Pope Francis’s first year: Faith, hope—and how much change?
How a modest but canny man is approaching the complex task of leading the Roman Catholic church
In the 12 months since he appeared on the balcony of St Peter’s to begin his papacy with a disarmingly unaffected “Good evening” to the crowd below, Pope Francis has won a following far beyond the Roman Catholic church. He has softened the image of an institution that had seemed forbidding during the reign of his predecessor, Benedict, and shown that a pope can hold thoroughly modern views on atheism (“The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience”), homosexuality (“If a person is gay and seeks God and has goodwill, who am I to judge?”) and single mothers (he has accused priests who refuse to baptise their children of having a “sick mentality”).
More than anything, Francis has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to communicate his ideas, and those of his faith, purely by gesture. Every recent pope has spoken of the need to treasure human life, even in its most tragic and painful manifestations. But Francis achieved more than any of them when he embraced a sufferer of neurofibromatosis, a disfiguring genetic disease. Though all popes pay lip service to the need for humility and simplicity, Benedict departed from the Apostolic Palace after his unexpected resignation in February 2013 in a Mercedes limousine. Francis drives a 1984 Renault of the sort owned by many French farm labourers.
A poll published by the Pew Research Centre on March 6th found that, in America, two-thirds of Catholics and half of non-Catholics regard the new pope as a change for the better. But whether he is attracting lapsed Catholics to return to regular observance is unclear. In a poll of Italian priests last year, more than half reported increases in church attendance. But Pew found no significant change in how often American Catholics said they went to Mass.
The task ahead is daunting. High birth rates in the developing world mean the number of baptised Catholics, around 1.2 billion, continues to grow. But there is an ever-widening gap between the doctrines of the church with regard to sex and marriage and what Catholics, particularly in the developed world, think and do. Clerical sex-abuse scandals, and the church’s complacent response, have also seen many Catholics in western Europe and North America turn away in disgust. A fear sometimes voiced privately in the Vatican is that Catholicism risks one day becoming a religion largely for Africans and Asians, confined elsewhere to a self-consciously reactionary fringe. Much therefore depends on this frugal, likeable man.
As the first Latin American pope, Francis has a political and economic perspective quite unlike that of his predecessors—in particular the two most recent, Benedict XVI and John Paul II, both Europeans whose attitudes and thinking were shaped by the cold war. Diplomats listening to his annual “state of the world” address in January noted with interest, even astonishment, that Europe was barely mentioned beyond its role as a destination for poor migrants.
Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical De Rerum Novarum (“The Rights and Duties of Capital and Labour”), which first set out Catholic social teaching in 1891, was as critical of the excesses of capitalism as it was of socialism. “To misuse men as though they were things in the pursuit of gain, or to value them solely for their physical powers—that is truly shameful and inhuman,” he wrote. But since then Catholic leaders have become more tolerant of capitalism. One reason was their perception that Marxism, which is inherently atheistic, was the greater Satan. Another was the dominance of Italians within the hierarchy: tempered by Christian Democracy, which ostensibly advocated Catholic social teachings, capitalism had created Italy’s post-war “economic miracle”. Right-wingers also supported the church on matters such as abortion. Perhaps most important, from a European viewpoint capitalism was the only feasible alternative to communism.
By contrast, says Jimmy Burns, a former correspondent in Argentina who is writing a biography of Francis, the pope “tends to see capitalism in terms of its effects on the third world”. The form of capitalism he knows from Latin America is, for the most part, not liberal, but corrupt and crony-ridden. His disdain for it radiates from his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”): “Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.”
As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis supported the city’s cartoneros (wastepickers) as they fought for better working conditions. Last year he arranged for an organiser of the cartoneros, Juan Grabois, to attend a Vatican-sponsored workshop on the “Emergency of the Socially Excluded”. Mr Grabois, who describes himself as a “social militant against the havoc the neoliberal model caused in the 1990s”, told the meeting how impressive he found the “radicalism” of Evangelii Gaudium. During Benedict’s reign it is unlikely that anyone like him would have been let inside the Vatican’s gates.
Francis’s views pose difficulties for conservatives inside and outside the church. One passage in Evangelii Gaudium appalled many: “Just as the commandment: ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘Thou shalt not,’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality.” Even more radically, he quoted St John Chrysostom, an early church father: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them.”
Rush Limbaugh, a conservative American radio talk-show host, called Evangelii Gaudium “just pure Marxism”. Francis brushed that claim aside, but in a way that did little to mollify his critics. “The Marxist ideology is mistaken,” he said in an interview with La Stampa, an Italian daily. “But I have known many Marxists in my life [who have been] good as people and because of that I do not feel offended.”
