Francis at five years: Love him or hate him, this is one relevant pope

Francis at five years: Love him or hate him, this is one relevant pope

While opinions abound on whether Pope Francis is taking the Catholic Church in the right direction, one point at the five-year mark seems objectively clear: This pope is relevant.

News Analysis

ROME – Trying to evaluate a pope, just as with a president, prime minister, premier, or any other big job starting with the letter “p”, is usually a short path to subjectivity. Whether one thinks a given pope is doing a good job depends on what you believe a pope should be doing in the first place — and on that score, opinions always abound.

As Pope Francis marks the five-year anniversary of his election on March 13, 2013, views of where his papacy stands can seem a virtual Rorschach test, often telling us more about the observer than the pontiff being observed.

If, for example, one is the kind of Catholic convinced that in a confused and troubled world, the most important quality a pope can deliver is doctrinal and moral clarity, then Francis may not score terribly well. Yet for a Catholic who believes the Church had become overly rigid and ossified prior to Francis’s election, excessively focused on a narrow canon of contentious moral issues, then this pope may loom as a titanic success story.

If resolving the Church’s sexual abuse scandals is the only test of effective papal leadership, Francis gets one assessment; if the emphasis is on his adherence to the vision of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), it’s another; and so on, almost indefinitely.

Amid the rattle and hum of clashing worldviews and agenda, is there anything that can be said about Francis’s record after five years that’s truly objective? Perhaps it’s this: Love this maverick pope or hate him, he’s undeniably relevant.

Francis is culturally relevant in a surprising diversity of places, where his unconventional style and speech, combined with his message of mercy, continue to draw wide attention and commentary. Even when embattled and under fire, Francis remains a magnet for the media.

Francis is also politically relevant, with governments around the world tracking his priorities closely, and politicians of all stripes seeking to exploit his charisma for their causes – even if he isn’t always politically decisive, as the stunning success of an anti-immigrant party in Italy’s national elections earlier this month, effectively the pope’s own backyard, illustrates.

Finally, Francis is ecclesiastically relevant. That may seem an odd thing to say about a pope, since “relevance” would seem to be taken for granted. Yet while every pope is keenly relevant spiritually and theologically, Francis is also astonishingly relevant in setting the terms of debate within Catholicism.

Every major debate in the Church today, no matter where one stands, comes down to what someone makes of the pope’s leadership.

Those measures don’t automatically tell you whether Francis is taking the Church in the right direction, or if he’s setting the right priorities in terms of its engagement with the world. They don’t indicate whether his legacy will last or be a flash in the pan, and they also don’t determine whether he’ll one day be remembered as a saint – as the pontiff himself recently jokingly predicted, saying he and Pope emeritus Benedict XVI are on the “waiting list” for an eventual halo.

Yet what these indices of relevance do suggest is that however one adjudicates the rights and wrongs of this papacy, it matters – it matters to the world, it matters to the world’s leaders, and it matters to the Church Francis was called to lead five years ago.

Cultural relevance

In the United States, the most recent Pew Research Center poll found that 84 percent of American Catholics have a favorable view of Francis, as against just nine percent who see the pontiff unfavorably. Granted, that’s a significant jump from the pope’s four percent unfavorable rate in 2014, but it still leaves him with overwhelming support at the American Catholic grassroots.

The Pew survey also flagged some signs of disenchantment, with the share of American Catholics who say Francis is “too liberal” jumping 15 percentage points between 2015 and today, from 19 percent to 34 percent, and those who believe he’s “naïve” going up from 15 percent to 24, roughly one-quarter of the total.

In other parts of the world where opinion can be scientifically measured, the big picture is usually the same.

A worldwide WIN/Gallup International survey of 64 nations found that Francis enjoyed an overall approval rating of 60 percent, making him the most-admired leader in the world, ahead of Russian President Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and then-U.S. President Barack Obama. Among Catholics around the world, Francis had an 85 percent favorability rating, remarkably close to the number the latest Pew survey found in the United States.

Vida Nueva, a leading Spanish Catholic publication, recently conducted its own opinion survey and found that 8 in 10 Spaniards say they would go out for a beer with Pope Francis — which would suggest that, for the most part, they like him.

Another measure of the pope’s relevance is his social media footprint. His nine Twitter accounts now have a combined following of 42.6 million, with English now narrowly ahead of Spanish at 17 million and 16.3 million followers, respectively.

When the Vatican launched Francis’s Instagram account in March 2016, it drew more than one million followers in just twelve hours. That shattered the previous record for the time it took to cross the one-million mark, which had been held by David Beckham who did it in 24 hours.

Though hard empirical data on the volume of worldwide media attention to Francis is difficult to obtain, anecdotal impressions suggest he is easily one of the world’s most-covered human beings. Ironically, for a pope who so often urges a “healthy decentralization” in the Catholic Church, there’s nothing decentralized about who the media fastens on these days when it wants to do a Catholic story – the focus is almost exclusively on the man in charge.

Recent weeks have suggested that the long media love affair with Francis may be giving way, primarily as a result of mounting criticism of his handling of the case of Bishop Juan Barros in Chile and, more generally, his response to the clerical sexual abuse scandals. Much will depend on how Francis handles things from here, but for now, he remains the subject of constant, and largely positive, coverage.

A recent editorial in the U.K.-based Catholic Herald put it this way:

“Pope Francis’s enormous media image has allowed him to command attention like few popes before him,” it said. “When he chooses to, he can get his message across at a volume previous popes would have struggled to reach.”

