ROME – Five days after announcing a landmark deal with China over the appointment of bishops, Pope Francis released a letter to Chinese Catholics on Wednesday. The gist of it amounts to, “Trust me.”
Specifically, Francis asked the roughly 13 million Catholics in China to “place your trust ever more firmly in the Lord of history and in the church’s discernment of his will.” The idea is to ask for faith despite whatever uncertainty Chinese Catholics may be experiencing, especially those of the “underground” church who’s been tenacious in their opposition to the Communist government out of loyalty to Rome and now feel like the rug has been pulled out from under them.
One core reason the pope needed to appeal for trust is that while a deal has been announced, few details of what precisely it contains are known. Thus it’s impossible to say at this stage exactly how much freedom of movement the pope has sacrificed in order to get the Chinese authorities to sign on the dotted line, or what its implications may be for the future of the faith in China.
In some ways, the situation isn’t entirely dissimilar from the approach Francis has taken on the charges leveled a month ago by Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former papal ambassador in the US, that Francis knew of sexual misconduct charges against ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in 2013 and failed to act.
When those charges first arose, Francis refused to address them, and essentially did so again Monday night during a new conference aboard his plane returning to Rome from a four-day trip in the Baltics.
Francis declined to respond to any question that wasn’t specifically related to the trip, although he did volunteer some thoughts on the clerical abuse scandals – among other things, arguing that the Pennsylvania grand jury report released in mid-August shows progress in the Church’s fight against child abuse, since the number of cases from recent years is dramatically lower than the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
However, the pope didn’t say a word about Viganò’s allegations, nor did he answer the obvious question journalists aboard the plane really wanted to ask: Will he order the disclosure of records showing what the Vatican knew about the McCarrick case, and when it knew it?
In other words, here too the pope is basically asking people to trust him.
In some ways, it’s an understandable request. From the beginning of his papacy, Francis has shown himself to be a friend of victims, underdogs and oppressed peoples everywhere, and to have a keen pastoral heart for those shoved to life’s peripheries. It’s thus perhaps not unreasonable for him to think that he could rely on a certain benefit of the doubt.
The problem he faces, however, is two-fold.
First, Francis suffers from an institutional trust deficit that didn’t begin with him, but he inherited it and it’s part of his reality. Underground Catholics in China often feel the Vatican has betrayed them repeatedly since the era of Paul VI, while abuse survivors have long experience of hearing declarations of resolve from church leaders only to be disappointed when it comes to follow-through.
Moreover, both constituencies are feeling a little ambivalent about Francis himself these days, wondering if despite the new tone the underlying music from the Church really hasn’t changed that much.
In other words, Francis is dealing with two groups for whom a plea of “trust me” from any Church leader, even him, is especially hard to swallow.
Perhaps even more basically, as the saying goes, trust is a two-way street. If Francis or any leader wants public trust, once in a while they have to be prepared to take the kinds of steps that earn it.
If Francis is looking for somewhere to begin right now, he might consider transparency – a word that’s been frequently invoked as a goal of his reforms, but a practice that sometimes seems more honored in the breach than the observance on his watch.
If Francis wants the trust of Chinese Catholics, he might consider telling them what exactly they’re being asked to trust him about – in other words, the content of the new deal the pontiff has inked with the Chinese government.
Once Catholics know how the deal is structured, what’s been given away and what’s been maintained, they might be more inclined to withhold judgment until they see how it works out on the ground.
Similarly for abuse survivors, if they saw Francis committed to getting to the bottom of what went wrong in cases such as McCarrick’s, and having sufficient faith in the Catholic rank-and-file that coming clean won’t destroy their faith or shatter whatever illusions remain, they might be willing to give the pope a bit more breathing room as he tries to figure out a path forward.
Transparency, in other words, isn’t just a “best practice” in both avoiding and remedying scandals, though it certainly is that. It’s also a down payment on trust – a payment that can’t just be made once, but regularly, like gas and water, because otherwise the service gets turned off.
Both on China and on sex abuse, making that payment may be costly for Francis and his Vatican team, but experience may prove that doing is no longer a luxury but a necessity.