Pope Francis: One Year and Counting; Wassup?

Pope Francis

One Year and Counting; Wassup?

[March 18, 2014]


With the recent one-year anniversary of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election to the papacy on the fifth ballot of the conclave on March 13 of last year, there has been a flood of commentary.

Predictably, most of it has fallen along the conservative/liberal divide. Another fault line in evidence, a subtler version of this divide, is style v. substance.  Boston’s cardinal archbishop has weighed into this debate, stating in an interview with the Boston Globe:

I don’t see the pope as changing doctrine.”

Rather than rehashing the reporting on the Pope’s important stylistic innovations, lets stipulate that these are indeed significant.  However, lets also keep in mind a few howevers:

After the stylistic excesses of his predecessor (€3,000 Prada slippers and all that), radical change was overdue;

With the continuing economic malaise in Europe and across its Catholic South, conspicuous consumption such as the 10-meter silk Cappa Magna flaunted by some cardinals is not good for the evangelization business;

Style gets you only so far; as time passes, ultimately a faith-based enterprise has to deliver on substance…most importantly, on doctrine.

Yet the expanding debate on directions this subtle Jesuit pope will take has tended to lump together as substance a number of issues that really involve three distinct Catholic domains:

Peace and social justice,

Church governance, and


As more initiatives come out of the Casa Santa Marta (Francis’ austere two-room suite in the Cardinals Hotel), these distinct domains should be kept clearly in mind because there is a helluva difference in – say – substantive change within the Curia (governance), on the one hand; versus substantive change in hot-button issues such as abortion, contraception and the role of women (doctrine), on the other hand.

1.  Peace and Social Justice

There are the overarching issues which, while not primarily religious, pack a strong moral punch and cannot be ignored.  They are frequently addressed through Papal Encyclicals, i.e. authoritative papal statements for Catholics – and frequently for the world at large:

Think of Pope Leo XIII’s De Rerum Novarum of 1891 on the excesses of Darwinian capitalism;

Pope John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris of 1963 on the specter of nuclear warfare;

Pope Pius XII’s fulminations on communism, including excommunication en masse; and

Pope John Paul the Great’s speeches on the Soviet bloc, and his trips to Poland.

Francis has weighed in with his recent Evangelii Gaudium, an exhortation but not an encyclical.  A recent article in The Economist quotes a diplomat accredited to the Holy See as saying,

“[Francis] only knows one style of politics.  And that is Peronism.”

By which, of course, the diplomat is referring to the disastrous political economy doctrine of former dictator Juan Peron (plus Evita), and 100 years of economic solitude and decline in one of the world’s most potentially prosperous nations – which never got its act together.

Given that Francis’ entire life has been spent in Argentina until 2013, where there is so much to cry for, it is fair to suppose that his economic views come through the distorted lens of that sad experience.

So, Rush Limbaugh’s heavy breathing notwithstanding (“just pure Marxism”), it is probably best to skip over some parts of the pope’s views on political economy…which are not delivered ex cathedra, in any event.

On the great issues of war and peace, Francis has weighed in forcefully on the Syrian tragedy, and will probably have something to say about the plight of Ukrainian Catholics as the retired KGB colonel, Vladimir Putin, tightens his grip on what he calls the ‘near abroad’ which includes many nations beyond Ukraine.  His Crimean Anschluss is not his last territorial demand, nor the last we will hear from Vlad the Explainer.

A sidebar:  Some papal pronouncements on war and weaponry have not aged well.  From a papal edict on Weapons of Mass Destruction:

We prohibit under anathema that murderous art…which is hated by God, to be employed against Christians and Catholics…”

This was decided at the Lateran Council of 1139, where Canon 29 banned the use of the crossbow, but only against ‘folks like us’; Mohammedans remained fair game.

Btw, the Council’s Canon 7 reaffirmed priestly celibacy, another gem.

2.  Church Governance

My last blogpost (March 6, Render Unto God) covered – or perhaps smothered – the most important steps taken by Francis in this domain.

