When the Catholic hierarchy selected Jorge Maria Bergoglio of Argentina as their new pope in 2013 many members of the faith, and many non-Catholic observers like this author, were optimistic that the Church would finally move in a more progressive direction. A ground-breaking choice, Francis was not only the first de facto non-European pope (after Gregory of Syria in 741 AD) and the first pope from the Americas, but the first Jesuit and one with a history of radical left-wing activism.
In terms of the Church’s position on crucial secular issues of the day the optimists were right. In terms of internal institutional and doctrinal reform they were hopelessly wrong, as the latest imbroglio over Francis’ declaration on same-sex “blessings” has so clearly demonstrated. Simply put, outside observers may have been encouraged by the actions of the new pope,[i] but many Vatican insiders were clearly taken aback and often horrified. And they have aggressively resisted, sometimes behind the scenes but often, as in this latest case, in full public view. Given the underlying assumption of the Catholic Church that the pope is infallible, this growing willingness to challenge the decisions of their elected leader is even more noteworthy.
Over his decade in office Pope Francis has certainly taken many unprecedented stands on secular issues that would have been unthinkable under any of his predecessors except, perhaps, the ill-fated John-Paul I nearly fifty years ago. He has denounced the death penalty as “intrinsically evil” and “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”[ii] and committed the Church to its elimination worldwide. He has redoubled his pre-pontifical criticism of ‘unbridled’ capitalism, consumerism and overdevelopment, and denounced the rise of right-wing populism. He has committed his papacy to promoting action on climate change. He has been a strong advocate for interreligious dialogue, the plight of the poor and the cause of refugees in Europe and Central America, calling on western nations to substantially increase immigration levels. In 2022 he issued an apology on behalf of the Church for its role in the “cultural genocide” of indigenous people in Canada.[iii] While he was justifiably criticized for his reluctance to come to grips with the entrenched problem of sexual abuse on the part of the clergy, he has since recognized that he was initially slow to act and has apologized on numerous occasions for their actions and his own tardy response.[iv]
Meanwhile he has tried to reform the institution from within, beginning with his early statement that the church should not only support the poor but be poor, and that its hierarchy should be more concerned with expanding its missionary role than following rules. As a symbolic gesture he chose to reside in the Vatican guest house rather than the papal apartments and has eliminated many of the ‘frills’ of the papal office. More significantly he eliminated traditional stipends and bonuses for numerous members of the Vatican curia and donated the money to charity. The move set the tone for the tension and even antipathy towards him among many of these senior officials, who were determined to defend their vested interests as he moved to streamline bureaucracy, decentralize authority in the curia and increase consultation with representatives of the laity.
In yet another move to defuse power, and enhance representativeness in the Church hierarchy, Francis appointed an unprecedented number of Cardinals from Africa, Latin America and Asia. Given that 99 of the current 137 cardinals have been appointed by him, it is now all but certain that the next conclave – the meeting to choose his successor – will be the first where not only Italians, but Europeans in total, will not comprise the majority of electors. This too has provoked considerable backlash among the traditional elites.
