Despite his popularity, the pontiff’s efforts to reshape his church face stiff resistance
Jul 30th 2016 | VATICAN CITY
CARDINAL ROBERT SARAH (pronounced Sar-AH, with the accent on the last syllable) has never been afraid to speak out. Such was his defiance of his native Guinea’s dictator, Ahmed Sékou Touré, that he was at the top of a list of candidates for assassination found when the strongman died in 1984. Since coming to Rome in 2001 he has emerged as standard-bearer-in-chief of the traditionalists: Roman Catholics who prize doctrinal certainty over adapting to changing times. Many in the church’s higher reaches would like to reverse some of the innovations that followed the Second Vatican Council, which closed in 1965 (indeed, they often claim its intentions were misinterpreted).
As the head of the department overseeing the church’s charitable activities, Cardinal Sarah brought Caritas, its main development agency, under tighter Vatican control and in 2011 jettisoned its liberal-minded director, Lesley-Anne Knight. At a recent synod, or meeting of bishops, called by the pope to discuss issues that split liberals and traditionalists relating to the family and sexual orientation, he vigorously opposed change. On July 5th he went further, openly defying Pope Francis. The issue was one of immense symbolic importance for Catholics. At a conference in London Cardinal Sarah, who now heads the Vatican’s liturgy department, asked priests to resume celebrating mass facing east, with their backs to the congregation, as they had done before the Second Vatican Council.
Seldom do Catholic leaders clash so publicly. The Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, wrote to the priests of his diocese reminding them that an instruction “approved by the highest authority in the church” told them to face the congregation whenever possible. The pope saw Cardinal Sarah on July 9th, after which the Holy See said the cardinal’s words, which went against that settled position and the pope’s known wishes, had been wrongly interpreted.
It was the latest sign that conservative resentment of Francis is developing into open resistance. Traditionalists hanker for the papacy of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who retired to a life of prayer three years ago. On May 20th, in another seemingly subversive pronouncement, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, who doubles as Benedict’s secretary and the head of Francis’s household, said the papacy was in fact dual, with an active member (Francis) and a contemplative one (Benedict).
This week hordes of young Catholics are converging on Krakow in Poland to celebrate their church’s World Youth Day. It is the kind of event at which the genial, informal Francis excels (the picture shows him greeting the faithful in St Peter’s Square in Rome). It is also one that allows him to shore up his position with popular acclaim. A global opinion poll published in March found that his admirers outnumbered his detractors by more than four to one. Last year in America, 86% of Catholics said they had a favourable impression of him. Even more approved of the direction in which he was taking the church.
So far, Francis’s popularity has shielded him from the traditionalists. But that popularity may be diminishing. Attendance at papal events in Rome last year was less than half that in the year of his election. This may have other causes, notably fear of terrorism. But it could also reflect growing doubts, not just among conservative Catholics, but among liberal ones.
Suffering little children
When Francis became pope, liberalisers’ hopes were high that he would make change in four areas: by instigating a financial clean-up of the Vatican, long criticised for lacking transparency and aiding tax evasion; by tackling the long-running scandal over clerical child-abuse; by breaking the grip of traditionalists—notably, with regard to the position of women in the church; and by decentralising the church’s administration. How has he fared?
The pontiff’s most unambiguous success has been in handling the Vatican Bank. The clean-up began under Benedict. But Francis has pursued it with vigour. In May it was revealed that two members of its supervisory board had resigned. Not long ago that would have been widely reported; instead it passed almost unnoticed. The journalists who cover the Holy See, like the diplomats accredited to it, mostly accepted the official explanation that the two had quit in a disagreement over management policy. It was a measure of how successfully the pope, who has also created a new financial super-department, headed by an Australian cardinal, George Pell, has defused the ticking bomb of the Vatican’s offshore financial status.
When it comes to child abuse by priests, however, the pope’s actions have been far more disappointing. “I don’t understand Francis,” says Kieran Tapsell. “He’s done some fantastic things. But he has this blind spot.” Mr Tapsell, a retired Australian lawyer and ex-seminarist, is the author of “Potiphar’s Wife”, a study of the scandal’s legal background and, in particular, the relevance of the “pontifical secret”. This requires bishops not to disclose information on serious offences allegedly committed by priests. It was only in 2010 that Benedict ruled that bishops could report suspected child abuse to the civil authorities—but only where required to do so by local laws. Since victims of child abuse commonly wait until adulthood before telling anyone, most revelations concern crimes committed many years ago. And very few countries require reports of such historical cases to be passed to the police.
In June the pope announced new rules that provide for the removal of bishops who cover up evidence of serious crimes by priests, including sex abuse. But Mr Tapsell dismisses it as “pure PR: Francis is saying that if bishops don’t [report to the civil authorities], they will be punished. But canon law says that if the pontifical secret applies they are obliged to cover up—and can be punished for not covering up.”