Rather than inflicting more pain on readers, just a few points should be noted:

From the perspective of long-term impact, the creation of super-economic Vatican organizations (the Council and the Secretariat) are the most important actions to date by the pope in any domain, but they have no direct bearing on doctrine, and they are very remote from the daily lives of 1.2 billion faithful in the pews.

The same goes for the high-level personnel moves, i.e. the replacement of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone as secretary of state; and the ousting of Cardinal Raymond Burke from the Congregation for the Bishops; to mention a couple.

The creation of the Council of Eight Cardinals is indeed significant with its focus on regional representation, but it remains a consultative body and thus does not bear directly upon the doctrinal primacy of the Bishop of Rome; not a trivial issue as the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses approaches.

Finally, there is a strong tide flowing among out-of-town cardinals against the Curia Romana. One of the best Vaticanisti, Andrea Tornielli in La Stampa, recently reported on the pre-Conclave maneuvering in March of last year during the meetings open to all cardinals, regardless of age (translated from the Italian original):

“…on the morning of Thursday, March 7 [2013] the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio…speaks for only three minutes (he had five minutes available, like everyone) and concentrates upon the mission, on a Church that should cease to be folded in upon itself, self-referential, but should go out to bring to those who suffer in body and spirit the message of mercy from a God who is near…”

In context, this was yet another shot taken at the machinations within the Curia Romana and had the effect of bringing forward the candidacy of the Argentine cardinal as the new broom that would sweep out the stuff piling up in the Vatican’s corridors of power.  Again from Tornielli:

That is the moment when his candidacy crystallizes and many [cardinal electors] start to look at him.

And yet, this anti-Rome sentiment, which is also anti-Italian since the Curia is predominantly Italian from top to bottom, poses real governance problems for Francis:

Several American presidents have been elected on anti-Washington platforms, only to find that they need functioning levers of executive power to govern effectively.

And more to the point, Francis’ recent creation of new economic bureaucracies is much more than a re-shuffle of organizational boxes:

It centralizes power within and beyond the Vatican, putting yet another super-cabinet agency, the secretariat for the economy, alongside the much-maligned secretariat of state.

As Marxist doctrinaires would say, an inherent contraction.

But none of this touches directly on Catholic doctrine, it is merely a re-arrangement of organization charts and reporting lines.

Finally, under the heading of governance, the damned Vatican bank is baaaack.  As reported on March 11 in Il Fatto Quotidiano, the process for reforming the bank (“IOR”) has stalled.  The Vatican’s official spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, stated, after the roll-out of the economic entities, that the IOR (translated)

“…is not touched by this measure…”

A recently published book, Le Mani della Mafia [The Hands of the Mafia] by respected journalist Maria Antonietta Calabrò, reports that a special category of IOR accounts has become problematical and to date has not been resolved.

These so-called conti misti have been held in the bank by depositors whose identities remain undisclosed to date, and go back a few decades to the near-collapse of the IOR during the Banco Ambrosiano scandal; the low-lights:

$1.3 billion in missing assets;

The ‘assisted suicide’ of Banco Ambrosiano President Roberto Calvi;

$250 million paid by the Vatican as a settlement in 1986;

IOR bank president Archbishop Paul Marcinkus with diplomatic immunity beyond the reach of the polizia; etc.

So what?  Well, the Vatican is trying to restore the reputation of the IOR, to be in compliance with European Union standards of transparency and anti-laundering regulations.

But the apparent sticking point is whether IOR transactions prior to 2009 have to be disclosed to the Brussels regulators.

Stay tuned.

3.  Doctrine

A lot of the media commentary praises the pope for opening up for discussion some sensitive doctrinal issues, but avoids reaching conclusions about his future doctrinal direction.

This is not by happenstance:  it is very much in the Jesuit tradition to present issues for discussion through consultation, but to reserve eventual decisions for the ‘Provincial Superior’ or the order’s ‘Superior General’ (aka the Black Pope; nothing racial here, just a reference to the color of the prelate’s cassock).  Francis has criticized his own tenure as the Jesuits’ provincial superior for Argentina, citing his ‘authoritarianism’ and his failure to consult, in the face of difficult decisions during the terrible years of the military junta.

