Francis’s papacy is four years old today, which, for Americans, can’t help but suggest it’s the end of his first term. (That, of course, is not actually how things work in the Vatican, where popes don’t stand for re-election, but that won’t stop many Americans from attaching a special resonance to today’s milestone.)
Whatever one makes of Pope Francis, whether one finds him inspiring or infuriating, there’s no question the last four years have been an earthquake in the Catholic Church. Francis has taken the wider world by storm and shaken up the Church he leads in a variety of ways, the full implications of which probably won’t be clear for a long time.
In the spirit of taking stock, the following offers a sampler of clear wins Francis has notched over the last four years, a couple of mixed verdicts, and three incompletes. It’s hardly meant to be an exhaustive overview, since this dynamo of a pope doesn’t have an off switch, and trying to catalogue everything he’s said and done over these past four years would miss the forest for the trees.
Leaders can’t change the world if no one knows who they are, so the first hurdle to effectiveness is always getting people’s attention. By that standard Francis is an unqualified success, having captured the world’s imagination from the very beginning.
Even if today Francis shares the title of world’s most riveting public personality with Donald Trump, that’s still an awfully exclusive club.
Four years on, there’s little sign that the fascination with Francis is abating. His appeal is clear in multiple ways, from the combined following of his nine twitter accounts in excess of 30 million, to opinion polls around the world showing Francis with remarkably high approval ratings, not to mention the saturation-style media coverage virtually anything he says or does draws.
Francis now wields perhaps the biggest “bully pulpit” of any global leader, and how he chooses to deploy it therefore can be hugely consequential.
Changing the conversation
As Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles likes to say, the genius of Pope Francis is that he hasn’t changed the teaching of Catholicism, but he certainly has changed the conversation about that teaching.
Prior to his election, public debate about Catholicism had been largely focused on a narrow canon of deeply contentious issues: abortion, contraception, homosexuality and gay marriage, not to mention the clerical sexual abuse scandals. While none of those matters have gone away, Francis has succeeded in lifting up a much wider range of other Catholic concerns, such as the poor, migrants and refugees, the environment, and conflict resolution.
None are novel in terms of substance, but the emphasis and pride of place they enjoy under Pope Francis feel fresh to many observers, and it’s helped reframe impressions of the Church.
Moreover, Francis’s open, maverick style has appealed to wide sections of the world that heretofore had tuned out the Church, creating at least the possibility of new evangelical dynamism. As Crux’s Claire Giangravè reported, Francis even recently landed on the cover of Italy’s edition of Rolling Stone, in a largely adulatory feature celebrating his appeal to Millennials.
How well Catholicism succeeds in exploiting that opportunity remains to be seen, but the mere fact of generating it has to go in the “win” column.
By now, travel has become a standard part of the job description for what it means to be pope. Francis so far has made 17 foreign trips, taking him to 26 countries, with several more planned for 2017, including likely outings to Asia, Latin America and Africa.
By any reasonable measure of what counts as a “successful” papal trip, Francis has checked all the boxes.
Crowd size? Consider the estimated three million people he drew on his first outing, to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil in July 2013 for World Youth Day, rivaling the estimated 3.5 million who packed the city’s Copacabana Beach in 1994 to hear Rod Stewart. The pope then doubled his own record in Manila in 2015, drawing an estimated six to seven million in what’s now commonly regarded as the largest single event in papal history.
Media coverage? The pope’s presence draws intense media interest no matter where he goes, including in the United States, where Francis’s six-day swing through Washington, New York and Philadelphia in September 2015 was covered like a week-long inaugural ceremony, and his speech to a joint session of Congress as if it were the State of the Union.
Impact? While not every trip is quite the same, consider that Francis’s stop in the Central African Republic in November 2015 was widely credited with giving the country enough confidence to hold a peaceful election and transfer of power three months later, significantly curbing, if not outright ending, what had been one of the world’s bloodiest internal conflicts. As Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga later said, “Right now in my country, everyone will tell you the same thing. Be they Muslim, Protestant, Catholic, everyone! They will say: Pope Francis brought a new breath of fresh air to our country and our individual lives.”
Not bad, as the saying goes, for a day’s work.
While popes are not fundamentally politicians, they are moral leaders affirming principles with relevance for social and political life. In the case of Pope Francis, he’s demonstrated a deft touch at bringing those principles to bear.
In September 2013, for instance, he led the moral charge against a proposed Western military intervention in Syria following charges that Bashar al-Assad had deployed chemical weapons against opposition-controlled areas around Damascus. Francis launched an all-out diplomatic push against widening the conflict, and was later credited by Russian President Vladimir Putin with being decisive in halting the momentum with the G8 towards supporting the initiative.
When the United States and Cuba announced the resumption of diplomatic relations in late 2014, both Cuban leader Raul Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama credited the pope’s leadership with helping to create the climate in which a breakthrough was possible. Similarly, many global leaders who gathered in Paris for a UN-sponsored climate change summit in late 2015 acknowledged Francis’s moral cheerleading on environmental protection with adding momentum to the push for a strong agreement.
That’s not to say every diplomatic effort under Pope Francis has borne fruit. So far, for example, the Vatican’s attempts to foster a peace deal in Venezuela haven’t succeeded. Yet there’s no question that Francis has enhanced the relevance of the Vatican and the Church as a global actor, and there are precious few conflicts in the world today where it’s not at least theoretically possible a papal intervention at the just-right moment might make a difference.
