I’m not a member of the Catholic Church, and its mysteries don’t often concern me except when I need to understand them in a historical context. But I do have to ask what in the world is going on with the Pope Francis. He speaks for over a billion people, at least notionally, and some of the things he has been doing and saying have passed the point of the peculiar. So, if it isn’t me, someone will surely be asking the question soon: Really, Francis, what’s up?
The choice of Francis as the successor to Pope Benedict XVI was widely popular, at least in lay and liberal Catholic circles, and even non-Catholics often have a rooting interest in the papacy, which is, after all, a unique institution. The leader of China rules roughly as many people, but his position is understood to be a rotating one, and although he is an ideological and political leader, it is well understood that “Chinese Communism” is an oxymoron in what is rapidly becoming the world’s most advanced capitalist state.
Francis, on the other hand, is doctrinally regarded as having unique access not merely to ideological but ontological reality and as being inerrant in matters of faith and morals. Like any mortal, he can mistake the time of day if his watch isn’t working properly. When it comes, though, to matters of personal conduct and the proper path to salvation, he is held — as his predecessors have been since 1864 — to be the conduit of universal truth.
The church has a doctrinal position on gays, for example, and has held to it for a good while. It is a sin that must be repented, and, with divine help, abjured. Francis, however, advanced a different view not long after assuming the papacy. He opined that it was not his part to judge whether homosexuality was a mortal sin that precluded salvation. The trouble is, though, that this is precisely part of his job as the church defines it.
Technically, of course, the acts of salvation and damnation are entirely at God’s disposal. But it is the church’s job to counsel Catholics on the proper path to salvation, and to warn them against the behavior that will normally bar it. Homosexuality is not only considered a grave sin in and of itself according to church doctrine, but it is regarded as subversive of what the church considers the most fundamental of human institutions, the family.
For Francis to have offered an off-the-cuff statement, seemingly at odds with fundamental church precepts, would naturally have sent shock waves throughout the papal hierarchy. Although the pope’s word is authoritative, it is normally the product, as in any bureaucracy, of a lengthy process of deliberation — and the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church is not any bureaucracy but has been for most of the past thousand years the biggest and most comprehensive one in the world.
For a pope to short-circuit its normal processes, is unprecedented in the modern papacy. But what is most threatening in a pope is not to question or make doctrine on the fly. It is to question the very idea of a solid doctrinal position. That is precisely what Francis did in saying, a propos homosexual conduct as such, “Who am I to judge?” The last person in the Catholic Church to say such a thing aloud was Martin Luther.
Of course, such professions of intellectual modesty have made Francis a popular figure outside the church, as has his modest personal lifestyle. He has rebuked the princes of the church for living large, and frowned on the shady machinations of the Vatican fisc. How much impact this has had on the church may be doubted, but it has made a “people’s pope” out of Francis. In the dark corners of the Curia, however, he looks more and more like a loose cannon, which is to say, dangerous.
And then there have been the very public gaffes. In the recent uproar over the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the debate about the freedom to satirize and even deride religious faith, Francis weighed in with the observation that he would punch out anyone who mocked his mother’s cherished beliefs. This didn’t sound like a ringing endorsement of free expression, and the idea of a pope as personally prepared for violence seemed an odd stance for the Vicar of Christ. Added to this was Francis’ equally colloquial remark about Mexico as a haven for drug cartels, which required him to apologize to an entire nation.
However, the one area in which Francis has received very high marks is in his unabashed condemnation of the sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the church for the past three pontificates and which have undermined its moral authority among the faithful, as have few things since the Protestant Reformation. Neither John Paul II nor Benedict was willing to address the issue head on, and both were widely suspected of trying to cover it up as far as possible. Francis, as if deliberately making amends for them (and, no doubt, hoping as they did to avert the attention of secular authorities), announced a general reckoning in the priesthood and a zero tolerance policy for the future.
This sounded fine. It was one thing for the church to harbor sinners; it was another for it to be a haven for them. Trust and innocence were the most perfect treasures reposed in the church; their abuse was the inroad of Satan himself. The people’s pope would set things to right if anyone could.
It is precisely this issue, however, that has led to Francis’ most troubling public act: his recent appointment of Bishop Juan Barros to head the southern Chilean diocese of Osorno. Barros has been widely accused of covering up sexual abuses over more than two decades by one Father Fernando Karadima, the disgraced mentor of a Catholic youth movement, and even destroying evidence of his crimes. One of Karadima’s victims has indeed alleged that Barros was personally present when Karadima behaved abusively. At Barros’ installation ceremony, hundreds of black-clad demonstrators interrupted the proceedings with cries for him to “get out of the city.” Thousands of other protesters, including members of the Chilean Congress, chanted outside the city’s cathedral for his removal.
As the long-serving archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis must have been aware of the accusations against Barros, and he has certainly heard aplenty about them in the last several months. This time, however, he has left it to spokesmen to declare that he sees “no reason” to rescind Barros’ appointment.
Francis owed his elevation to the papacy in good part to the fact that Latin America is now the demographic base of world Catholicism. The controversy over Barros has echoed throughout the region, even though it has received little press in the United States. Whatever the merits of the case against him, the dogged assertion of papal authority against such broad-based popular opposition — the closest thing to actual revolt within the church seen in a long time — has deeply undermined the credibility of this pope on the signature issue of his pontificate.
It is no secret that conservatives placed in key church positions by John Paul and Benedict are simply waiting Francis out instead of openly resisting him. Francis himself, after broadly hinting that he too, like Benedict, would retire from the papal throne, has lately been “speculating” that he might to do so in as little as two or three years. This can hardly be read as anything but a confession of defeat. Francis, never a papal insider, will finally be remembered as a lightweight with a loose tongue whose elevation was a mistake. His epitaph will be that he confused a shallow populism with the skills necessary to pilot a hugely complex, deeply conservative, and in many ways sclerotic institution in a new century. The Catholic Church has been in many ways the definition of an entity too big to fail, and no one should be betting against it anytime soon. At the same time, however, the winds of secularism are blowing hard against it. John Paul, his charisma and his sense of modern public relations notwithstanding, pushed hard against those winds, as did Benedict, whose pontificate was in many ways a listless coda to John Paul’s. Francis has shown the danger of too casually yielding to them. The next occupant of the throne of St. Peter’s may have more work cut out for him than anyone can handle.