The Peronist pope?
The political landscape of Francis’s homeland, however, offers a more accurate, and nuanced, understanding of his views. For most of his life Argentina has plotted a kind of third way between Marxism and liberalism—albeit one with disastrous political and economic results. “[Francis] only knows one style of politics,” says a diplomat accredited to the Holy See. “And that is Peronism.”
The creed bequeathed by Argentina’s former dictator, General Juan Perón, with its “three flags” of social justice, economic independence and political sovereignty, has been endlessly reinterpreted since. Conservatives and revolutionaries alike have been proud to call themselves Peronist. But at its heart it is corporatist, assigning to the state the job of resolving conflicts between interest groups, including workers and employers. In that respect it resembles fascism and Nazism—and also Catholic social doctrine.
The pope’s Peronist side shows in his use of a classic populist technique: going over the heads of the elite to the people with headline-grabbing gestures and comments. And it is visible in his view of political economy, which also has much in common with post-Marxist protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street, the Spanish indignados and Italy’s Five Star Movement. “While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by the happy few,” he has written. “This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control.”
Francis was elected after a clash in the General Congregations, the discussions before a conclave in which the cardinals debate the issues that will face the new pope. A faction composed largely of English- and German-speaking pastoral cardinals made clear their exasperation with what they depicted as the arrogance, secretiveness and mismanagement of the “Italians”, a group of insiders, most of them Italian by birth or officials in the Roman Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy, which is steeped in a very Italian ethos of reciprocal favours, patronage and conspiracy. Though his spirituality and managerial talent counted, Francis, an archdiocesan cardinal and the son of Italian emigrant parents, was also the embodiment of a compromise between the two factions.
His first, and possibly most important, decision after taking office was to shun the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace overlooking St Peter’s Square for simpler accommodation: Room 201 of Casa Santa Marta, a sort of hotel within the Vatican for visiting clerics and others. He has explained this decision in terms of his need as a member of a religious community, the Jesuits, not to live in isolation. But it was also a shrewd political move. It expressed his desire to eschew ostentation and to seek counsel from outside the church’s traditional power structures: living in Casa Santa Marta gives him the freedom to buttonhole all and sundry as they pass through Rome. As he told Civiltà Cattolica, a Jesuit periodical, the Apostolic Palace is “like an inverted funnel. It is big and spacious, but the entrance is really tight.”
The move signalled the start of what Massimo Franco, a columnist at Corriere della Sera, an Italian daily, called “an inexorable transition that has caught many of the ‘Italians’ off-guard.” Since then the pope has bypassed the Vatican hierarchy and placed advisers from the periphery at the centre of his decision-making. A month after his election he created a group of eight cardinals to “advise him on the government of the universal church” and to draw up a project for the reform of the Curia. Only one is a Vatican official. He has also named clerics and laypeople from outside Rome to several other new consultative bodies. Asked to identify Francis’s most salient characteristic, one diplomat replied: “His hardness”.
Last month Francis announced a new Secretariat of the Economy to oversee the Vatican’s financial affairs. This may be the most important change to the Curia since a restructuring ordered by Pope Paul VI in 1967. Its first head will be the archbishop of Sydney, George Pell, whose reputation for ruthlessness has earned him the nickname “Pell Pot” in Australia. Among his many difficult tasks will be to clean up the Institute for the Works of Religion, often known as the Vatican Bank.
Such reforms are essential to the success of Francis’s papacy: the Vatican Bank has been at the centre of several financial scandals that have embarrassed recent popes. But they are also dangerous: many in Rome believe that a Curial plot forced Benedict’s resignation. When, on January 26th, a crow attacked doves of peace released by children standing beside Francis, some Romans took it as a warning that he risked a similar fate. The insiders whose leaks alleging corrupt favouritism in the Vatican undermined Benedict’s papacy were branded corvi (“crows”) in many Italian media outlets. Francis is aware of these risks. The founder of La Repubblica, Eugenio Scalfari, who had a long conversation with him last year, quoted him afterwards as describing the court that forms around a pontiff as a “leprosy of the papacy”.
A misstep in his handling of the long-running scandal of clerical sex abuse poses other, perhaps greater, dangers. On this, critics accuse the pope of moving too slowly. He has set up a special commission for the protection of minors, but its role is merely advisory. Though he suspended Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, a German bishop, for his opulent lifestyle, he has so far done nothing about Robert Finn, an American bishop convicted in 2012 for failing to tell the authorities about a priest suspected of sexually abusing children.