Political Relevance

In Forbes magazine’s annual ranking of the world’s most powerful people, Francis currently holds the number five spot, behind Putin, President Donald Trump of the United States, Merkel, and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Notably, Francis holds the highest rank of anyone who’s not a head of state, and he’s also the lone religious and spiritual leader on the entire 75-name list.

There’s virtually no major public policy challenge in the early 21st century upon which Francis doesn’t have a fair bit to say, from the fight against climate change and human trafficking to protection of the Amazon, opposition to both abortion and the death penalty, the spread of religiously inspired terrorism and religious persecution, and on and on.

There’s also virtually no conflict zone in the world in which Francis and his diplomatic team haven’t been engaged, from Syria and Iraq to the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Speaking to diplomats accredited to the Holy See today, they all say pretty much the same thing when asked if their governments take note when Francis speaks on an issue: “And how!”

There’s an impressive list of areas in which Francis’s leadership does seem to have made a difference, including: Helping to halt momentum for a Western invasion of Syria in 2013 intended to bring down the regime of President Bashar al-Assad; providing moral inspiration for the adoption of strong limits on carbon emissions at the late 2015 Paris climate change summit; and helping to pave the way for the restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, also in 2015.

Yet of late, it’s also fair to say that the political winds seem to be blowing against the pontiff in some ways, perhaps beginning with the election of Trump to the American presidency. Although Trump eked out a narrow victory in part thanks to support from religious voters, including a strong share of Catholics, in some respects it wasn’t quite the “faith and values” agenda Francis himself probably would have preferred, beginning with the issue of immigrant rights.

In the months since Trump’s win, Europe has seen the fortunes of populist and xenophobic movements revive in many places.

The March 4 Italian elections, in which the Northern League led by Matteo Salvini emerged as one of the two big winners – after Salvini, provocatively, held up a rosary during a late February campaign rally, as if to suggest his anti-immigrant nationalist stance was the real defense of the faith – was perhaps an especially bitter pill to swallow, although Francis had made a point of staying aloof and out of the Italian debates.

In terms of Francis’s direct impact when he does choose to involve himself in a situation, the Central African Republic in some ways is an illustrative case. When he visited the war-torn country in November 2015, the positive vibes generated from the trip were widely credited with creating the social climate in which a peaceful transfer of power was possible.

Since that time, however, the country has steadily slipped back into chaos, with recent attacks on aid workers causing many humanitarian groups to pull out, and survivors describing a growing practice of mass rape among the various armed groups and factions involved in the conflict.

Experience, therefore, shows that Francis cannot simply wave a magic wand and make global problems disappear, and neither can he necessarily bend electorates to his will.

Yet as a thought exercise, ponder this question: If you were living in a war-torn, suffering place right now and heard that a major world leader was scheduled to make a visit, which name would most inspire you with hope that something good might result?

Francis likely would do awfully well in that poll – and for a leader with no standing army, no national economy, and none of the other usual tools of “hard power,” that would seem to be a fairly striking result.

Ecclesiastical Relevance

In a sense, it seems almost silly to be gauging the ecclesiastical relevance of a pope. The Code of Canon Law in number 331 says of the pontiff, “By virtue of his office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.”

By that standard, one might well ask: “If the pope – any pope – isn’t relevant for the Church, who on earth is?”

Yet, inevitably, some popes are more ecclesiastically relevant than others. Prior to the rise of modern communications in the 20th century, many Catholics around the world, perhaps a strong majority, knew precious little about the pope, and he certainly wasn’t usually what they would think about when they pondered “the Church.”

During the 20th century, popes have waxed and waned in terms of how much they configured the lay of the land in the Church.

St. Pope John Paul II was a toweringly charismatic man and a strong leader, for instance, but even in his day, plenty of debates went on in Catholicism that had little to do directly with him. Liturgy and the press for a “reform of the reform” in the 1990s was a good example, when the energy wasn’t really coming from the pontiff.

For most of that time, John Paul’s own personal liturgist was a progressive but his liturgy czar at the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship was a strong conservative, allowing both sides in the debate often to claim the pope as sympathetic.

Today, however, there’s no question that every debate that matters, from Communion for the divorced and remarried to the possibility of women deacons and married priests, stems either directly from something Francis has said or done, or indirectly from the forces he’s set in motion. At times, it’s almost as if other senior figures in the Catholic hierarchy, including other senior Vatican officials, have gone into witness protection in terms of how invisible they can seem.

Critics often say that’s because Francis has built a cult of personality around himself, and cowed dissenters into going quiet through the threat of reprisals. Fans, meanwhile, believe it’s because the pope’s vision is precisely what the Church needs, and read the electricity he always generates as confirmation he’s on the right path.

It’s perhaps instructive to make a comparison between Francis and the predecessor whom he plans to canonize later this year, Blessed Pope Paul VI. Paul was elected in 1963, which meant he’d been in office for about four years, just a little less time than Francis today, when the Beatles recorded their “Magical Mystery Tour” album, featuring the song “Fool on the Hill.”

The song contains these lyrics:

“His head in a cloud
The man with a foolish grin is talking perfectly loud
But nobody wants to hear him
They can see that he’s just a fool”

Paul McCartney later said he was thinking of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, an Indian holy man who achieved a brief fame as a sort of chaplain to the Beatles. Some rock critics at the time, however, thought the song might be referring to Paul VI, who was popularly seen as isolated, out of touch, and not really taken seriously outside Vatican walls.

Perhaps the best stab at an objective evaluation of Francis right now is this: If the Beatles were to record “Fool on the Hill” today, it’s deeply unlikely anyone would think the reference is to the present pontiff.

“Revolution,” maybe, from the Beatles’ oeuvre, or “Long and Winding Road,” but definitely not a ballad about irrelevance.

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