As one recent analysis of the Pope’s failure to achieve many of his objectives concluded, “It became apparent this week that Pope Francis has been unsuccessful in bringing about the most fundamental Vatican reform he’s been aiming at during his nearly ten years in office — a change of mentality at the Church’s bureaucratic center in Rome. “The first reform must be the attitude,” the Jesuit pope said in a wide-ranging interview in September 2013. “The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward.” But while officials have learned to conform — at least outwardly and most of the time — to the pope’s demands for a kinder, gentler Roman Curia, it’s obvious that not all of them have sincerely bought into his “attitude adjustment program”.[v]
One of the most dramatic conflicts between the pontiff and the curia arose over his aggressive pursuit of wrong-doing at the Vatican Bank. Years of scandal over corruption, money-laundering charges and even possible association with the Italian Mafia, led him to replace four of the five cardinals overseeing its operation and to hire a Swiss money-laundering expert to unravel the Bank’s complex web of financial activities. After more than two years of deliberations by a special Vatican court, established by Francis to adjudicate what the media termed the “trial of the century,” the result in late December 2023 was the conviction and sentencing to prison terms of five senior Vatican officials, including the formerly all-powerful Cardinal Angelo Becciu. Perhaps not surprisingly, an alternative narrative has been promulgated by many of Francis’ strongest opponents, alleging that he himself had been involved in various activities, that so-called “Friends of Francis” are protecting him, and that, in any event, he was responsible for appointing or condoning the activities of several of the individuals on trial. [vi]
However the greatest resistance to the pope’s efforts have come, again not surprisingly, on the issue of internal church doctrine. His effort to strike a more moderate and flexible interpretation of the Church’s position on the access of divorced individuals to church sacraments, for example, resulted in four senior cardinals of the Church protesting publicly, submitting a written set of questions which expressed their doubts. Francis did not respond to the questions, but did replace one of the cardinals – the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – a move which led one of the other protesters to declare publicly that “only a blind man could deny there is great confusion, uncertainty and insecurity in the Church.”[vii]
This resistance pales in comparison with the unrest resulting from the ponitff’s modest efforts to increase the role of women in the Church. Having stopped far short of any move to allow for women to be ordained as priests, the pope has nevertheless appointed women to administrative positions in the Vatican for the first time, and has provided for 35 women holding various administrative posts throughout the organization to be eligible to vote for the first time at a Synod (meeting) of Bishops. While outside observers might consider these efforts to be minimal, they too have provoked considerable controversy within the walls of the Vatican and among Catholic traditionalists in the clergy.
Which brings us to the current imbroglio over the issue of the Church’s treatment of LGBTQ individuals. Here, too, the pope has been extremely cautious. He has consistently reiterated the Catholic doctrine defining marriage as a union of a man and a woman. But he has also urged the decriminalization of homosexuality and suggested that clergy should welcome LGBTQ people into church services, stating that “we are all children of God.” In early 2023 he initiated a discussion on same sex unions, a process that culminated on December 18 with the publication of his doctrinal declaration that allows Catholic clergy to “bless” these unions while clearly stating that this neither implies approval of the relationship nor recognition of marriage.
Despite this obviously convoluted attempt to avoid controversy, the doctrine immediately resulted in the greatest internal backlash of Francis’ papacy. And the greatest opposition has come from cardinals and bishops in Africa, most of whom he himself appointed. In a statement released on January 11, 2024 by Congolese Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo on behalf of the Catholic bishops of Africa and Madagascar, the rebels indicate they will refuse outright to follow the pope’s directive, declaring that such unions are “contrary to the will of god.” [viii] In a move to limit the damage, the Vatican has since issued several ‘clarifications’ that recognize the importance of cultural realities and stress that clergy are not obliged to perform such ceremonies, only that they may do so if they choose. In return, the African protesters have reiterated their fealty to the pope.
The irony is striking. Left to his own devices the pope can and on occasion has moved quickly and dramatically to take enlightened positions. Forced to grapple with the powerful internal interests in the archaic infrastructure of the Church, he has been met with fierce resistance every step of the way. Despite efforts to bring the hidebound institution into the 21st century Francis in the end has made little progress on many of those initiatives. Even more perverse is the fact that some of those whom he had tried to promote within the institution to broaden its perspective have been the cause of his current difficulties through their rigid ideological views.
For elected officials in most western liberal democracies the travails of this pope will no doubt seem both familiar and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but it is worth noting that his struggles with the institutionalized Church offer a cautionary tale for those attempting to bring about attitudinal change in entrenched bureaucracies.
[ii] Trabbic, Joseph. Catholic World Report. August 16, 2008.
[iv] “Pope thanks journalists for helping to expose Church sex scandals”. Reuters. Nov. 13, 2021
[viii] N. Winfield. ‘Bishops Reject Same Sex Blessings.” Ottawa Citizen. January 12, 2024.