Pope Francis and the politics of a (maybe) short papacy

Pope Francis and the politics of a (maybe) short papacy

Pope Francis marked the second anniversary of his election on Friday with yet another blockbuster media interview, this one with the Mexican network Televisa. One headline from the conversation with veteran Vatican reporter Valentina Alazraki focused on his expectations for a short papacy. As he has on other occasions, Francis

Pope Francis marked the second anniversary of his election on Friday with yet another blockbuster media interview, this one with the Mexican network Televisa. One headline from the conversation with veteran Vatican reporter Valentina Alazraki focused on his expectations for a short papacy.

As he has on other occasions, Francis hinted that he doesn’t expect to be around very long.

“I have the feeling that my pontificate will be brief … four or five years. I don’t know, even two or three,” he said.

The pontiff called this nothing more than a “vague sensation.”

“Maybe it’s like the psychology of the gambler who convinces himself he will lose so he won’t be disappointed, and if he wins, he’s happy,” Francis said. “But I feel that the Lord has placed me here for a short time, and nothing more … But I always leave the possibility open.”

This isn’t the first time the pontiff has augured a short reign. Last August, he predicted he’d be around no more than two or three years in comments to reporters aboard the papal plane returning from a trip to South Korea, though again in the same breath leaving the door open to the chance that things may play out differently.

Reasonably enough, many people might wonder why Francis would speculate so openly about his tenure.

In the first instance, it’s important to observe that he’s done so because he’s been asked. He’s never brought the subject up himself, but instead has spoken in reply to queries from journalists. It’s hard to fault him for giving a straight answer to a straight question.

Moreover, it’s hardly the most earth-shattering hunch for a pope elected at the age of 76, who had part of one lung removed during a health crisis as a young man, to suspect that his time might be limited. Francis also knows he has an exit option not really open to most of his predecessors, since Benedict XVI already set the precedent by resigning.

And yet … if you want a five-star, banner headline-style insight about this pope, here it is: Beneath his humble, simple exterior lies the mind of a brilliant politician. He’s a media- and politics-savvy figure, and so the question has to be asked: What political advantage does Francis derive from publicly suggesting he’ll have a short shelf life?

Three points suggest themselves.

1. Mobilizing his base
First, it helps Francis mobilize his base by dropping hints that they may not have very long to take full advantage of having him at the top of the system. In other words, predictions of a short papacy create a sense of urgency among Francis’ most dedicated followers.

Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Sant’Egidio movement that’s committed to ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue — precisely the kind of force in Catholicism most emboldened by Francis — has written that the chief obstacle the pontiff faces isn’t overt resistance, but rather sloth among people inclined to back his agenda.

In effect, Francis is sending a signal that this isn’t likely to be the St. John Paul II era, in which those Catholics most enchanted with the Polish pope’s vision would have more than a quarter-century to chip away at a sometimes recalcitrant institution. Instead, he seems to be saying, if you want to get something done, now is the time.

2. Putting off the opposition
Logically speaking, forecasts of a short papacy might have the same impact on his opposition, but in fact, they may actually have the effect of encouraging it to bide its time.

Massimo Faggioli, a longtime Italian observer of the Vatican scene, noted some time ago that its old guard is composed of masters at the time-honored Roman art of riding out the storm and then going back to business as usual.

Hearing Francis drop hints that he won’t be around very long may well encourage those folks to revert to their default setting. Rather than actively trying to sabotage the new regime, they may be more inclined to go underground and wait things out.

The pope’s gamble, of course, would be that he can accomplish enough in a short arc of time to make that strategy unsuccessful. On that front, history will judge.

3. Making the job manageable
The third advantage Francis may derive from talking about a short papacy is making the job more manageable for himself.

As it’s come to be understood in our time, the papacy is really an impossible post. People expect popes to be intellectual giants, political titans, cultural and spiritual gurus, adept managers of a complex institution, media rock stars, and of course, living saints. Any one of those is difficult to do well, but rolled together they’re a prescription for chronic heartburn.

Francis has already been quite candid that there are aspects of the papacy that aren’t really his cup of tea. In the new interview, he says simply that “I don’t mind” being pope, which is hardly fulsome enthusiasm.

Perhaps the way he sustains his astonishing energy level is by telling himself it doesn’t have to go on forever, either because the Lord will call him home, or because he’ll decide to step aside.

The question now is whether Francis’ base will get the memo, and begin to exhibit the same remarkable sense of drive that Francis has exuded over the first two years of his dramatic reign.

Predictions for an unpredictable pope

Friday marked the two-year anniversary of the election of Pope Francis on March 13, 2013. While others observed the occasion with the usual thoughtful analyses of what the last two years have brought, I engaged in the absolute folly of trying to predict what this maverick pontiff might do in Year Three.

Here’s my take-with-a-grain-of-salt set of forecasts, which at the very least serves to lay out some of the possible pivot points over the months to come.

Catholic/Orthodox ties

Francis has made the push for greater Christian unity one of the hallmarks of his papacy over his first two years, featuring the partnership he’s developed with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. The blunt truth, however, is that in the Orthodox world Bartholomew may enjoy great respect, but he’s got relatively little “hard power.”

That belongs instead to Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Rus’, primate of the Russian Orthodox Church.

There are somewhere between 225 million and 300 million Orthodox Christians in the world, roughly 60 million of whom live in Russia and 150 million of whom are Russian Orthodox. That means Kirill leads between two-thirds and a half of all the Orthodox believers on the planet, making him the “indispensable man” in terms of relations with Orthodoxy.

Like his predecessors, Kirill over the years has flashed some serious reservations about ecumenism. Also like his predecessors, he tends to be awfully close to the political powers in Russia, which can put him at odds with Western Christian sentiment.

