In his first two years as leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has scored high marks in the secular world where his popularity continues to soar, chiefly among non-Christians and fallen-away Catholics.
But although the general perception of Francis has been very positive since his election on March 13, 2013, he remains a mystery to many of his flock.One of his most visible achievements so far involves his reform of the Roman Curia (the Vatican bureaucracy), a task that has eluded many past pontiffs.
This has been largely helped by a strong mandate: cardinals entering the conclave two years ago placed reform of the Vatican bureaucracy — a sclerotic institution with an outdated patronage, shadowy finance, and a few secret lobbies — top of the agenda of any new pontificate.This had taken on a particular urgency after various scandals in preceding years, topped off by “Vatileaks” — leaked Vatican documents.
The real nuts and bolts of the reform have yet to be revealed, but the scandals have disappeared off the front pages and mostly become a distant memory. In an interview this week with Il Fatto Quotidiano, Cardinal Velasio de Paolis, a former head of Holy See finances, said the curia “seems more disciplined.”
Vatican scandals have “reduced in scope and number,” he said, although he did not say they had totally gone away. “Let’s say that with Francis, attention has been directed elsewhere.”
In terms of the Vatican’s hitherto shadowy finances, Francis has successfully implemented reforms in the face of some predictable resistance. In line with the wishes of cardinals, he set up the “council of nine” cardinals to examine reform which has included implementing a raft of transparency checks.
Among them have been centralizing most of the curia’s finances under the newly created Secretariat for the Economy, headed by Australian Cardinal George Pell. The reforms are promising on paper, but the effectiveness of these changes will only be fully known when financial statements are released later this year.
Francis has also been resolute in tackling clerical sex abuse, establishing a pontifical commission comprising clergy and lay experts. The new body aims at better protecting minors, and making prelates properly accountable for mishandling abusive clergy.
But among a minority of officials, the old patronage of the curia largely remains, partly because of Francis’ reticence to tackle it head on. To some, he has even fostered cliques by removing Benedict XVI-appointees and choosing like-minded officials largely from the Holy See’s diplomatic service, many of whom have served in Latin America.
A buzzword of this pontificate is collegiality, or synodality: an attempt to make the church more democratic and less centralized around the Pope and the Vatican. Francis has attempted to achieve this principally through two synods on the family, the first held last October, and a second this coming fall.
The meetings, which have included the unprecedented step of giving Catholics a questionnaire on issues related to family, marriage and human sexuality, aim to help the church better deal with today’s pastoral challenges in these areas.
But although he said he hoped for an open and free debate, the process has been hampered by strong allegations that synod managers have steamrollered through a heterodox agenda, particularly on neuralgic issues of divorce and remarriage and homosexuals.
Some believe this reflects the Pope’s own approach, viewed by some as autocratic.“Bergoglio speaks of decentralization of power in the church and then proves to be a strong centralist,” said church historian Roberto de Mattei in a March 8 interview with the Italian daily Il Resto del Carlino.
He and others believe the reported abuses at the synod, and especially the fact that the Pope appears to have sympathy for some liberal positions, will exacerbate division. His supporters, however, argue he’s unblocking channels and opening a process to allow the Holy Spirit to work amid disagreement. “This is ultimately about a process which is designed to be of God,” said papal biographer Austen Ivereigh, author of ‘The Great Reformer’. “This is part of a much deeper and wider reform.”
In terms of evangelization and as a communicator to the masses, Francis has been significantly more successful. Since his election, he has made going out to the peripheries, in an affective and personable manner, a central theme.
In doing so, he has reached out to those who are far from the church, or had turned their backs on her, and enabled them to take a fresh look at Catholicism. In a recent Pew survey, 9 out of 10 American Catholics said they had a favorable view of him.
Such outreach may or may not succeed in prompting non-Catholics to enter or re-enter the church, but it has at least positively engaged many of the church’s vehement critics. “Whatever the doubters say, we’re winning,” said one Catholic source in Rome who’s worked closely with the Vatican.
But traditional Catholics believe Francis’ freewheeling chats, perceived liberalism, and laissez-faire pastoral approach is undermining doctrine, if not in reality then by perception.
Francis’ pastoral strategy is “revolutionary,” de Mattei said, but it marks a “profound discontinuity” with the past 50 years of papal history. He believes it “subordinates truth to practice” and is “confusing” clergy and laity alike.
After two years, Pope Francis therefore remains a paradox. To the world at large, he has masterfully succeeded in rescuing the church from a poor public image, and to progressive Catholics, he appears to be the pontiff they have long wanted.
But the church’s first Latin American Pope remains an enigma among many of his own flock who find his immense popularity at odds with a church called to be countercultural.
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