This is where the media should be focused, instead of engaging in the blatant cheerleading in evidence among a few American reporters.

Case in point:  the Rome-based reporter for a Boston daily headlined a recent article,

Pope Francis’s lay finance expert vows ‘no more scandals’”…

There is no mention of the very current mess involving the IOR, widely reported by Italian reporters in Il Fatto and Corriere della Sera, who are  actually working the story.

Yes, it is not easy to read the cards on the table, especially when they are dealt by someone as ‘scaltro’ (clever) as Papa Bergoglio.

But the lost art of reporting involves analysis that goes beyond fawning interviews and adulatory re-writes of press releases.         

So, what lessons should be remembered from Journalism 101, post Watergate?

a) Look for what may be hiding in plain sight, and keep an ear tuned for what is not being said; and

b) Do the hard work of ferreting out what is said by ‘sources close to X’, instead of reporting verbatim the self-serving blather of media-hungry cardinals.

What is hiding in plain sight is Francis’ manifest effort to avoid or postpone tough doctrinal issues.

As the second-oldest cardinal to come out of a conclave in the last 100 years, surely someone as shrewd as this pope must remember that tempus fugit.

He also knows that another elderly cardinal elected pope at age 77, Angelo Roncalli, announced in January, 1959 as Pope John XXIII, the convening of Vatican II less than three months after his election in October, 1958.  And there were no doubts beforehand about the enormous doctrinal content of this council, the first to be convened since the Italian army had conquered Rome in 1870, dispossessing Pope Pius IX of his temporal State.

To date, the pope’s major initiative on the doctrinal front is the Synod on the Family, to be convened in October of this year to address “The pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.”

At present the front-burner issue for the Synod seems to be Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics: with all due respect, not something that has primacy over many other pelvic issues.

Among these peskier issues, contraception would certainly rank high, but Francis has made a point of praising Pope Paul VI’s disastrous encyclical pronouncement on contraception in 1968, Humanae Vitae, mentioning (as reported in his interview with Il Corriere della Sera) that in this area his predecessor’s “genius was prophetic.”

Pope Paul’s genius consisted in shelving the careful work of a commission of experts, including theologians, doctors and scientists, appointed by him to come up with a recommendation, endorsed – reportedly – by an overwhelming vote, and reporting that contraception was “not intrinsically evil.

But this recommendation was blocked by members of the Curia Romana, led by a cardinal from the hard right of the Vatican bureaucracy, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, acting head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the time.

One of the best pieces of reporting on this turning point in Church history was a book by Robert Blair Kaiser, The Politics of Sex and ReligionKaiser was TIME’s bureau chief in Rome during the 60s, and the principal author of TIME’s 1962 Man of the Year story on Pope John.

Btw, After Humanae Vitae no other encyclical was issued by Pope Paul for the remaining ten years of his reign

Under the heading of what is not being said, or is merely uttered sotto voce, consider the front-burner issues of clergy sex abuse and the role of women.

With a major American diocese, Philadelphia, beset by clamorous trials involving allegations of clergy sex abuse in the 1990s, not ancient history, this matter is still topical.

Last December the pope named yet another commission “to study the sexual abuse crisis and to come up with a list of best practices” (Fr. Thomas Reese, National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 2014).  Now that the Vatican cannot duck the issue by claiming that it is an invention of the ‘secular media in the U.S.’ (wink, wink, nudge, nudge), why not save some effort and go to the real experts in the Church:

The American bishops who to date have paid out in settlements something in the order of $4 billion, according to press reports.

And on the role of women, the pope’s comments during his March 5 interview in the Corriere della Sera were decidedly abstract:

“…[The Church] is feminine is her origin…The Virgin Mary is more important than any bishop or any apostle…The theological deepening is in process.

But earlier, as reported by The Guardian, he was much more specific, stating that “the door is closed” on the ordination of women.

And what about signals from “sources close to His Holiness,” the time-honored way of floating trial balloons in Washington.

There is at least one possibility, which seems to have sailed over many journalistic heads:

Hints that the canon on clerical celibacy might be lifted, or softened.

