The cardinals who chose Jorge Bergoglio as Pope envisioned him as the austere outsider, bringing change to a millennia-old religious monolith. But the opinions of Catholics has not been entirely favorable of Pope Francis.
When people say, “He makes me want to believe again,” as a lapsed-Catholic journalist said during one of these awkward “What do you have against Pope Francis?” conversations, they aren’t usually paying close attention to the battles between cardinals and theologians over whether his agenda is farsighted or potentially heretical. Nor are they focused on his governance of the Vatican, where Francis is a reformer without major reforms, and the promised cleanup may never actually materialize.
Vatican life is more unsettled than under Benedict XVI, the threat of firings or purges ever present, the power of certain offices reduced, the likelihood of a papal tongue-lashing increased. But the blueprints for reorganization have been put off; many ecclesial princes have found more power under Francis; and even the pope’s admirers joke about the “next year, next year …” attitude that informs discussions of reform. Meanwhile, Francis has been publicly content to champion multicultural social justice causes and seize the reins of a wildly careening geopolitical environmentalist bandwagon, cleverly harvesting the power it has afforded him.
The pope’s response to the sex abuse scandal, initially energetic, now seems compromised by his own partiality and by corruption among his intimates. The last few months have been particularly ugly: Francis just spent a recent visit to Chile vehemently defending a bishop accused of turning a blind eye to sex abuse, while one of his chief advisers, the Honduran Cardinal Óscar Maradiaga, is accused of protecting a bishop charged with abusing seminarians even as the cardinal himself faces accusations of financial chicanery.
Instead Francis’ reforming energies have been directed elsewhere, toward two dramatic truces that would radically reshape the church’s relationship with the great powers of the modern world.
The first truce this pope seeks is in the culture war that everyone in Western society knows well — the conflict between the church’s moral teachings and the way that we live now, the struggle over whether the sexual ethics of the New Testament need to be revised or abandoned in the face of post-sexual revolution realities. The second truce is with China.
The papal plan for a truce is either ingenious or deceptive, depending on your point of view. Instead of formally changing the church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage, same-sex marriage, euthanasia — changes that are officially impossible, beyond the powers of his office — the Vatican under Francis is making a twofold move. First, a distinction is being drawn between doctrine and pastoral practice that claims that merely pastoral change can leave doctrinal truth untouched. So a remarried Catholic might take communion without having his first union declared null, a Catholic planning assisted suicide might still receive last rites beforehand, and perhaps eventually a gay Catholic will have her same-sex union blessed — and yet supposedly none of this changes the church’s teaching that marriage is indissoluble and suicide a mortal sin and same-sex wedlock an impossibility, so long as it’s always treated as an exception rather than a rule. These are the changing faces of the Papacy, faces forged in the Machiavellian think tank of the Jesuit order.
At the same time, Francis has allowed a tacit decentralization of doctrinal authority, in which different countries and dioceses can take different approaches to controversial questions. So in Germany, where the church is rich and sterile and half-secularized, the Francis era has offered a permission slip to proceed with various liberalizing moves, from communion for the remarried to intercommunion with Protestants — while across the Oder in Poland the bishops are proceeding as if John Paul II still sits upon the papal throne and his teaching is still fully in effect. The church’s approach to assisted suicide is traditional if you listen to the bishops of Western Canada, flexible and accommodating if you heed the bishops in Canada’s Maritime Provinces. In the United States, Francis’ appointees in Chicago and San Diego are taking the lead in promoting a “new paradigm” on sex and marriage, while more conservative archbishops from Philadelphia to Portland, Ore., are sticking with the old one. And so on.
These geographical divisions predate Francis, but unlike his predecessors he has blessed them, encouraged them and enabled would-be liberalizers to develop their ambitions further. In effect he is experimenting with a much more Anglican model for how the Catholic Church might operate — in which the church’s traditional teachings are available for use but not required, and different dioceses and different countries may gradually develop away from each other theologically and otherwise.
The gamble on an Anglican approach to faith and morals is even more high-risk — as Anglicanism’s own schisms well attest. The pope’s “new paradigm” has defused the immediate threat of schism by maintaining a studious ambiguity whenever challenged. But it will ensure that the church’s factions, already polarized and feuding, grow ever more apart. And it implies a rupture (or, if you favor it, a breakthrough) in the church’s understanding of how its teachings can and cannot change — one less dramatic in immediate effect than the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, but ultimately more far-reaching in its implications for Catholicism.
This experiment is the most important effort of his pontificate, but in the last year he has added a second one, seeking a truce not with a culture but with a regime: the Communist government in China. Francis wants a compromise with Beijing that would reconcile China’s underground Catholic Church, loyal to Rome, with the Communist-dominated “patriotic” Catholic Church. Such a reconciliation, if accomplished, would require the church to explicitly cede a share of its authority to appoint bishops to the Politburo — a concession familiar from medieval church-state tangles, but something the modern church has tried to leave behind.
Accelerating division when your office is charged with maintaining unity and continuity is a serious business — especially when the eventual outcome is so difficult to envision for people who have never read a Great Controversy.
But we have. And we know what face the Vatican will ultimately turn towards the biblically obedient, a face darkened with displeasure despite its cunning social justice diversions.
"And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs coming out of the mouth of the dragon, out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet. For they are spirits of demons, performing signs, which go out to the kings of the earth and * of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty" (Revelation 16:13).