“He has changed the topic from abuse without doing anything about it,” says Anne Barrett Doyle of the American watchdog group bishopaccountability.org. “I would never have predicted that a whole year would go by without the new pope reaching out in a meaningful way to the victims.” In his most recent interview, with Corriere della Sera, Francis appeared to suggest that the church was the true victim: it was “perhaps the only public institution to have acted with transparency and responsibility…And yet the church is the only one to have been attacked.”
The flock and the fold
Though structural and organisational reforms mattered, Francis insisted in his wide-ranging interview with Civiltà Cattolica, they could only come after what he termed a “reform of attitude”. The ministers of the gospel “must be people who can warm the hearts of the people,” he said. It was a reminder that the pope is not only the head of a giant multinational, but also a man of faith, who spends two hours every morning in prayer and one every evening in adoration of the Eucharist.
Francis’s priority will be, as Benedict’s was, to reverse the galloping secularisation of the world’s Catholics. This is spreading from western Europe and North America to Latin America, and is, in many cases, rooted in disagreement with the church’s teaching on sex. Here, too, he has turned to outsiders for counsel, arranging a global poll of deaneries and parishes to find out how they deal with the family.
“[Francis] is not a dogmatic scholar who would just like to affirm everything as it was in the textbooks,” says Hans Küng, a liberal Swiss theologian who has clashed with successive popes over doctrine. And on occasion Francis has hinted at a readiness for change. “Let us think of when slavery was accepted or the death penalty was allowed without any problem,” he said to Civiltà Cattolica. “Exegetes and theologians help the church to mature in her own judgment.
But it is not yet clear just how far Francis is prepared to go to adapt church teaching to modern life. The gulf that has opened up between the beliefs and attitudes of the Vatican, and those of the faithful, was highlighted by a recent poll in selected countries commissioned by Univision, an American Spanish-language television network. On a wide range of issues, the only continents on which most Catholics agreed with the Vatican’s line were Africa and Asia.
On the subject of artificial contraception, lay sentiment was heavily in favour of change, even in the otherwise dutiful Philippines. A majority supported an end to priestly celibacy in three of the four Latin American countries surveyed, and the ordination of women in two. Throughout Latin America and in Europe clear majorities favoured allowing the termination of pregnancies in some circumstances. And gay marriage, though widely opposed by Catholics in most of the world, was supported by most of the respondents in the United States.
The issue where the well-informed see greatest hope for change is the church’s ban on communion for divorced, remarried Catholics. Univision’s survey found overwhelming majorities in favour of ending it, not only in Europe and North America, but in Latin America, too. Conservatives raise two objections: one theological and one pragmatic. How can someone in what the church sees as an invalid marriage be a worthy recipient of the Eucharist, which Catholics believe is the body of Christ? And how can the Vatican appear to undermine marriage at a time when the church is engaged in what it sees as a desperate battle to defend the institution against same-sex marriage in many countries, and rising divorce and cohabitation rates almost everywhere?
In recent weeks Pope Francis has nevertheless appeared to be edging towards a shift. Last month he chose Cardinal Walter Kasper, a liberal who has argued against the ban, to address cardinals meeting to discuss questions about the family. And on February 28th, during his daily mass in Casa Santa Marta, he called on priests to “accompany” those whose marriages had failed. “Do not condemn,” he said. “Walk with them and don’t practise casuistry on their situation.”
Liberal Catholics are also hoping that the pope will reconsider the role of women in the church. “For me, this is the litmus test,” says a former senior Vatican official. “If he does not do something radical for women, then I think we can assume he will not make any substantial reforms.” One possibility is that he might place a woman, perhaps the head of a religious order, in charge of a Vatican department. Some theologians have argued that only the ordained can exercise power in the name of the pope. But on March 3rd Cardinal Kasper, perhaps acting as a stalking horse, said there was no reason why women could not run some of the Pontifical Councils, second-class Vatican “ministries”, which have briefs that include the laity, the family, culture and the media.
Almost no one familiar with the church expects Francis to change doctrine on abortion, divorce or artificial contraception. Many of his non-Catholic admirers seem unaware of his doctrinal limitations. But Mr Küng warns against underestimating the role of style and gestures. His latest book is called, “Can we Save the Catholic Church?” and he answers his own question by noting that Francis has already started to save the church. “It is not only that he has plans,” Mr Küng says. “I think that the simple clothing, the change in protocol and the completely different tone of voice are not superficial things. He has, in fact, introduced a paradigm shift. That is the beginning of saving, not the end. But that is already a lot.” Perhaps the greatest risk for this unpretentious, popular pope is of raising false expectations.