Pope Francis is an undeniably attractive figure whose concern for people at society’s margins can be awesome to behold. As a result, it’s almost impossible sometimes not to go soft on the man.
To take a recent example: While in South Korea in mid-August, the pontiff made a point of visiting a group of severely disabled children at a health care center outside Seoul. He delighted in a dance they performed, then utterly disregarded his schedule to embrace each one by one. He laughed with them, wiped away their tears, and for a brief, shining moment, made them feel like the center of the universe.
Even cynical reporters watching the scene had a hard time not choking up, because Francis just feels so palpably like the real deal.
Yet precisely because there’s so much to like, Francis sometimes gets a free pass on the sort of legitimate questions any other leader would attract. In that regard he often seems the mirror opposite of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Because Benedict had a bad public image, he sometimes was blamed even for things that weren’t his fault. In contrast, Francis often is absolved even for choices for which he actually is responsible.
Where Benedict was Velcro, Francis is Teflon. For Benedict everything stuck, for Francis almost nothing does.
At least four hard questions we should be asking more often come to mind.
1. Women and the Church
First up is the pope’s record on women. Despite his firm “no” to women priests, he has said repeatedly that he wants to see a greater role for women in Catholicism, including participation in the “important decisions … where the authority of the Church is exercised.”
To date, however, Francis hasn’t offered many examples of what such a greater role would look like. When he’s had a chance to chip away at the Vatican’s glass ceiling for women, quite often he’s whiffed.
In March, he named seven lay people to his new Council for the Economy, the first time at such a senior level that laity have sat with Cardinals as equals on a decision-making body.
It was a step forward for the lay role in the Church, but there wasn’t a single woman in the line-up.
Even when presented with realistic proposals for empowering women, he’s balked.
Maria Voce is an Italian lawyer who serves as president of the worldwide Focolare movement, and a highly respected figure on the Vatican scene. In December 2013, she floated the idea of creating a council of lay advisers to the pope as a companion to the C8 Council of Cardinals — advisers Francis created in April 2013.
As she conceived it, the council would be a mixed body of lay women and men from around the world, perhaps including a married couple. Although it seems the sort of thing Francis might do, he hasn’t so far, and there’s no indication he plans to do so.
The question is, “Why not?”
2. Sexual abuse
Sexual abuse is another front. An exception came with an Aug. 24 piece in The New York Times about former Polish Archbishop Joseph Wesolowski, a onetime papal envoy in the Dominican Republic accused of molesting minors. He was recalled in late 2013 and laicized, meaning kicked out of the priesthood, in June.
The Times asked whether bringing the former prelate to Rome was a way of evading civil prosecution, forcing the Vatican to clarify that because he’s been stripped of diplomatic status, he could stand trial in the Dominican Republic or any other jurisdiction that wants a shot at him.
Wesolowski, however, was not the only question mark.
The pope set up an anti-abuse commission last December to great fanfare, yet aside from organizing a meeting for the pontiff with abuse victims in June, it hasn’t done very much. At this stage, it’s not clear where it’s physically going to be housed, or whose jurisdiction it falls under.
Word in Rome is that an announcement about the commission might be coming this week. Still, it’s fair to ask why, if fighting child abuse is a priority, it’s taken this long for the pope’s chosen reform vehicle to get going.
Another shoe waiting to drop is accountability for bishops – not in cases such as Wesolowski’s, where the bishop himself is accused of abuse, but when bishops fail to apply the Church’s “zero tolerance” policy to other clergy under their supervision.
Francis acted with vigor when the infamous “bling bishop” in Limburg, Germany, was accused of over-spending. Why hasn’t he shown the same zeal in disciplining bishops who drop the ball on abuse charges?
3. The pope as diplomat
There are questions to be asked about Francis’ performance as a diplomat.
On the way home from Korea, Francis insisted this his recent peace prayer in the Vatican Gardens with the Israeli and Palestinian presidents was “absolutely not a failure,” despite the fact that war broke out on the Gaza Strip just days later.
