Isolated Pope Francis Faces Yet Another Setback in Pandemic

Wall Street Journal

July 7, 2020

By Francis X. Rocca

The world-wide restrictions on public events to deal with the coronavirus pandemic are the latest blow to Pope Francis, whose pontificate has been struggling in recent years to sustain the progressive hopes that the Argentine raised early in his reign.

The pandemic has hindered Pope Francis’ ability to communicate his teachings and promote his causes, from the environment to the rights of migrants, as well as his efforts to tackle the Vatican’s financial troubles. The lack of public events and personal interactions are particular burdens for a pope who is more at home communicating with crowds than in dealing with the Vatican’s bureaucracy.

Even before the pandemic, the early progressive trend of his pontificate, exemplified by openings toward divorced and gay Catholics, had run out of momentum amid internal church divisions. A series of scandals over clerical sex abuse of minors in various countries around the world, as well as affairs involving financial mismanagement at the Vatican, had cast a shadow on the institution.

Now, in the eighth year of the 83-year-old pope’s reign, some Vatican insiders and observers are even looking toward its end. “The Next Pope” is the title of two books scheduled for publication over the next few weeks. Both are by conservative authors, but conservatives aren’t the only ones feeling restless.

“On some issues the potential for institutional change by Pope Francis seems to have reached a limit,” said Massimo Faggioli, a theologian who has been one of the pope’s most enthusiastic supporters. He cited the pope’s recent decision not to loosen rules on priestly celibacy and his resistance to the ordination of women as deacons, a lower rank of clergy. On both issues, the lack of change disappointed progressive Catholics.

Mr. Faggioli wrote in an article this spring that “supporters of Pope Francis and his efforts to reform the Catholic Church are concerned that the dynamism of his pontificate has begun to wane.” A reason for this, he says, could be a desire to maintain unity between liberal Catholics and the pope’s increasingly vocal conservative critics.

Progressives remain happy with Pope Francis’ emphasis on social and economic justice and the environment. But the pandemic has sharply curtailed his ability to promote such causes, even though he believes the global health and economic crisis has made doing so all the more urgent.

“The stakes are his place at the table to shape the postcoronavirus world order,” said John Allen, president of Crux Catholic Media and the author of numerous books on the Vatican. “If he is not able, because of the inability to travel or the inability to do big public events in Rome, to project himself into the conversation, then he loses a measure of relevance.”

Major papal events have been postponed until as late as 2023. The pope has ceased to travel, and most of his appearances at the Vatican now take place on video with only a small audience physically present. The one-on-one encounters that once provided some of the most compelling images of his reign have become all but impossible. He is currently on his annual “staycation,” skipping his weekly public audiences to rest within Vatican walls for the month of July.

Pope Francis made some memorable appearances during the darkest period of Italy’s coronavirus outbreak this spring, including a dramatic ceremony in an empty St. Peter’s Square and morning Masses seen by millions on TV and the internet. But the Vatican stopped transmitting the Masses in May once churches in Italy reopened, and since the reopening of the economy in Italy and elsewhere, the pope’s relative solitude has been less representative of his flock.

“He was very good at using the image of the desert, but now that we are no longer in the desert he has to invent new forms of communication,” said Sandro Magister, a Vatican expert who writes for Italy’s L’Espresso magazine.

Internal Vatican business has also slowed on account of the pandemic. The international Council of Cardinals, which has been advising the pope on a revised constitution for the Vatican since 2013, last met in February. But the most important impact of the pandemic has been on finances, with drastically reduced income from the Vatican Museums and commercial real-estate holdings worsening an already yawning budget deficit for the Holy See.

The Holy See’s deficit doubled in 2018 to roughly €70 million ($78.7 million) on a budget of about €300 million. More recent numbers haven’t been released but the Vatican’s finance chief, the Rev. Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves, said in May that revenue this year could drop as much as 45%. Pope Francis’ annual charity collection, which The Wall Street Journal revealed has been used largely to plug the deficit, has been postponed this year from June to October.

Pope Francis has said that the Vatican’s internal investigation of a scandal over investments in London real estate is evidence of reform, but the affair has cast doubt on the integrity of the Vatican’s financial watchdog, which had been the biggest success story in efforts to restore the city state’s international credibility on financial matters.

The clerical sex-abuse scandal also continues to cast a shadow over the pontificate.

Almost two years after a former papal envoy to the U.S. accused Pope Francis of ignoring sexual misconduct by former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a former archbishop of Washington, the Vatican still hasn’t released a long-promised report explaining how Mr. McCarrick rose to power despite widespread rumors of his misconduct going back years. Aggravating an image of insensitivity on the topic, last month the pope reinstated Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, a longtime protégé of his, in his job at the Vatican, even though the bishop is still facing charges of sexual harassment in their native Argentina.

Last year, the pope promulgated legislation making it easier to discipline bishops who abuse or cover up abuse and he relaxed the secrecy rules for church documents relating to abuse. But advocates for victims complain that the legislation doesn’t require reporting of crimes to the civil authorities or allow the independent oversight by laypeople proposed by U.S. bishops.

“I’m sad and baffled that Pope Francis has been so regressive on the abuse issue,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, of, a Boston-based group that tracks abuse cases. “I don’t expect that we’ll see any more initiatives from him, even though the twin crises of child sexual abuse and coverup remain unsolved.”

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