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Francis, Bishop of Rome. One year on

10 March 2014
Paul Collins

March is a wet month in Rome. It was raining when Pope Francis first appeared on the loggia of Saint Peter’s in the evening of 13 March 2013 and greeted everyone with a smiling ‘buona sera’ and asked for the crowd’s blessing. It was pouring rain again when I was back in Rome for the whole of last week in preparation for the first anniversary. I got soaked twice!

But nothing seems to dampen media enthusiasm for Francis and his new approach to what he calls his role as Bishop of Rome. Catholics committed to the renewal initiated by Vatican Council II feel that Francis has given them a new lease of life and well-informed, Rome-based journalists like Robert Mickens, who writes for The Tablet, told me last week that Francis has already come ‘too far’ to retreat now a more cautious stance.

Certainly Francis has already decisively changed the pattern established by his predecessors. No longer is the emphasis on the dangers of secularism, relativism and the false distinction between the so-called ‘hermeneutics of continuity and rupture’. Francis’ emphasis is in tune with the genuine Catholic tradition focusing on God’s mercy, the love of Jesus and the church’s pastoral care for the vulnerabilities, sins and failures embedded in the human condition. He has shifted the emphasis away from moralistic and doctrinal ideology.

He has halted the culture wars in Catholicism by abandoning the progressive versus reactionary dualism and turning to an inclusive, small ‘c’ catholic approach that embraces everyone. That is no mean achievement in one year.

Nevertheless amid all the enthusiasm for Francis’ approach, we need to keep ourselves grounded. The key mistake that Vatican II Catholics made after the Council was to fail to insist that the Council’s theological insights and ideals be enshrined in ecclesiastical structures.

Progressives think that you change things by talking a lot, by listening to lectures by ‘experts’ and waiting for complete consensus – which, of course, was never forth-coming from die-hard conservatives. And while endless gab-fests went on, those who at heart rejected the Council got on with the real business of making sure that the structures and institutions of the Church reflected their view. They fought hard and never gave up. And so for thirty-five years, from 1978 when John Paul II was elected until 2013 when Benedict XVI resigned, the achievements of Vatican II were slowly but relentlessly rolled back.

While the Council had called for a new vision of the people of God, lay participation, collegiality, and emphasis on the primacy of the local church, Pope Wojtyla used his media super-stardom to introduce a centralization that was unprecedented in church history.

As I said in Papal Power back in 1997: ‘No...geographical limits’ constrain the contemporary papacy. ‘An entirely new phenomenon has arisen in the Church: the omnipresent papacy. This has been created by the speed of modern travel and by media especially television’ (Papal Power, p 12). The context in which I was writing then was that of the papacy of John Paul II with his constant travel, media skills and conviction that somehow he was really ‘the bishop of the whole world’ through he imposed on the Church his highly peculiar vision of Vatican Council II. Kept alive by modern medicine, he became the apogee of papal power unrivalled in church history.

The lesson here is that Francis will be nothing more than a flash in the pan if church structures are not changed and there is a retreat from the overwhelming centralism of the Wojtyla and Ratzinger papacies. Sure, Francis has set-up his ‘Gang of Eight’ cardinals to advise him on reform of the Vatican. But so far they have focused on cleaning-up the Vatican Bank and the financial structures of the curia. While financial accountability is important, this is scarcely central to the proclamation of the Gospel, or a realization of Vatican II ecclesiology.

I certainly wish Cardinal George Pell the best of British luck in his appointment as Prefect for the Economy of the Holy See. His direct style might give him the edge in tackling the byzantine administrative structures and arcane financial dealings of what is essentially the court of a seventeenth century absolute monarchy. But don’t underestimate the Italians; Pell will face a tough fight as long-entrenched interests fight a rear-guard action as they protect their turf. It is significant that there is no word in Italian for ‘accountability’ in the sense of having to answer for one’s actions, or being liable to stakeholders. The Italian word responsibilità doesn’t mean accountability; it refers to looking after and caring for someone or something else.

Here I want to get a pet peeve off my chest. I am sick of people describing the contemporary papal court as ‘medieval’. It is not medieval; it is unequivocally the product of sixteenth and seventeenth century theory of monarchical absolutism underpinned by a developing bureaucracy. There were no absolute monarchs in the Middle Ages; royal power was always limited by nobles, rudimentary parliamentary institutions and the church. Absolutism is the product of the sixteenth century with Henry VIII (1509-1547) and Francis I (1515-1547 of France as early examples.

The popes, in defensive mode against the spread of Protestantism, quickly adopted this polity. The theologian who formed the modern ideology of absolutist papalism was the Jesuit Saint Robert Bellermine (1542-1621). Bellermine’s ecclesiology was cemented into place by the decrees on infallibility and especially papal primacy of Vatican Council I (1870). The papal bureaucracy developed along the same lines as the European royal houses and, in its time, was a paradigm of efficiency.

Returning to the present: the greatest danger we face with Francis is that we expect far too much from him. Never forget that he is an Argentinean male. Sure, as Paul Vallely’s excellent book Pope Francis. Untying the Knots points out, he has undergone a genuine conversion to humility, a kind of simplicity, human warmth, directness, honest speech and ‘looking at reality from the point of view of the poor’ as Vatican-watcher Alessandro Speciale describes it. Francis is neither a progressive nor a reactionary. Essentially he brings a totally new perspective from his history in Argentina that has little to do with the preoccupations of developed world Catholics. That’s why we shouldn’t kid ourselves that he is a kind of closet progressive.

Another danger is that he turns out to be all show and no substance. As I said before, Vatican II has never really been implemented because church structures have not been changed to reflect the Council’s theology. The ‘Gang of Eight’ cardinals have not even begun to address the diabolically difficult problems embedded in the curial structures of the Vatican. Even after consulting the laity on the forthcoming synod on the family, bishops’ conferences were instructed to keep the results secret obviously because the Vatican was going to hear some unpalatable truths on issues like contraception, sexual relations, homosexuality, women’s ordination and other gender issues. They simply don’t want the world to know the complete disjunction between papal teaching on gender issues and the reality in the Catholic world.

But there is also a sense Francis is even more dangerous to the development of the local Churches and the Vatican II agenda than Popes Wojtyla or Ratzinger. He is still the Pope and, despite his humility has not retreated from the extreme form of papal primacy that dominates ecclesiology at present; nor is he likely to any time soon.

As US Catholic feminist theologian Mary Hunt says: “All of the enthusiasm about Francis’ style does not change the fact that the institutional Roman Catholic Church is a rigid hierarchy led by a pope—the warm feelings in response to Francis shore up that model of church by making the papacy itself look good. To my mind, this is a serious danger. Even when I agree with his statements about eradicating poverty, becoming friends with our enemies, and the like, I have scruples about giving the new pope too much praise—as if other people have not said the same things and more for eons” (‘The Trouble with Francis: three things that worry me’, Religion Dispatches, 10 January 2014).

Hunt is correct. The modern papacy is still ecclesiologically the papacy modelled on absolute monarchy, whether it is occupied by a world super-star like John Paul, a culture warrior like Benedict XVI, or a self-confessed sinner like Bergoglio. The pope still absorbs almost all of the Church’s oxygen. Rome and the Vatican still completely overshadow the local Churches and try to interfere with everything that they do on the home front. Bishops still act like branch managers. ‘My concern’, Hunt says, ‘is that this spate of marvellous press renders it harder, not easier, to make a case for a horizontal model of church.’

Sure, Francis is concerned that the local Churches recover their sense of identity and he seems to be willing to grant them some measure of authority in deciding their own priorities. He says he wants to take local bishops seriously and also clearly wants to put the Vatican in its place as the servant of the Church, rather than being its lord and master. But while he has said all the right things, he still has to institutionalise all of this in a model of church in which these aspirations become structural realities.

Take, for instance, an issue like the appointment of bishops. The papacy only gained almost complete control of this process in the nineteenth century. John Paul and Benedict appointed a whole of slew of conformist, ‘yes’ men as bishops.

As a result the world episcopate manifests second-rate leadership qualities; the bishop with a mind of his own nowadays is very much the exception. Francis is right when he talks about the need to get bishops appointed who are pastoral in their orientation, closely linked to the people and local priests.

As Eric Hodgens says ‘Bill Morris is a good example of a bishop who fits Francis’ criteria, but in 2011 he was removed from Toowoomba by Benedict.’ Hodgens is also right when he says that Francis ‘knows good bishops are hard to find. The pool of priests is very shallow. Recruitment dropped to an unsustainable level 45 years ago ... Maybe it’s time for a lateral move. Pick a suitable layman and ordain him immediately. They did that with Ambrose in Milan in 374 A.D. That hurdle jumped, we may be ready for the next hurdle – suitable women’ (‘Sydney’s Next Bishop’).

So the jury is still out on Francis, Bishop of Rome. Personally, I always live in hope. Vatican II Catholics now feel that at last there is a chance to turn the Church around because the pope is ‘on our side’. But it may not work out that way. The focus will still be on the pinnacle of the hierarchical pyramid and it will be “harder, not easier, to make a case for a horizontal model of church”, as Mary Hunt says. In other words Pope Francis doesn’t let the rest of us practising Catholics off the hook. We still have to work to build the local Church and that is where our focus should be.

It is Francis's job to clean up the Vatican. Ours is to build the local Church.


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