Nonetheless, there have been signs of an opening on Kirill’s part when it comes to Pope Francis. A rare interview he gave this week to a secular news outlet, in this case the Russian agency Tass, is the latest case in point.

On Ukraine, perhaps the most interesting point is that Kirill reserved his sharpest criticism not for the Greek Catholics, whose toehold in the country is resented by many Orthodox, but for schismatic Orthodox believers in the country, whom he accused of exploiting the violence to carry out a “violent seizure” of Russian Orthodox parishes and to undercut Moscow’s influence.

“This is a huge mistake on the part of those who declared war on the Church in Ukraine,” he said, vowing that the Orthodox community loyal to Moscow will not disappear.

Given that Kirill and other Russian Orthodox officials rarely miss an opportunity to complain about the role of the Greek Catholics, his restraint in this case may be significant.

Also intriguing was the fact that Kirill took a position on the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris that’s substantively similar to that laid out by Francis in January, when the pontiff said that violence in the name of religion can never be excused, but that anybody who insults someone’s cherished beliefs shouldn’t be surprised if they get a “punch in the nose.”

“We unambiguously condemn terrorism and killings of people for their convictions,” Kirill said. “We are grieving for those who suffered at the terrorists’ hands. But along with it, we find both pseudo-religious and secular radicalism unacceptable.”

According to Kirill, today’s Europe is “choking” in trying to combine multiculturalism and liberal values, and Russia deserves praise because it had “sufficient common sense to prevent actions like publication of religious cartoons in the media.”

On Catholic relations, Kirill took a “good fences make good neighbors” position.

The Eastern Orthodox and the Catholic faithful of Rome, he said, “belong to different nations with different ancient traditions, and “each of us needs to focus on our own affairs and should not interfere in those of the other.”

Even that, however, was not quite the pugnacious line Russian Orthodox prelates often strike when talk turns to Rome.

Kirill even added a shout-out to the pope: “I have sincere respect for Pope Francis,” he said, “and for the fact he keeps up close bonds to the monastic tradition that molded him.”

Okay, that’s a little off the mark: The Jesuits, the religious order to which the pontiff belongs, aren’t monks, and it’s a bit misleading to claim that he was “molded” by monasticism. Still, in the context of the animosity that Catholic/Russian Orthodox relations sometimes generates, such as seemingly never-ending complaints about alleged Catholic “proselytism” in Russia, it can’t help but seem like progress.

American Catholicism at its best

As this column appears I’m in the Los Angeles area, Anaheim to be exact, for the annual Los Angeles Religious Education Congress. The event began life in 1958 as an outgrowth of parish-based catechesis programs, but has grown over the years to become the largest annual gathering of Catholics in North America, usually drawing around 40,000 people.

I’ve been speaking at the congress each year for more than a decade, and it’s become one of the fixed points on my calendar, an event to which I always find myself looking forward with enthusiasm.

Like any undertaking on such a massive scale, the congress hasn’t lacked for critics.

On the right, critics have sometimes found fault with the orthodoxy of some of the speakers, generally deploying a small cluster of protesters each year outside the convention hall.

Those objections reached a peak during the years Cardinal Roger Mahony was the archbishop of Los Angeles, given his reputation in some quarters as a doctrinal liberal. Some of the wind seems to have gone out of their sails now that Archbishop Jose Gomez, generally seen as more conservative, is in charge.

On the left, some have groused that the entire event is a stage-managed love-fest for the Church, and that not enough has been done to accommodate critical voices on issues such as women in the Church or the child sexual abuse scandals.

Still, whatever faults one may find, my experience is that the Religious Education Congress more often than not captures American Catholicism at its best, and I’ll go so far as to claim that you don’t really know the American Church until you’ve experienced it at least once.

For one thing, the mega-story of American Catholicism in our time is the mushrooming Hispanic constituency, which Luis Lugo of the Pew Forum calls the “browning” of the Church. The congress is a privileged place to see that transition in action, with an extensive line-up of offerings in Spanish and reminders of the emerging Latino/Latina Catholic majority everywhere.

The broader ethnic diversity of the American Church is also on display, as you’ll find a large presence of Vietnamese Catholics, Koreans, Filipinos, believers from various African nations and the Middle East, and pretty much every other point of the compass.

Over one weekend in Anaheim every year, the future of the American Catholic Church is now.

For another thing, the congress also captures the staggering diversity of interests and outlooks within the American Church.

No matter what kind of Catholic you are — a liturgy devotee, Vatican affairs junkie, somebody into catechesis and evangelization or social justice and political activism — your heroes are likely to be on the speakers’ list, and you’ll always find some offering to indulge your interests.

No single event in the country better captures the pluralism of American Catholicism, as well as the myriad passions that define its internal life.

Fundamentally, what the congress crystallizes is the positive energy and dynamism of the Church in the United States at its most confident and entrepreneurial.

It’s certainly not that the people who show up are in denial about the issues Catholicism faces. You’ll find the same anxiety over priest shortages and the challenges of handing on the faith, the same hard questions about how the Church has responded to its sexual abuse scandals and other internal meltdowns, as percolate in every other Catholic venue.

Beneath and beyond that, what dazzles about the Religious Education Congress is the positive vibe it manages to generate every year, the palpable enthusiasm about Catholic life and the unspoken but clear conviction that the Church has not yet seen its best days.

Spend a lot of time moving in Catholic circles in Europe, and you sometimes come away depressed at the ennui. Leave Anaheim after 72 hours, and you’ll be feeling that Catholicism still has a fighting chance.

That’s why I always tell crowds in Anaheim that for me, the congress is like an annual injection of adrenaline straight into my Catholic bloodstream. In miniature, that’s the American Catholic spirit at its optimistic, hustling best.

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