LEICESTER, United Kingdom — Whatever your opinion of Pope Francis, everyone can agree the term “disruptor” is accurate.
In his new book, Outsider: Pope Francis and His Battle to Reform the Church, Christopher Lamb argues that many people within the Vatican itself are resisting the pope’s efforts to change how the Church functions.
Lamb, who is the Rome correspondent for the English Catholic weekly The Tablet, says many of Francis’s critics “perceive him as too political and moving the Church away from defending certain moral teachings.”
“The theological attacks on Francis are now increasingly politicized with those voicing doctrinal concerns about the pope’s teaching so often aligned with nationalist political agendas which run counter to everything this pontificate stands for,” he told Crux.
However, Lamb warns that Francis can’t really be categorized by contemporary political movements.
“For liberals, Francis is too conservative and for conservatives he’s too liberal. The Pope is an old-fashioned Jesuit who can’t be put into a box,” he said.
What follows is Lamb’s conversation with Crux.
Crux: You write that “Francis was not elected, as some have erroneously argued, to reform the Roman Curia—the Church’s civil service but with a much broader mission, and his efforts must be read against the horizon of reforms of the Second Vatican Council…that set out the mission for the contemporary Church.” While Francis no doubt is seeking missionary conversion, surely there’s still a lot of practical institutional reform that’s needed, no?
Lamb: Yes, there is, but the pope wants all institutional reforms to come under the banner of missionary conversion. For any reform to be effective there has to be a clear vision, and for that to become embedded in the internal culture. I think this is what Francis has focused a lot of his energy on, rather than cosmetic changes.
A key factor in Francis’s election was his speech to the cardinals before the conclave warning against a “self-referential” Church where Jesus is locked up inside and asking to be let out. Jorge Bergoglio was not elected because the cardinals wanted a new leader for the Roman Curia’s change-management team, but a Successor of St. Peter who could offer compelling leadership for the Church at the start of the Third Millennium.
Having said that, I don’t think Francis’s missionary focus can be used as an excuse to ignore the practical, institutional reforms – there’s still a lot more to do. But I see this papacy as an unfinished journey: The Francis pontificate is laying out the runway so the plane of missionary evangelization in the 21st century can really take off.
In your view, much of the resistance to Francis has come from the English-speaking Catholic world. Why do you believe that’s the case?
Some have found it hard to adapt to the “Disruptor Pope” from the global south who has an informal style and is willing to bypass protocol. Francis’s early morning Masses in the Casa Santa Marta, where he gives saltily-worded diagnoses of the ills of the Church have also unsettled certain elements of the English-speaking Catholic world.
I think others struggle to connect with Francis and are put off by his outspoken defense of migrants and his focus on protecting the environment. They perceive him as too political and moving the Church away from defending certain moral teachings.
Most of the resistance comes from the clerical and worldly establishments, who are determined to undermine the Francis pontificate. They feel locked out of power and unable to influence Church decision-making as they had in the past.
The theological attacks on Francis are now increasingly politicized with those voicing doctrinal concerns about the Pope’s teaching so often aligned with nationalist political agendas which run counter to everything this pontificate stands for.
Although Francis’s biggest backers have come from the “liberal” wing of the Church, he has sometimes disappointed them – most recently, when he failed to bring up women’s ordination or the ordination of married men in his document after the Amazon Synod. Why do you think it is so hard to put Francis in a “liberal-conservative” box?
For liberals, Francis is too conservative and for conservatives he’s too liberal.
The pope is an old-fashioned Jesuit who can’t be put into a box. One minute, Francis is inviting the homeless for a private tour around the Sistine Chapel and in the next writing down his problems on a piece of paper and place them under a statue of sleeping St Joseph.
He represents the “both-and” of the Catholic faith by combining a mission to the marginalized with a love of popular piety.
You offer a pretty glossy assessment of the pope’s seven years, but are perhaps most critical of him when it comes to handling of abuse, especially in Chile. Why do you think he got it wrong?
I think he was slow off the mark in tackling the problem, while his style of governance made him vulnerable on abuse, and getting poor information.
Bypassing the institutional filters is what makes Francis popular, but on clerical sexual abuse and potential cover-ups following clearly defined procedures is crucially important.
Are there any other areas where you think Francis could do better?
The big challenge is translating the reforming vision of this pontificate into structure, routine procedure and canonical norm.
A lot has already been achieved but we need to see more women in leadership positions while reform of the Vatican finances is an ongoing battle. Francis wants the Roman Curia to be at the service of the pope and the bishops around the world: He’s getting there, but it needs time.
What do you think the long-term goal is of those you describe as resisting Francis?
I’m not sure there is a clear strategic plan, but some have voiced a desire to try and remove Francis from office, while others want to thwart his pontificate so that it is judged a failure.
The aim is to ensure the next conclave elects a pope who either rows back on the direction of this pontificate, or slows everything down. The problem for those resisting, however, is that attacking a pope so publicly and consistently ends up becoming an act of ecclesial self-harm as it undermines the office of the papacy.
The outsider pope, as you describe him, has hinted that the Church cannot come out of this pandemic the same, either spiritually or institutionally. What do you think this might mean?
COVID-19 has added urgency to Francis’s vision of a Church which leaves the comfort zone of the sacristy and goes onto to the world.
I think the pandemic is going to see a winnowing of Church structures, and a focus on what is essential to the mission of spreading the Gospel. Francis has said that a different institution will emerge, one that is more closely modelled on the first Christian community as described in the Acts of the Apostles.
It’s not a numbers game for the pope, and I think in some countries we might see a smaller Church institutionally but one that is a more effective witness: A creative minority, as Benedict XVI argued.
Given the economic devastation being caused by the coronavirus, a poor Church for the poor can place itself on the side of those worst affected by this catastrophe. I call Francis ‘the Outsider Pope” because he’s associated his papacy with outsiders – those left on the waste heap of life.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome