The blueprint of Pope Francis’ pontificate is the 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).
First of all, Pope Francis wants to bolster the principle of episcopal collegiality, shared governing responsibility between the Bishop of Rome and all other bishops in communion with him. Though it would be more effective and expeditious for him to unilaterally make decisions and issue decrees (dictatorship is always most effective), it would be detrimental to the goal of inculcating collegiality in the life of the church, a process that will require much time, patience and probably lots of painful mistakes.
Second, Francis wants to broaden the scope of collegial governance to a far wider notion of responsibility for church life in which all the baptized play a role and have a voice. This is called “synodality,” where pastors and people journey together. Making this process a normal part of ecclesial life will be even messier, time-consuming and accident-prone than the full implementation of episcopal collegiality.
Third, one must carefully distinguish between the more concrete institutional reforms Pope Francis is trying to carry out and those reforms that others would like him to make. Many commentators have given the pope failing marks for not being able to reform the Vatican’s financial or communications sectors. Basically, they believe the overarching program of his pontificate has been Roman Curia and Vatican reform.
They have not paid attention. This was the expectation of a number of cardinals who elected him to the papacy five years ago. It was never an agenda that Francis invented or adopted specifically as his own. On the contrary, as a Latin American and the first Roman outsider since Pius X (1903-1914), he has focused most of his attention on the church far away from the Vatican. Curial officials at the church’s “center” paternalistically call these the “provinces.” Francis with great empathy and solicitude calls them the peripheries.
It would be odd and counter-productive for the pope to spend too much of his time and energy on reforming the center when his focus is on empowering and lifting up the church in other far-flung parts of the world.
And so he has delegated Curia reform to others, especially because he decided he did not want, nor was he able, to impose his way of doing so. For example, Francis made it clear from the beginning of his pontificate that his preference was to close the so-called Vatican Bank (“St. Peter never had a bank account,” he said several times early on). And as he had done shortly after becoming Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he wanted to disentangle the church from its association with or management of financial institutions. He believed then, and I suspect even more so now, that church institutions should be, rather, a client of externally run financial institutions.
But… it’s hard to close down an offshore bank that has worked so effectively for so long and in which so many people have deeply vested interests. The pope seemed to have decided quite quickly to entrust Vatican financial reform to the faction in the last conclave that rallied around Cardinal Angelo Scola. And so, he asked Cardinal George Pell, one of its leading members, to lead this reform. The Australian overreached his authority and alienated many key Vatican officials, causing a blowback that should have surprised no one. He is now gone – not because Francis removed him, but because the Australian criminal justice authorities have called him to face charges related to sexual abuse.
The pope has dealt with the much clamored for communications reform in the same way. This reform was originally demanded by Cardinal Pell and some other members on a former committee of cardinals who advised the pope on financial matters. The original aim was to strike Vatican Radio, a non-commercial evangelizing enterprise that cost the Holy See many millions of dollars each year to pay hundreds of employees and cover operating costs – without advertizing or much other revenue.
No one knows why Pope Francis selected the officials he did to oversee the communications reform, but – like he’s done with much else concerning institutions within the Vatican – he has allowed them to proceed without offering even a minimal personal involvement. He only intervened recently during the kerfuffle involving the original prefect of the Secretariat for Communications because he was forced to. Yet, he did not sack the prefect, just gave him a slight demotion.
Some have wondered if the pope has washed his hands of the internal drama inside the Vatican. He seems, at times, to have no interest at all with what goes on in the Roman Curia. The mess surrounding the disastrous communications reform and his tolerance of or aloofness towards officials who regularly contradict him (such as Cardinal Robert Sarah) would at least suggest this.
One could argue he’s decided that waging such battles are too costly and detrimental to the real reforms he envisions, things that are much more ambitious and far-reaching than the Vatican clean-up that some cardinals from the last conclave imagined for his pontificate.
Instead, Pope Francis is day-by-day reforming the institution of the papacy and the paradigm of the global church by putting down the foundations for greater decentralization and a synodal re-structuring of authority and decision-making. He is setting up processes that protect and enhance the preaching of the kerygma (the kernel of Christian faith) as the source and summit of the church’s mission and identity, rather than focusing obsessively on moral teachings and “small-minded rules.”
Francis has taken up John Paul II’s appeal at the end of the Great Jubilee to launch out into the deep. He has put the church on a new journey far from the safe harbors or comfortable spaces of our crumbling old institutions and structures. It is not clear how or when it will arrive at some Promised Land. But we should be confident that this pope understands quite well that the church must move quickly to lay down new foundations that will position it to better adapt to the biggest (and currently underway) societal changes in the history of humanity. He rightly recognizes that the internal organization of the Vatican is small potatoes in the overall scheme of things.
But the Bishop of Rome cannot and must not try to do this on his own. And Catholics must not expect him to. Not only would it be a step to stifle the ecclesiological developments of the Second Vatican Council, but it would also be a contradiction of his very program of reform.
And this brings us to one other element at play here. It is something that many of us don’t like to admit or are even aware of. It’s what I’ve often called the mutant gene in our Catholic DNA – papolatry.
This is something very different from the love, respect, prayerful solidarity and filial devotion that all Catholics are required to offer the Bishop of Rome. Instead, it is a god-like idolization of the Successor of Peter and an exaggerated expectation that he wields powers he does not possess.
We will be reminded of this in a few weeks during the first reading at Mass for the Sixth Sunday of Easter (May 6). We will hear the original Peter rebuke a centurion named Cornelius who bowed down to worship the one often called the “first pope.”
“Peter helped (Cornelius) up. ‘Stand up,’ he said, ‘after all, I am only a man!’” (Acts 10,26).
Indeed. And so is Pope Francis.