VATICAN CITY — What impact is a Latin-American pope having on a Roman Curia heavily influenced by Italians? Massimo Franco, a senior correspondent with Italy’s daily newspaper Corriere della Sera, shares his perspective in a new book called Il Vatican Secondo Francesco (The Vatican According to Francis).
Drawing on a number of high-level sources within the Vatican and Buenos Aires, Franco aims to show how Pope Francis’ vision of Catholicism is having a positive impact in the heart of the Vatican.
In an interview with the Register, the Italian author explains why he believes Francis has come to save the Roman Curia from “moral default” after recent scandals, how his attempts at Curial reform are faring and why he believes the Pope is more orthodox than many imagine.
Why did you decide to write this book?
My first motive was to give an analysis of the geopolitical change that occurred with the election of a Latin-American pope, because there has been a shift from Europe and Italy to Latin America. That means we have a sort of “colonization of the Vatican” by the Latin-American Church, which has been traditionally a land of mission for Europe and Italy.
Well, now, Europe is the missionary land — there has been a reversal. We now have a Latin American going to re-evangelize Europe and Italy, and his election is very telling about the shift of power from Europe and Rome and the Americas.
You also say in the book that the surprise isn’t that he’s the first Jesuit, or even the first Latin-American pope, but that he is a stranger to the mentality of the Roman Curia. Can you tell us what you mean by that?
I mean that the real novelty is not just that Francis is a Latin American, but he’s a complete outsider. One cannot explain his election without the resignation of Benedict XVI. That resignation signaled that all the positions were at ground zero in the Vatican, so at that point, even a Jesuit could become pope; even a Latin American could become pope. To put it in different terms, we see that the International Monetary Fund tends to save countries that are in financial disarray. In this case, we had a conclave that acted as a sort of international religious or Catholic fund called to save the Vatican from a “moral default.”
You said in your last book, three or four years ago, that you felt the Vatican was “imploding.”
Exactly, the problem is Rome.
Is Francis’ election putting a stop to that?
That was the intention of the cardinals. The conclave was a major defeat of European and Italian Catholicism, and what was quite clear in that conclave was they wanted a brand-new pope with a brand-new-mentality and new paradigms. I think the Pope is trying very hard to obtain results. I think he has gotten the Church on the international stage, but in the governance of the Vatican, the challenge is still there. He has not yet won.
You talk about a South-American model for that. What do you mean by this?
I mean a model in which popular religion is more important than rituals, power or relations with powerful people. It’s an approach that underlines a choice for the poorest and a more available kind of Catholic Church. This is the first major change.
The second is that it is a Church close to the people and with a majority [of the local population], while the European model is that of a Church surrounded by secularism, which is the minority and which tried to recover from a position of self-defense, while this pope is attacking [that secular mindset]. He’s not defending the Church [in a defensive way], because he knows he has behind him hundreds of millions of Catholics. Latin America has roughly half the total of Catholics of the world, so they feel much stronger.
And what is brand new is that Latin America, for the last five years, has reached a sort of unity among all the cardinals and bishops, which it hadn’t had before; so it is a very powerful force, which is joined by Northern and Central Americans and eventually by a part of the European episcopate and Asian and African episcopates.
As an Italian yourself, do you see him as attacking what is primarily an Italian way of doing things in the Curia, or is the Curia a separate culture altogether?
Yes, I think that what was quite clear during the conclave was that most foreign cardinals didn’t want an Italian pope. So this was de facto an anti-Italian conclave. Not by chance, some American cardinals defined some Italian cardinals as the poison-and-dagger lobby, which means that a very bad impression of the way Italians acted had pervaded the other episcopates.
Now, we’re seeing that this pope is choosing his advisers, his closest collaborators, maybe among the Italians, but not among Italians who were particularly powerful in the past. So they are all, in a way, outsiders. This is very telling and speaks volumes about the approach of this pope. And this is, of course, an opportunity and a risk, as well, because this pope doesn’t know very well the mechanisms of the Curia and how papal Rome works.
Some have said there’s resistance in the Curia. Do you know how the Curia generally sees him and whether that resistance is something he’ll not be able to overcome?
Yes, I think there are very strong and rooted resistances. I think there are many people in the Curia who think they must just wait and see what’s going to happen, and they hope this season will be over very soon. So they’re waiting and waiting for the Pope to commit some mistake, but so far, we have seen the Pope is winning.
Although some signals given in Rome — for a solution to the IOR, the Vatican Bank, for instance — have been quite contradictory. Because at the beginning, we understood that the Pope was going to close or reform radically the IOR. Now, we see the solution is much more a compromise.
What is your view of the Extraordinary Synod on Marriage and the Family and the Pope’s wish for open debate?
My impression is that this pope wants to follow processes but doesn’t want to impose an ideology and the truth [in a demanding way]. So his approach to problems is to make them emerge, to have a debate. But, from the point of view of doctrinal decisions, he hasn’t said that much so far. My impression is that, in the past months, he was depicted as a progressive pope, but my feeling is that, eventually, we’ll see that he’s more conservative than we think.
Observers say the synod is a litmus test for the Pope, helping us to better know his position on various issues. Do you agree with this?
Yes, it should be a key point, but we have already seen that the Pope has a very open but also orthodox approach; for instance, when he met French President Francois Hollande and U.S. President Barack Obama. Because, beyond the cordiality and friendliness of the approach, the Vatican let people know publicly there had been points of division; so it means the Pope utilized those two occasions to point out very clearly that he’s a pope: He’s not a “progressive pope.”
So, from the point of view of doctrine, there is a different stress, a different emphasis, but no substantive change of positions. He wants a debate, but a different approach, because he’s very inclusive. He doesn’t want to exclude anybody; he knows the Church comes from a position of very deep difficulties, and he doesn’t want to stress them anymore. He wants to recover and rescue the faithful and to show that the Church is open to the world.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.