Whether Francis is a 'Reform Pope' depends on whom you ask

Whether Francis is a ‘Reform Pope’ depends on whom you ask

Whether Francis is a ‘Reform Pope’ depends on whom you ask

A man hugs Pope Francis at the end of his weekly general audience in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican, Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017. (Credit: AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino.)

Is Pope Francis an historic reformer? Well, it depends on whether Vatican II, the Franciscan reform, the child sexual abuse scandals, Vatican finances, or something else altogether is your core test of reform.

News Analysis

ROME – “Reform” is one of those notoriously ambiguous words – in the same category with hope, change, progress, and improvement – which everyone professes to support, but which no one defines in quite the same way.

Thus, the question of whether or not Francis is a “Reform Pope” will depend largely on what you mean by the term.

Many observers are convinced that Francis is a quintessential reformer; Crux contributor Austen Ivereigh, for instance, titled his biography of the pontiff The Great Reformer. For this group, “reform” usually functions as a placeholder for enacting what they perceive as the vision of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), meaning a Church heavier on mercy and lighter on judgment; a Church closer to the people than to elites; a Church less beholden to conservative political forces and alignments; and a decentralized Church, less dominated by Rome.

If that’s your definition of “reform,” then Francis is almost unquestionably a reformer, and a fairly successful one to boot. From his ruling on Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics in Amoris Laetitia to his decision to restore control over many matters of liturgical translation to local bishops’ conferences, it’s hard to argue he isn’t delivering on the “Vatican II” agenda.

On the other hand, if your understanding of “reform” is more classical, seeing it as a reaffirmation of traditional doctrine and discipline after a period of lassitude – sort of like the Franciscan reform, based on a more exacting embrace of the original spirit of the order – then Francis may not profile as a “reformer” at all. Instead, you may see him as the kind of pope who’s actually creating the need for a future reform, by allowing things to go to seed.

Then there are single-issue Catholics, for whom the lone test of reform is how the pope stacks up on the thing that concerns them the most – with the consequence that whether Francis is a reformer in their eyes will depend on his track record on that issue.

To take the most obvious example, many people deeply concerned with the Church’s response to its child sexual abuse scandals, arguably the most serious crisis to face Roman Catholicism since the Protestant Reformation, aren’t yet ready to call Francis an historic reformer.

Yes, they’ll say, he’s said the right things, pledging support for a “zero tolerance” policy on abuse and promising a new culture of accountability for bishops and other superiors who drop the ball in implementing that policy.

Yet, they’ll also say, there are reasons why the two abuse survivors on the pope’s own anti-abuse commission both have resigned, citing internal Vatican opposition to a reform agenda. For one thing, they say, Francis appointed a bishop in Chile with a history as an apologist for that country’s most notorious abuser priest, and has stubbornly refused to reconsider the appointment even in light of strong public protest.

Moreover, Francis announced a new system for investigating and prosecuting accusations of cover-up against bishops, but has yet to spell out what its procedures are going to be or to appoint anyone to implement it.

In addition, there’s also the fact that the mandate of the current members of that anti-abuse panel, known as the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, is up in a matter of days, and to date new members have not been announced. If reform on that front is truly a priority, one wonders why not.

There’s also what many of the cardinals who voted for Francis in March 2013 (not to mention most of the Italians I know) mean by “reform,” which is a clean-up of the Vatican itself, especially its legendarily scandal-plagued methods of money management.

If that’s the test, then it’s difficult so far to make the case for Francis as a great reformer. He launched three new entities to oversee the overhaul in 2014: a Council for the Economy made up of cardinals and laity, to set policy; a Secretariat for the Economy, to implement it; and an independent Auditor General, to keep everyone honest.

Today, both the secretariat and the auditor’s office are basically adrift, with their leaders out of the picture for different reasons, while real power over Vatican finances has been steadily reaccumulated by the Secretariat of State – by consensus, the bastion of the “old guard.”

Many Vatican observers today are prepared to write obituaries for the reform project, while others insist the jury is still out and the pope could yet snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Time will tell, but for right now, it seems clear that the best grade one could award Francis on the financial clean-up probably is an “incomplete.”

Finally, there’s the non-expert view of “reform,” which may capture what many ordinary Catholics are thinking and feeling these days. Those folks don’t really care what’s happening in the Vatican, and don’t feel a vested interest in the left v. right battles of the chattering classes. What they care about instead is that the outside world seems to be taking a new and less hostile look at the Church, because of Pope Francis’s ability to project a more human image of what Catholicism is all about.

If Francis makes it easier to convince my kids there’s something positive about the Church, some of those folks might say, it’s more than enough reform for me.

To be honest, we may be veering dangerously close to “Captain Obvious” territory in putting it like this, but here’s the bottom line anyway: Is Francis a reformer? Well, it depends on whom you ask.

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