The limits of a pontificate (Part I)
By Massimo Faggioli
April 14, 2020
|Pope Francis behind closed doors at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, 12 April 2020.|
Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO
Massimo Faggioli dissects the theological and institutional limits of Francis' pontificate
There is a serious risk that Pope Francis is losing the support of the people who want to see him succeed and keep the Church from falling into the hands of those who have set their face against change.
This is an important moment, because the 83-year-old is showing few signs that he understands that many of the strongest believers in his efforts at Church reform are becoming disillusioned.
The seventh anniversary of his election as Bishop of Rome, on March 13, coincided with the peak in awareness of the coronavirus pandemic. It was impossible at that moment to delve into complex analysis of his pontificate.
But living in lockdown in order to contain the spread of COVID-19 has now become the new normal, and it will be for some time in many countries. It provides an opportunity to try and take a more careful look at what has happened to Francis' pontificate in the last few months.
Something disturbing has happened
The pandemic has changed some key dynamics in the Catholic Church. For one, there's been an even greater focus on the papacy and its isolation, what could be called its institutional loneliness.
Francis' extraordinary spiritual leadership in these very difficult times has confirmed, once more, that his pontificate has not been so much a part of an era of change, but more of an active player in what is clearly a change of eras.
But something disturbing has happened recently. And it is not easy to talk about.
At least for those of us who believe the Jesuit pope is providing the Church with the kind of servant leadership it needs right now. Or those Catholics who, over the past seven years have felt much more part of a journey towards a new way of being Church, in one and the same Church.
Francis is providing an invaluable contribution to the living tradition of the Church in terms of forging a new way to revive and actualize the teachings of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
He has helped free Catholic moral teaching from its ideological straightjacket and has struck a new balance between law and mercy. He has rehabilitated theologians that were silenced and punished by Rome's post-Vatican II doctrinal policy. He has also guided the Catholic Church into global Catholicism.
In addition to this, his focus on socio-economic issues (including those related to the environment), at a time when globalization is in deep crisis, has been prophetic. In regards to the nominally Christian world's dialogue with Islam, he has certainly moved the ball forward.
And he has repositioned the Church geopolitically towards the rapidly developing Asian continent, especially towards China.
These are achievements that are already cemented in his legacy.
The dynamism of the pontificate begins to reach its limit
But something disturbing has happened over the past year. One has the impression that during the last several months the dynamism of his pontificate has begun to reach its limit.
And that's not just the view of theologians who are involved in the debates on Church reform.
But it has become evident to me, at least, that Francis' very important spiritual insights lack a clear systematic structure that can be placed in a theological framework and an institutional order.
Take women, for example. Everyone is familiar with the colloquial way the pope talks about women and the non-politically correct words he sometimes uses to describe their role in the Church and society. But lately there have been more alarming signs.
Two recent events constitute a moment that could well mark a shift in his pontificate.
The first was what happened in the interim from the Amazon Synod of October 2019 to the publication of Querida Amazonia in February 2020. And the second was his decision to appoint new members to a second papal commission on the study of women diaconate.
These two events can be read in vastly different ways, depending where one is along the broad spectrum of Catholic belief and opinion.
The anti-Francis groups have publicly rejoiced and felt vindicated at what's happened.
But those in ecclesial and theological circles that have supported Francis since the very start of his pontificate have felt somehow betrayed. In spite of that, they have tried to continue to stand with him without revealing too much of the state of shock and disappointment they feel.
The papacy has always been about the long game. And this has been particularly the case with Francis. But there's a question of whether there can actually be a long game for a Church that is now failing to make decisions regarding its institutional and structural problems.
Genesis of this standstill
Pro-Francis circles are understandably reluctant to talk about the crisis that is now gripping this pontificate. Personally, I believe three things have caused this crisis.
The first is Francis' style of governing the Roman Curia.
His tendency to basically follow a hands-off approach has produced some unfortunate side effects. For example, it has emboldened those in the liturgical traditionalist circles, as we saw recently with new decrees concerning the "Extraordinary Form" of the Mass.
This is particularly painful to the pope's most ardent supporters because ever since his election in 2013 he had made it absolutely clear that he believed liturgical traditionalism is incompatible with a Church "going forth".
Yet, he's not only allowed the traditionalist sideshow to continue, he's done nothing to stop major Vatican offices and officials from encouraging it. That has made the situation even worse, especially for some local Churches.
The pope can ignore the Roma Curia in a way other Catholics cannot – that includes bishops and priests. We will see if and how this will change with the announced apostolic constitution aimed at reforming the Roman Curia, which has already been delayed several times.
Pressure from cardinals and bishops
The second thing that has hastened the current crisis in Francis' pontificate is pressure coming from bishops and cardinals over the last year, which has threatened the pope's legitimacy.
I am not referring to extremists who have become fringe figures in a virtual Catholic religion, like Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. Rather, I'm talking about cardinals that have a key role in the Roman Curia, or did have until very recently.
In February 2019, for example, German Cardinal Gerhard Mueller published a "Manifesto" to a worldwide audience in seven different languages. This document of the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (2012-2017), in fact, threatened a public correction of Francis, suggesting that most of the Church's bishops had concerns about his orthodoxy.
Just look at the first line in the "Manifesto": "In the face of growing confusion about the doctrine of the Faith, many bishops, priests, religious and lay people of the Catholic Church have requested that I make a public testimony about the truth of revelation."
Then there is Cardinal Robert Sarah, whom Francis appointed head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 2014. The Guinean cardinal enlisted the retired Benedict XVI (in ways not yet clear) at the end of 2019 to contribute to a controversial book defending mandatory priestly celibacy.
The book's timing was not accidental. It was published as Pope Francis was in the middle of completing an apostolic exhortation following on the Bishops' Synod on the Amazon – at which most of the participants voted in favor of changing the celibacy discipline.
In hindsight, the pope's speech at the conclusion of the Synod gathering could be seen as the beginning of a settlement with the traditionalists. In that final address – given on October 27, 2019 inside the Synod Hall – Francis called out some "elite" Catholics for focusing on small "disciplinary" matters rather than concerning themselves with the "bigger picture".
In light of the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Querida Amazonia, one could easily read the pope's dismissal of those "elites" as his dismissal of the proposal to reform priestly celibacy.
And it could also be seen as the reason he dismissed a proposal to give women a ministerial role in the Church. In fact, both proposals found a substantial support among those who participated in the preparation of the Synod, including the bishops.
I do not believe, as some others, that Francis cracked under the pressure by traditionalists out of fear. But historically, such extraordinary pressure on a pope is always an element of context that must be considered in order to understand the trajectory of a pontificate (for example, Paul VI during Vatican II).
An additional element is the High Court of Australia's acquittal on April 7 of the traditionalist Cardinal George Pell on sex abuse charges. This has only emboldened Catholics who are pushing a restorationist agenda – not only in Rome, but also especially in the cardinal's native country.
This comes at a time when the Church in Australia is busy planning a crucial synodal process – a plenary council – even though the current health pandemic is causing some delays.
It must be noted that Pell's trial is not part of this equation. Even prominent Australian Catholics who oppose the cardinal on many ecclesial issues have gone on record (and with good reason) to say he should have never been tried for such a crime without more substantial evidence.
Clericalism and women
The third and final factor that has contributed to the crisis of this pontificate is related to the limits of Francis' theology when he talks about clericalism and women.
Until now, most people believed that, no matter how the pope may have been limited by using a second language or questionable expressions, the Argentine pope was fundamentally open to making some disciplinary changes and allowing theological developments compatible with an organic understanding of the tradition.
But after the last year – with Querida Amazonia and the decision on the new commission on women diaconate – some wonder if Francis' pontificate has reached the limit in terms of reform.
After the first commission on women deacons completed its work it drew up a final report. But this has never been made public. People rightly wonder why not. In a synodal Church one is right to expect a certain amount of transparency.
The formation of the second commission was announced on April 8. Not one person amongst the seven man and five women that make up this body is from the global South. This is very hard to understand and even more impossible to justify, especially for a pope that has done so much for the growth in the understanding for the Catholic Church of its global dimension.
(Full disclosure: I have written about this in my latest book on the pontificate.)
Pope Francis says it is necessary to listen to all sides before making a decision. And that is absolutely right. But unfortunately, this second commission can hardly be seen as representative of different views.
The pontificate has found itself in a very serious situation. What is it telling us? That's something we will take up in the second part of this essay.