ROME – For the past six years, it’s been a hallmark of Pope Francis’s leadership style not to engage criticism, at least not in any direct or public fashion, especially when he regards it as reflecting mixed motives.
Shortly after his papacy began, Francis was hit with a mini-scandal fueled by veteran Italian journalist Sandro Magister pivoting on the new pope’s choice of Monsignor Gianbattista Ricca as his delegate to the so-called “Vatican bank.” Magister produced records showing that Ricca had been involved in dubious personal scandals while serving as a papal diplomat in Uruguay, yet Francis never responded and also never removed Ricca.
The same pattern famously applies to the “dubia cardinals,” meaning the four senior prelates who presented critical questions to Francis about his 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, and to Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who made the sensational accusation last year that Francis was aware of sexual misconduct allegations against ex-cardinal and ex-priest Theodore McCarrick and yet failed to act.
In all those cases, Francis has maintained a steady and unwavering silence – in the case of Viganò, actually daring journalists to follow the story and see where it leads.
For admirers of Francis, this silence is generally styled as the steadfastness of a determined leader who refuses to allow himself to be drawn into sparring matches with figures who, in their eyes, are using whatever the specific accusation may be to advance an ideological agenda of sabotaging a pontiff they simply don’t like.
Critics, on the other hand, typically style Francis’s refusal to respond to such questions as the arrogance of a leader who doesn’t regard himself as accountable to anyone, and who doesn’t want to subject the basis for his decisions to critique.
Frankly, both of those perspectives probably have some merit.
There’s no question that in all three of the cases cited above, the figures posing the loaded questions to Pope Francis have other motives. Magister, for instance, is well known as a voice for more conservative Italian Catholic sentiment; the four dubia cardinals, two of whom have passed on, were all known as champions of the Church’s more traditional wing; and, as for Viagnò, his politics are about as transparent as possible in his original letter.
On the other hand, the critics probably have a point too. Anyone who knows Francis well grasps that he has a stubborn streak a mile wide, and is fully capable of digging in his heels ahead of the evidence – his approach to the clerical abuse scandals in Chile, for instance, present a classic example, until the pope was compelled to reverse course by the findings of an investigation that he himself commissioned.
However, what sometimes gets left out of the equation is that Francis isn’t just a politician, he’s a pope, which means he’s driven not just by strategic but also by spiritual logic. It’s thus worth asking, what might Francis’s spiritual reasons be for keeping his powder dry?
While he’s never explained it explicitly, he may have come as close as he’s ever likely to this week in his homily for Palm Sunday.
Speaking of the passion narrative proclaimed during the Palm Sunday liturgy, Francis said: “[Jesus] knows that true triumph involves making room for God and that the only way to do that is by stripping oneself, by self-emptying. To remain silent, to pray, to accept humiliation.”
In another passage, Francis reflects on Mary’s silence at the cross.
“On Golgotha, Mary faced the complete denial of that promise: her Son was dying on a cross like a criminal,” he said. “In this way, triumphalism, destroyed by the abasement of Jesus, was likewise destroyed in the heart of his Mother. Both kept silent.”
In general, Francis is clearly struck by Jesus’ refusal to comment on what’s happening to him on the path to his death.
“The silence of Jesus throughout his passion is profoundly impressive,” Francis said. “He also overcomes the temptation to answer back, to act like a ‘superstar’. In moments of darkness and great tribulation, we need to keep silent, to find the courage not to speak, as long as our silence is meek and not full of anger.”
“The meekness of silence will make us appear even weaker, humbler,” the pope said. “Then the devil will take courage and come out into the open. We need to resist him in silence, ‘holding our position,’ but with the same attitude as Jesus.”
“As we wait for the Lord to come and calm the storm,” he said, “by our silent witness in prayer we give ourselves and others ‘an accounting for the hope that is within [us]’.”
Of course, one can question whether the silence of Jesus during his passion is really applicable to other life situations, as well as whether it’s necessarily effective leadership to see challenges to one’s policy decisions in such lofty terms.
Nevertheless, strictly at the level of understanding what might drive a pope to stay mum, it’s important to consider the spiritual dimension of things – perhaps especially during Holy Week, which is a perennial reminder of what the whole Christian enterprise is really all about.