ROME – From the beginning, the general narrative about Pope Francis has emphasized his personal simplicity and humility, his closeness to ordinary people and his passion for the peripheries, as well as his pastoral heart. All are genuine qualities of the man, as anyone who knows him well will attest.
Likewise from the beginning, however, there’s been another, often competing narrative about Francis, initially whispered and then shouted out loud, especially by his detractors. It holds that Francis is also a remarkably stubborn figure, a man prone to making decisions and refusing to back down, and one typically unmoved by any sort of criticism.
This refusal to be told what to do, or to be painted into a corner, is also, undeniably, an aspect of Francis’s persona, and the last month or so has brought at least four classic illustrations.
To begin with, for the last month criminal prosecutors in Chile have been conducting raids on Church archives up and down the country, looking for evidence to support charges of cover-up of clerical sexual abuse by several leading prelates. They’ve also subpoenaed Cardinal Riccardo Ezzati, the Archbishop of Santiago, to testify.
In the abstract, one might imagine such activity would prompt Francis to accept more resignations from Chilean bishops, which were offered en masse at the conclusion of a summit with the pope in May. On that occasion Francis said he knew some bishops were guilty of cover-up, including the destruction of evidence, and many people assumed he’d have accepted far more than the five resignations he’s okayed in the four months since.
Instead, the pope is obviously taking his time, and not even the threat of criminal indictments against sitting bishops appears enough to rush him.
Then in late August, when a sensational charge emerged by the pope’s former ambassador in the U.S. that Francis knew about sexual misconduct allegations against ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and did nothing, it seemed clear the pope would have to give an answer, disclosing what he knew and when he knew it.
That moment may yet come, but aboard the papal plane on the way back to Rome from his trip to Ireland, Francis took the question but then vowed not to say a word about it, and basically challenged journalists to look into it for themselves. To this day neither Francis nor any of the Vatican’s official communications channels have engaged the questions raised by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, though certainly many of the pope’s friends and allies have done so informally.
Here, for instance, is how Argentine Archbishop Victor Fernandez, the pope’s closest theological adviser, described the pope’s silence in a recent interview.
“He always maintained that it’s not wise to defend oneself from people who seek to be protagonists, because it’s giving them what they seek and feeding their megalomania more. I suppose that in this case, that criterion applies.”
The Vatican is said to be preparing a set of clarifications, which could be released anytime. Even so, it’s hard to imagine any other world leader would allow a charge of personal misconduct to go unanswered for a month – reflecting, perhaps, an unwillingness by Francis to engage a crisis simply because people expect him to.
On a similar front, Francis met the leadership of the U.S. bishops’ conference a week ago, and everyone knew going in the bishops wanted him to approve an Apostolic Visitation, meaning a Vatican-backed investigation, of the McCarrick case.
At a bare minimum, one might have thought Francis, or the Vatican, or the bishops would announce what they’ve decided. Instead, they’ve maintained radio silence, leaving people to conclude on their own that the bishops will have to go another way.
Again, just because pressure has been put on Francis to do X is no guarantee that X will happen.
On another front, during the 2014 and 2015 Synods of Bishops on the family, gatherings which eventually led to the document Amoris Laetitia and its controversial opening to communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, there was considerable criticism from more conservative participants that Francis had “stacked the deck” by naming only like-minded allies to key posts.
The feeling among critics was that Francis didn’t necessarily want an honest assessment of where bishops are truly at, but rather an endorsement of his desired result.
Some might have thought that, in response, the pope would feel obligated to ensure a wider cross-section of views for the upcoming Synod of Bishops on youth in October, or at least to avoid the impression of naming only loyalists.
Instead, the appointments released by the Vatican last Saturday read like a “Who’s Who” of prelates cut from the same cloth as the boss, such as Cardinals Reinhard Marx of Munich, president of the German bishops’ conference; Blase Cupich of Chicago; Joseph Tobin of Newark, NJ; and Angelo De Donatis, Vicar of the Diocese of Rome.
The overall impression is that Francis trusts these figures, and he wasn’t going to be cowed into leaving them off the list just because someone might get their nose out of joint.
In a similar fashion, there was also criticism that the synod process itself is flawed. Some charged that a lack of information from inside the synod allows false impressions to be created of a consensus; others said the way in which conclusions are reached doesn’t allow the body to really express its will on specific points.
Again, one might have thought Francis would feel pressure to adjust the rules to reassure those critics of a level playing field. Instead, in an updated set of laws for the synod the pontiff issued this week, he largely ratified the process as it’s developed on his watch and as it played out in 2014 and 2015.
It’s almost as if the more people protest a papal decision, the less likely Francis becomes to rethink it.
Of course, that’s not an absolute principle. As recently as January of this year, Francis accused abuse victims in Chile of “calumny” for insisting upon the resignation of as bishop accused of covering up abuse; today, that bishop is one of the five whose resignations have been accepted by Francis, who’s apologized for “grave errors” in his diagnosis of the situation.
It may well be that something will trigger a similar change of heart about one or more of the four examples above.
Whatever happens, it’s hard to resist the thought that part of what shapes the drama of this papacy, and of this pope, is how his simplicity and his stubbornness will interact, collide, and then eventually make their peace on any given front.