has never really gone away, however much the Church would like it to,” says Luke Coppen, long-standing editor of the Catholic Herald, “and now with the case of Bishop Barros and the charges against Cardinal Pell, it risks overshadowing whatever is left of Francis’s papacy.”
If reform of the Curia was the top priority for Francis, then for Catholics in the pews, the issue that has proved the greatest challenge to their faith in their Church has been its handling of child abuse by the clergy. They want more than anything to believe that Pope Francis is taking the matter as seriously as they do.
Once again, he has been saying the right things, talking up a “zero tolerance” approach to abusers and those who have covered up abuse. In 2014, Francis established the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. He’d taken his time, some said, but he was applauded for appointing lay experts alongside clergy, and two members were themselves survivors of abuse by priests.
But the initiative has been slowly unravelling ever since. Of the two survivors, Peter Saunders stood aside in frustration in 2017, and Marie Collins also resigned. She cited opposition in the Curia to implementing any of the reforms the commission suggested, and the Pope’s failure to attend a single meeting during her time. It was evidence, she complained, of “the low priority given to this issue, despite the assurances so often given by the Pope that it has the highest priority”.
And discontent at how Francis has handled child abuse is not the only front on which he is being criticised. In 2014 and 2015, he held two synods — meetings of the world’s bishops — on the subject of family. In advance, in line with his stated vision of the Church as a community, not a monarchy dictated to by the Pope, Francis put out a questionnaire to Mass-going Catholics around the world on some of the crucial issues to be covered at the synods, including the treatment of Catholics who have divorced and then remarried.
Most bishops kept the findings secret but, in those European countries that did publish the result, around 90pc of respondents backed dropping the current ban on such Catholics from taking communion.
Francis may have had ordinary Catholics on his side, but not the majority of his fellow bishops, who greeted his enthusiasm for reform coolly. When he pressed ahead nevertheless, and handed over to local bishops the decision about changing the rules over the treatment of divorced Catholics who remarry, four cardinals accused him of undermining the Church’s moral teaching, and few bishops have taken up their new powers.
“No Pope in 100 years has faced such opposition amid the bishops and clergy,” says historian Andrea Riccardi. But if there is passive resistance from bishops, it’s hard to measure the depth of that opposition. It may be that bishops simply dislike change, or that they are so used to having Rome tell them what to do, they are waiting to see what will happen with Francis’s proposals.
The Pope’s reaction to the criticism of the four cardinals once again revealed his authoritarian streak, though this time the flash of steel delighted liberals in the pews. He may like to be seen as listening — but not to these particular rebels, or the small but well-placed constituency of traditionalist Catholics they represent. He declined to answer the cardinals’ appeal for clarification.
Will ignoring them be sufficient to see off the opposition? Well, two of the original four rebel cardinals have since died, so there may be wisdom in his strategy. But next to the honeymoon feel of those early months of Francis’s papacy — and the high expectations they generated — doubts are now widespread about how far his reforming style may translate into lasting change.
In his early days as Pope, in one of the off-the-cuff remarks that he so likes to make ,and which endear him to audiences everywhere, Francis told a Mexican TV interviewer that he “didn’t mind” being Pope, but had “the sensation that my pontificate will be short. Four or five years...”
Did he mean it? Might he also resign from office? As ever, the world waits to see how great the difference is between his words and his actions.
The Pope in numbers:
The amount a bidder paid for Pope Francis’s old 2013 Dyna Super Glide Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The Pope donated the funds to a soup kitchen and hostel for the homeless in Rome
The number of people who follow
@pontifex, the Pope’s Twitter account
The number of soldiers in the Swiss Guard (the force charged with protecting the Pope)
The cost of a litre of petrol in Vatican City (It’s €1.40 in the rest of Rome)
Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio on 17 December in Buenos Aires, to Italian immigrant parents
Graduates from school with a chemical technician’s diploma
Ordained as a priest by Archbishop Ramon Jose Castellano
Obtains a degree in theology from the Colegio of San Jose
Becomes Metropolitan Archbishop of Buenos Aires
13 March 2013
Elected as the 266th Pope
Peter Stanford’s ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Faith’ is out now, Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99
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