Consider a few easily located sources on the Catholic beat:

In September of last year shortly after his nomination to be secretary of state, then-Archbishop Pietro Parolin mentioned oh-so-casually that since priestly celibacy was an issue of ‘tradition’ and not of doctrine, it was something that might be re-visited.

And not to be forgotten, there is the episode in 2007, involving Brazil’s Cardinal Claudio Hummes who opined something along these lines, only to be silenced by then-Secretary of State Cardinal Bertone.

The full story is in an insightful book by John Thavis, The Vatican Diaries.

But, ancient history you say?  Not really.

Cardinals Hummes and Bergoglio sat next to one another in the 2013 conclave, and are considered to be the closest of friends.

And it is widely known in Rome that the Latin American episcopate is pressing hard for changes in the priestly celibacy rule.

As a Jesuit, Francis is probably familiar with the parting shot of a senior Jesuit who left the order some years ago with a resonant sound bite.

Fr. Jose Maria Diez-Alegria, prominent Jesuit and long-time professor of sociology at the Gregorian University in Rome was quoted as follows

“Celibacy for priests is a factory for madmen”


End Comment:  The Media; Mea Culpa

Having gone over the media coverage of Francis’ first year, two British publications have distinguished themselves from the general chorus of hosannahs, done some actual reporting, and voiced a few legitimate concerns:

Symmetrically, one on the left, The Guardian; and one on the right, The Economist.  Both quoted supra; kudos.

The Mea Culpa involves a phrase in my last blogpost, an oblique reference to the unlamented Joseph Goebbels; it should have read, “a former student at a Christian gymnasium.”  My bad.

A close quote, perhaps on point, by Prince Clemens Metternich, chancellor of the (very Catholic) Empire of Austria, and favorite of Henry Kissinger:

to misunderstand popular opinion is as dangerous as to misunderstand moral principles…



7 thoughts on “Pope Francis: One Year and Counting; Wassup?

  1. Thanks for, as always, your insightful commentary. When you were speaking of the history of turning point in church history that is Humanae Vitae, you mentioned Robert Blair Kaiser’s book. I would also highly recommend Bob McClory’s excellent book, “Turning Point” which featured the recollections of Patty Crowley who was one of the few ordinary lay Catholics who were on Paul’s commission.

  2. Thank you, Peter. Interesting and insightful, as always. In addition to Robert Blair Kaiser’s book, I would also heartily recommend Bob McClory’s book, “Turning Point”, as an excellent telling of the Humanae Vitae story – featuring recollections from Patty Crowley who was one of the few lay members of Paul’s commission

  3. Humanae Vitae “disastrous”? Really?

    What is disastrous is the moral and societal carnage that has resulted from the wide-scale dissent from this magisterial pronouncement from the Vicar of Christ: the complete disintegration of human sexuality by its resultant cleavage from marriage and the family, the widespread divorce and premarital cohabitation, the reduction of sexual intercourse to a not-particularly-significant recreational activity, the hook-up culture, the “pornification” of popular culture (with its resultant coarsening of society and loss of basic respect for women by men), the total confusion of basic understanding of masculinity and femininity, and, of course, the slaughter of millions as a result of the “failure” of contraception.

    All of these societal horrors were predicted by Venerable Pope Paul.

    You see, it doesn’t matter how many theologians, doctors, philosophers, academics, or other “experts”, of whatever stripe, declare something that is intrinsically evil to not be such, because the Holy Spirit protects the occupant of the Chair of St. Peter from pronouncing error regarding faith and morals. The “experts” may have been told by the “zeitgeist” that contraception was not intrinsically evil, but God the Holy Spirit, speaking through Pope Paul, said, “yes it is”!

    Pope Francis is correct that Pope Paul was “prophetic”. The evidence is all around us.

    Sadly, I predict that the whole issue of marriage, and by extension, human sexuality itself, will end up being for Pope Francis what contraception was for Pope Paul, and the ensuing wide-scale dissent, which I fear will be forthcoming (barring a huge conversion of millions of hardened hearts) will simply accelerate our total and complete cultural and societal breakdown.

    When the Son of Man returns, will there be any remaining found faithful?

    Gaudete in Domino Semper!

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