Perhaps, and of course it’s unfair to blame Francis for failing to solve the Israeli/Palestinian problem when everyone else has come up empty. Still, if he wants to be a “Peace Pope,” it’s legitimate to ask if there’s something more incisive he might contemplate beyond feel-good rituals in the Vatican Gardens featuring a lame-duck Israeli president with no real influence.
To date, the only concrete diplomatic success to which Francis can point is helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad cling to power by opposing Western strikes. The pope had his reasons, including fear for Syria’s Christians in the aftermath of regime change. Yet assuming that Assad reasserts control, the question is whether Francis will use the Church’s resources to promote greater respect for human rights and democracy.
If not, his major political accomplishment could go down as propping up a thug.
Despite his reputation for spontaneity and candor, Francis is also capable of some debatable diplomatic silences.
He’s often said that the suffering of persecuted Christians makes him weep. Yet when he was recently a few miles away from arguably the most atrocious oppressor in the world, North Korea, he went strangely quiet. Asked during a press conference about Christians in North Korea, he replied in generic terms about the pain of a divided country.
The pontiff also extended an olive branch to China during the trip, without mentioning its own record of oppressing Christians and other minority groups.
In a similar vein, word has gone out to Vatican personnel to use caution in commenting on the Islamic State in northern Iraq for fear of framing the conflict as “Christian v. Muslim,” thereby handing radicals a propaganda and recruiting tool. While understandable, the question is whether such discretion will impede the ability of the pope and Church officials to mobilize support for Iraq’s Christians, who are undeniably a primary target.
Perhaps in all these cases, Francis has a legitimate fear of making things worse by speaking out. Without explanation, however, critics may begin to detect a dubious policy of “peace at any price.”
That drumbeat has already begun from the likes of the Rev. Gianni Criveller, a Hong Kong-based member of the Pontifical Institute of Foreign Missions and a leading expert on China.
“No agreement is better than a bad agreement,” Criveller said of Francis’ efforts at détente with Beijing. “I would focus more on supporting Catholics in China and speaking about their plight more openly.”
4. Collaborative or unilateral?
Francis could be asked about what seems on the surface a contradiction between his stated commitment to decentralization and collaboration, and his practice of acting unilaterally when the mood strikes him.
This is a pope, after all, who blew past the normal protocol for naming saints to award a halo to a member of his own Jesuit order, Peter Faber. He disregarded the input of Italian bishops to tap an obscure prelate he happens to like as their new secretary. He gives blockbuster interviews that haven’t been cleared with his communications team, let alone other Vatican aides or local bishops, even though they’re the ones forced to respond when the bombshells go off.
One senior Western diplomat has called Francis’ management style “government by surprise,” expressing sympathy for mid-level officials serially caught off guard.
The pope has convened two synods, meaning summits of bishops from around the world, to discuss matters related to the family, including the controversial issue of whether divorced and remarried Catholics should be able to receive communion. While saying he wants an open debate, he’s signaled in a half-dozen ways his personal sympathy to the more flexible position – arguably, stacking the deck.
Francis’ maverick streak is part of his charm, and one may firmly believe that all these acts are taking the Church in the right direction. Still, it’s fair to ask how they square with his vow of “collegiality,” meaning governing in concert with others.
‘These are things I need to hear’
To be clear, it’s not that Francis is incapable of answering these questions. It’s rather that his charisma sometimes impedes them from even being asked, especially with any edge.
During an hour-long press conference on the way back from South Korea, only a couple of these questions surfaced, and then in mild form. Yet in addition to inquiries about his views on Iraq and China, those of us on the plane found time to ask how Francis copes with his “immense popularity,” how he felt about his favorite soccer team winning the Argentine championship, and what his daily routine is like in the Vatican residence where he lives.
In the end, pulling punches is no service to anyone. Least of all is it any help to Francis, who has said of criticism offered in a constructive spirit, “These are things I need to hear.”