Regarding the position of women in the church, the early signs were more promising. Last year Francis shut down a hostile investigation, launched under Benedict, of American nuns suspected of promoting radical feminism. In May, he announced an inquiry of his own—into the possibility of ordaining women as deacons (a lower rank than that of priest which, unlike the priesthood, is open to married men).
However, the last such exercise, which reported in 2002, led nowhere. Some campaigners now pin their hopes on women being chosen to fill senior positions in a new Vatican department for the laity, the family and the church’s anti-abortion activities. But Francis has not so far used the room for manoeuvre he could enjoy. For example, though under canon law only the ordained (and therefore only men) can be cardinals, that is a relatively recent innovation (a layman last became a cardinal in 1858). If the pope wanted to, he could change the rules and propose some heads of the women’s orders as cardinals.
Lucetta Scaraffia, a columnist for the Vatican daily, L’Osservatore Romano, was among a handful of women invited to take part in last year’s synod. She is a “bit disappointed” by Francis’s failure to act, she says. But, noting that his motivations are always deeply spiritual, she believes he is trying to develop a new theology on which to base an enhanced role for women. She points to an announcement last month that, in line with the pope’s “express wish”, the annual celebration of St Mary Magdalene is to become a proper feast day. That puts the most prominent female disciple of Jesus on a level with his apostles. Indeed, the Vatican’s statement went further, adopting St Thomas Aquinas’s description of the woman who announced the resurrection to Jesus’s followers as “the apostle of the apostles”.
The sex-abuse scandal and the role of women in the church both featured in the talks that led to Francis’s election. But the most insistent demands from those of his fellow cardinals who serve among congregations as pastoral archbishops were for measures to involve them in decision-making; and for a shake-up of the Vatican bureaucracy, known as the Roman Curia, and new curbs on its powers.
Here, too, there have been some encouraging signs for those who hoped for change. Francis has weakened the Curia’s grip partly by the simple expedient of ignoring it at critical junctures. According to insiders, he broke with protocol by not consulting the Secretariat of State, which acts as both foreign and interior ministry, before a historic (and, say critics, ill-advised) meeting in February with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Kirill. For his first press interview he bypassed the house paper, L’Osservatore Romano, and went to the Jesuit periodical Civiltà Cattolica (he is a Jesuit himself). And when he released his latest encyclical, or letter on doctrine, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), the job of presenting it went not to the Vatican’s official theological supremo, Gerhard Müller, but to a pastoral cardinal, the Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schönborn.
The pope has not, however, managed to make the Curia more international (indeed, he has appointed Italians to several key posts). He has not imposed a term of office on its officials. Nor has he established a counterweight to it, though he clearly intended to. Soon after his election Francis created a Council of Cardinal Advisers. At first, only one member was drawn from the Curia. Its brief was no less than to advise the pope on “the government of the universal church” and to draw up plans for reforming its central administration.
Almost three years on the council, which now includes three curial members, is still meeting. It has contributed to a reorganisation of the central bureaucracy (the latest reform will put all the Vatican’s media operations into a single department) and its members plan to submit to Francis a comprehensive proposal for a new constitution for the Curia. But as it deliberates, some wonder whether Francis may be cooling on the “sound decentralisation” he advocated in his first encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).
The difficulty is that this goal clashes with another dear to the pontiff’s heart: that of doctrinal liberalisation. The debates at the synod in 2014 and last year revealed a hierarchy more divided than he had perhaps imagined, and more conservative than he would have liked. More than half of all Catholics now live in developing countries and prefer, particularly in Africa, a muscular, no-nonsense Christianity. Among other affirmations of traditionalist attitudes, the synod watered down proposals for a more inclusive approach to gay people, and balked at endorsing communion for remarried Catholics.
By grace and good works
The synod has only consultative powers, so, at least in principle, Francis can simply ignore it. To some extent, he has done. Amoris Laetitia was his response to the synodal deliberations, and it takes a notably liberal line on divorced and remarried Catholics: “It is possible that in an objective situation of sin,” he wrote, “a person can be living in God’s grace…while receiving the church’s help to this end.” In a footnote that outraged traditionalists, he added that “this can include the help of the sacraments.” He might not have been able to go further without splitting the church.
Robert Mickens, editor of “Global Pulse”, a Catholic online publication, worries that the spirit of tolerance and inclusiveness the pope has fostered could be reversed by his successor unless Francis puts new structures in place. But he suspects that the pope “is trying to buy time to change attitudes. He has always said that if we just change structures without making conversions, we won’t get anywhere.”
Francis may not be in a position to play a long game. He will be 80 later this year. It may be possible only in his pontificate’s final stages to answer the central question: as one long-time observer puts it, “Is he clever and guileful? Or is he blocked?”