One could have an argument about this, I suppose, but I’m going to state the claim baldly anyway: There’s no public figure in the world today with an image defined by a more misleading soundbite than Pope Francis, whose signature line from almost three years ago remains, “Who am I to judge?”
Uttered in connection with his attitude toward gay people, that celebrated phrase has been taken to suggest an accepting and laid-back sort of pontiff, more or less “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” in a white cassock.
Reality couldn’t be more different.
In truth, Francis is one of the most “judgmental” figures around, in the sense of never pulling punches when he thinks something is wrong. We’ve had several stinging reminders during his current trip to Mexico, from his thundering denunciation of drug dealers with their “hands drenched in blood” to his strong pleas for justice for immigrants and indigenous persons.
There’s yet another constituency in Mexico right now feeling rather thoroughly judged by the pontiff, and, for the record, found not altogether up to snuff: the country’s roughly 170 Catholic bishops.
In a remarkable 4,500-word address to the bishops on Saturday, one of the most developed and detailed speeches of his papacy, Francis laid out a vision of the kind of prelate he believes the Church needs today — and left little doubt that it’s not always the kind of shepherd it actually has.
To be clear, he was addressing Mexicans because he happens to be in Mexico, but he would doubtless say roughly the same thing to bishops everywhere.
In a nutshell, his argument boiled down to this: We live in a broken and hurting world, and the only effective response the Church can give is not power or privilege, not institutional heft or political maneuvers, but personal integrity and closeness to the victims of what he terms a “throwaway culture.”
“The only power capable of conquering the hearts of men and women is the tenderness of God,” Francis said, reflecting on the legacy of la Virgen Morenita, meaning the brown-skinned virgin Mexicans revere as Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Francis ticked off, at length, a host of ways that bishops can fail to express that tenderness:
- “Proud self-sufficiency”
- Fearing “transparency” – “the Church does not need darkness to carry out her work”
- Corruption by “trivial materialism”
- “The seductive illusion of underhanded agreements”
- “Gossip or intrigue”
- “Conceited schemes of careerism”
- “Empty plans for superiority”
- “Unproductive groups that seek benefits or common interests”
- Hiding behind “anodyne denunciations” of social ills without taking action
- “Sitting on your laurels”
- “Aloofness and clericalism”
- “Coldness and indifference”
- “Triumphalism and self-centeredness”
“We do not need princes,” the pope concluded, “but rather a community of the Lord’s witnesses.”
This is just a partial list, but if that’s the language of a pope who doesn’t judge, you can only tremble at the thought of one who does.
When I was in graduate school, we learned it’s a basic principle of textual interpretation that legislators don’t issue injunctions against certain behaviors unless those behaviors are actually happening at the time. The Code of Hammurabi, for instance, mandated fair wages for ox-drivers because in the day, they were being exploited; it didn’t say anything about cyber-bullying, because no one was doing it.
By that logic, one is entitled to assume that Pope Francis called the Mexican bishops to avoid the temptations he listed because he believes that at least some prelates, at some point, have succumbed to them.
In truth, you don’t need to be a Church insider to realize that. Over the years, many Catholic bishops in Mexico have been closely aligned with traditional centers of wealth and political power, and that legacy is alive and well today.
When Francis referred to the risk of “underhanded agreements,” for instance, many Mexicans heard an echo of a controversy that broke out shortly before the pontiff arrived centering on Mexico’s President, Enrique Peña Nieto, and First Lady Angélica Rivera.
In a nutshell, the suggestion is that influential Church officials fast-tracked an annulment for Rivera in 2009, allowing the two to wed in a Catholic ceremony, presumably in exchange for political favors down the line.
One can find multiple examples — for instance, the way some leading officials in the Mexican church backed the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, the late Marcial Maciel Degollado, despite serious charges of sexual abuse, in large part because of his track record of raising money and forging ties with elites.
More generally, one thinks of the long history of a tight relationship between throne and altar in Mexico, which even decades of strict anti-clerical legislation didn’t entirely eradicate, and the still-strong constituency within the bishops that prefers to move in VIP circles and to condemn the evils of a secular state rather than engaging concrete problems on the ground.
Using Biblical language about the Church as the bride of Christ, Francis closed his remarks to the bishops with a warning.
“Woe to us pastors,” he said, “if we allow his Bride to wander because we have set up tents where the Bridegroom cannot be found!”
For sure, the pope’s analysis was not as bleak as the foregoing might make it sound. He praised the Mexican bishops on several fronts, including their role in facing what Francis called the “challenge of our age,” meaning migration. He made clear his confidence in their ability to rise to the occasion.
Time will tell how much luck Francis has steering the bishops in his direction, which will be determined above all by the kind of prelates he appoints going forward.
In the meantime, if one were to ask most Mexican bishops right now if Francis is really the pope of “Who am I to judge?”, their gut-level reply likely would be: “Are you kidding?”