Assessing Pope Francis’s decade at the helm

Catholic World Report [San Francisco CA]

March 12, 2023

By Christopher R. Altieri

Most of the successes have been of the optical sort and fleeting–moments truly magnificent to behold, occasionally terrible and always arresting–while his failures are rather olfactory and persistent.

Pope Francis’s ten years in office have given us some impressive successes and notable failures. Most of the successes have been of the optical sort and fleeting—moments truly magnificent to behold, occasionally terrible and always arresting—while his failures are rather olfactory and persistent.

Whether one thinks of the bracing first appearance from the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica, or his long, solitary walk up the steps of the sacratum at St. Peter’s Basilica to bless the city and the world, or of the sight of him with the stalwart people amid ruin in Mosul, Iraq, or of Pope Francis in prayer before the icon of the Salus populi Romani, or any of a thousand other images that have made the rounds during his decade in office, the story of Pope Francis’s pontificate in pictures is powerful.

It is also a story very different from the one told by his acts of governance.

It is with the pope as governor that I have been chiefly concerned, and that story is powerful as well, though much less edifying.

The deal Pope Francis made with the Communist government of China—defensible in principle as an attempt to stave off Diocletian-level persecution at the hands of a post-industrial totalitarian surveillance state—with a view to the long game, but it is a bad deal and everyone knows it.

Pope Francis’s principal reform task was to give the central Roman governing apparatus—the Roman Curia—a new shape, to put it in form for action in the 21st century. He has given a paper reform, but the Roman bureaucracy has gone from a state of persistent dysfunction to one of sclerotic paralysis.

Pope Francis’s financial reform began well, with momentum from groundwork and significant progress already made under his predecessor, Benedict XVI. He gave broad powers to Cardinal George Pell, then almost immediately clipped Pell’s wings. When Pell clashed with men of the Old Guard, the pope took the other guy’s part.

Years before Pell went home to face trial on trumped up charges of sexual abuse in his native Australia, he had been mostly thwarted and pushed to the margins in the Vatican.

Pope Francis eventually replaced Pell with a Jesuit priest—no one whose first name was Bishop, let alone Archbishop or Your Eminence was ever going to take him seriously. The financial reform was dead in the water.

Recently, we have learned that the pope’s chosen successor to Pell, Fr. Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves SJ—who resigned “for health reasons” in November of last year—is somehow involved in the gruesome business surrounding the disgraced celebrity artist-priest, Fr. Marko Rupnik SJ, who is accused of serial sexual, psychological, and spiritual abuse over decades.

Guerrero was Rupnik’s superior from 2017 until the end of 2019. According to the Jesuits’ own reconstruction, there were restrictions imposed on Rupnik no later than June of 2019, which were either narrowly interpreted or applied with laxity sufficient to allow Rupnik broad liberty of movement and activity.

Even a mere rehearsal of Pope Francis’s conduct with respect to the global crisis of sexual abuse and coverup is impossible to give here—indeed, it demands book-length treatment, while a complete analysis of his governance in these regards would take several volumes—but none would be minimally adequate without treatment of names like DanneelsCollinsBarrosInzoli, McCarrickZanchettaRupnik.

Here again, Pope Francis has given us paper reforms like Vos estis lux mundi, but refused to use them except very sparingly. He has promised transparency, only to deliver PR stunts like the removal of trials from the so-called Pontifical Secret while leaving ordinary levels of secrecy in place and largely unchanged, which are perfectly capable of keeping nasty business under wraps.

When it comes to other questions of power and order in the Church, like the role of women and the possibility of changing secular clerical discipline to allow married men admission to priestly orders in the Latin Church he governs, Pope Francis has repeatedly raised the gale and refused to come out of port. One may be forgiven the impression he is, in these regards, not unlike politicians who pay lip service to core life issues during election season.

His reform of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Studies is another case-in-point. His “renewal” of the Institute was a purge, and everyone knew it. Somehow, Amoris laetitia was at the center of it. In any case, it was another example of Vatican types refusing to be honest and transparent, especially egregious because honesty and transparency would have helped their cause.

Pope Francis has promised “synodal” government. Instead, Pope Francis has governed by fiat. Pope Francis has shown contempt for both law and the faithful it supposedly exists to serve. If one thing is clear regarding synodality, it is that the word means whatever Pope Francis wants it to mean in any given moment and regarding any particular thing.

“Many men see what you seem to be,” Machiavelli tells his prince in the eighteenth chapter of his handbook for rulers, “few men feel what you are.” The Florentine diplomat goes on to tell his Prince:

[T]hose few do not burn with desire to oppose the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state that defends them; and, in actions of all men, especially of princes, where there is no judgment to which [no judge to whom] they may have recourse, they look to the end [the purpose of the action].

People prefer to judge by what they see, in other words, and are generally content to let their judgments rest on what is apparent. Even those with other sensory data—tactile, auditory, olfactory—are not keen to reach judgments that run contrary to majority opinion, and are frequently eager not to publish them when they concern princes. This is especially—particularly, even axiomatically—true of persons in the prince’s orbit and not only subject to his power but dependent upon it. They are willing to let the prince do what he will, so long as he would not harm them.

A decade into this pontificate, the one thing of which Catholics may be certain is that Pope Francis has taken that lesson to heart.