When Francis began an arduous process of convening two separate Synods of Bishops on the family back in 2014, he said he wanted the end result to be a strong consensus among bishops and the wider Church about the right course to take. Whatever else that odyssey produced, however, “consensus” would not quite seem to be it.
Instead, there’s no more contentious issue in the internal life of the Catholic Church today than the verdict delivered in Francis’s April 2016 document summing up those synods, Amoris Laetitia, and its cautious opening on Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
Many see that step as a long-overdue expression of pastoral charity, not to mention a ratification of what had already quietly been the Church’s pastoral practice in many places. There’s also a strong constituency that regards it as a worrying reversal of Church teaching on both marriage and the sacraments, and that debate shows no signs of abating.
After the document appeared, different bishops around the world began issuing guidelines or making statements about its implementation, and the signals they’ve sent have been widely contrasting. Given that Francis has indicated he doesn’t intend to make any further binding declarations on the subject, at least for now, it appears the diversity in approach is here to stay.
One can, of course, argue that it’s remarkably restrained of Francis not to simply settle the question by papal fiat, not to mention consistent with his oft-stated desire for greater collegiality in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. However one slices it, the fact remains that when it comes to the pastoral care of marriage, one of his signature priorities, Francis has not yet succeeded in bringing important sectors of the Church and its leadership fully on board with his vision.
Source of Unity
One of the traditional descriptions of the pope’s role in the Catholic Church is a source of unity for the whole Church. Catholicism is a wildly diverse assembly of 1.3 billion people in every nook and cranny of the planet, and to prevent it all from spinning apart, a strong center is essential.
Over the last four years, however, Francis sometimes has sown division as much as a spirit of common cause.
For every Catholic inspired by the pope’s social vision and reforming style, there’s usually another who finds him just too much – too spontaneous, too disdainful of tradition and convention, too combustible, and, most of all for more conservative Catholics, too liberal. The irritation all that produces in some quarters has become unmistakable, with a recent round of anti-Francis posters in Rome being merely one visible expression of it.
To be fair, no pope is controversy-free. Every pope from the very beginning has had critics and faced blowback, and in some ways the only difference today is that in the era of social media it’s all louder and makes the rounds faster.
Simply as a descriptive matter, however, it’s probably fair to say that because Francis is an unusually active and visible leader, he both inspires and consternates at a deeper level than most. That may be no more than the price of doing business, but it’s nevertheless a fact of life today that the pope is not merely an agent of unity, but also, and sometimes seemingly in almost equal measure, a lightning rod.
Francis was elected on a reform mandate in March 2013, and he began with a sweeping overhaul of the Vatican’s financial structures intended to foster a new climate of transparency and accountability. Fairly quickly, however, those structures became caught up in internal bureaucratic tussles, and to date haven’t fully delivered on the promises with which they were born.
Four years into the reform, three key pieces of the puzzle are still missing:
- A credible annual financial statement that goes beyond merely listing income and losses, providing a comprehensive picture of exactly how much in assets the Vatican controls and how those assets are being used.
- A meaningful annual audit, either conducted by an external auditor or by the Vatican’s own new position of Auditor General, that imposes real accountability.
- Prosecutions and convictions for financial crimes under the new legislation created both under Pope Benedict XVI and Francis. To date, at least forty such cases have been forwarded to Vatican prosecutors, but there have been no punishments imposed, which most observers believe is essential to convince people that the system has teeth.
There’s still time for all that to happen, but the longer things go on without those pieces of the puzzle falling into place, the more cosmetic talk of reform may begin to seem.
Sex abuse scandals
Early on Francis inspired confidence among survivors of clerical sexual abuse and their advocates, because he pledged his unwavering support for a policy of “zero tolerance,” and because he seemed prepared to back it up, creating a new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors led by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston.
As time went on, however, that confidence began to ebb. In part, that’s been due to some steps perceived as insensitive to abuse victims, such as naming a bishop in Chile with a history as an apologist for that country’s most notorious abuser priest. It’s also due to the fact that some promised reform measures have been slow in getting off the ground, such as a new mechanism for imposing discipline on bishops who mishandle abuse complaints.
Recently the last survivor to serve as an active member of the papal anti-abuse commission, Marie Collins of Ireland, quit in frustration over what she described as bureaucratic resistance to the group’s work from within the Roman Curia.
As with the financial clean-up, many observers will regard Francis’s promises as merely rhetorical until there are at least a couple of clear cases of bishops suffering consequences for failing to uphold “zero tolerance” protocols. Again, there’s certainly time for that still to occur, but many survivors and other observers can’t help wondering why it’s taken this long.
Francis has said repeatedly that he wants to boost the role of women in the Catholic Church, including within the Vatican and in other arenas where authority is exercised and leadership is deployed. To date, however, he’s had an uneven approach to making that happen.
So far, he hasn’t named a woman to lead any particularly high-profile Vatican department, and has missed a few seemingly obvious opportunities in other areas. When he created a new Council for the Economy, marking the first time that laity have served as full equals alongside cardinals on a Vatican decision-making body, he stocked it entirely with men, leaving many wondering if he truly couldn’t find at least one qualified female financial professional.
Francis has ruled out the idea of women priests, and in general seems skeptical of what he regards as attempts to “clericalize” women. (What implications that perspective may have for the results of a commission he created to examine women deacons remains to be seen.)
What Francis has not yet pioneered, however, is what an effective non-clericalizing strategy for enhancing the role of women might look like, in a Church where for so long power has been tied up with clerical status. He certainly still has time to pull it off, but some can’t help asking whether, if this were truly a priority, it would have been consigned to what amounts to the pontiff’s second term.