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Pope Francis: The First Five Years. Is resistance to Pope Francis really a resistance to Vatican II?

In this second part of a three-part series (read part one here), Anthony Egan SJ continues to look at the first five years of Pope Francis' pontificate. Pope Francis has tried to reform the Church: Whether financial reform or canonical and liturgical reform, from championing collegiality and listening to the peripheries, to attempting reform in the way abuse cases are handled and victims are listened to, Pope Francis has tried to reform the Church. But is it working? And who is resisting those reforms? Anthony Egan SJ examines these questions and argues that Pope Francis is not innovating, but rather being faithful to Vatican II. This raises the uncomfortable reality that in the Catholic Church today, the resistance to Pope Francis is more worryingly a resistance to Vatican II.

I think it would be true to say that Francis is a ‘reforming’ pope. I suspect that this may have been on the minds of his electors in 2013. Faced with turmoil over revelations of corruption in the Vatican Bank and rumours of widespread corruption throughout the Vatican, many I suspect saw him as an ‘outsider’ who could come in and ‘clean house’ – and possibly only that. (Following from the belief that electing an elderly caretaker pope in 1958 who would hold office for a few years, it is possible that some thought likewise: get an elderly man with a short-ish tenure to clean up the Vatican administration a bit, streamlining the administration for a future successor. Otherwise, keep business as usual).

Francis has certainly started a clean-up of the Vatican – but it has gone further than many I suspect imagined. He has investigated allegations of money laundering in the Institute for the Works of Religion (aka the Vatican Bank), instituted external audits, removed and replaced key figures, and, it has been suggested, is apparently willing to close it down if he considers it irreformable.

He has also tried to streamline the Vatican bureaucracy and has created a new institution, an international Council of Cardinal Advisors to keep him informed on matters of the global Church. This innovation is significant because most of them are based not in Rome but in their home territories. This, and his attempts to reform the Vatican administration, signal a mixture of transparency and consultation – features that extend further into reforming Church practices as a whole.

Perhaps the most dramatic way in which this has played out has been in the Synod on Marriage and Family Life. Whereas in the last few decades such synods tended to be prepared largely in Rome, with selective inputs from approved experts, Francis turned this into a global consultative process. He invited the whole Church to participate in collecting information at a local level about realities at grassroots – done by local bishops conferences with varying degrees of comprehensiveness and transparency, it should be noted – before inviting representative bishops, advisors and a selection of experts to Rome for two sessions (in 2014 and 2015) in which he not only allowed, but insisted upon, absolute frankness. These sessions, and the post-synodal apostolic exhortation he produced, Amoris Laetitia, reflected the strengths and weaknesses of his new approach. Conservatives objected that he was making readmission to communion of divorced and remarried Catholics too easy, in effect watering down doctrines. Liberals wanted annulments scrapped, to be replaced by an admission (following Eastern Orthodox Christian practice) that sometimes marriages may fail and that the divorced and remarried could – in a spirit of penitence – be readmitted to communion.

Francis’ compromise reform was a radical simplification of the annulment process and an invitation to people in complex marital situations to discern in conscience with their pastors what they should do. Such an approach has caused a storm of protest from some sectors. But Francis has calmly stuck to his guns.

The significance of this process, beyond its outcome, is that it happened at all. Francis has shifted Synodal governance from what it has been since the 1980s (and between 1870 and 1962, one should add) away from a mainly passive acceptance by bishops of a largely pre-prepared Roman statement to one of participation and dialogue in which varying perspectives are heard and welcomed. Though a reform of recent practice, it should be noted that before the 1870s this was a common form of collegial decision-making usually done at a Council of the Church. Contrary to the notion that this is an ‘innovation’, it is deeply traditional. It is a re-appropriation – a ressourcement one might say – of a ‘great tradition’ stretching back to early Christianity.

Yet it must be said that reform of the Church is only as good as those who implement it. This is recently illustrated again by Francis’ interpretation of his predecessors’ document on the liturgy, Liturgiam Authenticam, which imposed upon the English-speaking sectors of the Church the new translation of the English liturgy. The latter, based on a literal translation of the Latin rites (against the grain of what is considered mainstream theories of translation), has resulted in a cumbersome liturgy that is at times hard to understand for first language English-speakers and incomprehensible to those for whom English is a second, third or fourth language. Liturgiam itself was widely criticised by liturgical scholars. The most devastating critique has even come from a Princeton music historian Peter Jeffery, a self-confessed conservative Catholic who loves the Latin Mass, who pointed out that the text seemed completely ignorant of development in the Latin rite. Francis, responding to criticisms, has indicated that Liturgiam should in fact be adapted and interpreted according to the needs of the local church under the guidance of bishops’ conferences. So far, no major conference has responded significantly to this call.

Why has nothing happened? It is possible that the English-speaking Church is suffering from liturgy fatigue and can’t face more change at this time. Another possibility some believe is that the majorities of bishops in these conference simply don’t agree with Francis – and are sitting out his pontificate. If the latter is so, this highlights a flaw in Francis’ programme of reform: his collegial approach, as opposed to a more authoritarian method (i.e. reform from above, backed by the act or ‘threat’ of removing bishops who obstruct or delay reform), can only work with the consent of his brother bishops, many of whom do not seem to be singing (in Latin or vernacular) from the same hymn sheet.

While we look at resistances and gaps in Francis’ pontificate so far, we cannot but note the ongoing disaster of dealing with child abuse and the abuse of vulnerable adults in the Church. Despite his efforts to introduce justice and transparency, notably through the creation of a Pontifical Commission for the protection of minors, Francis has not handled the crisis well. Many Vatican observers, even those strongly sympathetic to Francis, believe that the Commission is largely toothless. Francis’ utterings in a recent visit to Latin America has also been considered insensitive and ill-considered – points, to his credit, he subsequently conceded when he was challenged over them.

One must try to be fair to Francis: he is limited by what he personally can do, limited by those who lead the Church around the world. But it must be faced. The abuse crisis cuts to the heart of the Church. Although surveys of the problem in countries from the United States to Australia show that the percentage of paedophile clergy in the Church is no higher than in the wider population – and in fact may even be slightly lower – this neither excuses nor absolves the Church from vigilance.

Though many regions of the Church have strict conduct protocols, professional conduct commissions and now cooperate with law enforcement in investigating abuse allegations, many others do not. Whether this is denial of the problem, shame or a vestigial premodern assumption that the Church is somehow ‘above’ the laws of society is irrelevant. The scandal must be faced, global procedures of prevention, protection and where necessary prosecution need to be implemented. Denial is not an option for a Church that exists in the world.  

Francis’ reforms have extend beyond the Church. It has extended a hand of friendship to other Christian traditions, other faiths, and to the wider global society. While great strides were made in ecumenism since Vatican II, there have been periodic shifts backwards – particularly over the question of papal primacy. In simple terms, the more pyramidal the model of papacy the less likely the chances for reunion. Even within churches with an episcopal structure of bishops – e.g. Anglicans, Orthodox and many Lutheran churches – the idea of the pope being anything more than the primus inter pares (first among equals) and the see of Rome having any more than the ‘primacy of honour’ among the historic patriarchates of East and West is almost unthinkable. This – beyond questions of married clergy, women clergy, particularly Catholic moral positions, or doctrinal semantics – is the deal-breaker.

Francis has not succeeded in re-uniting divided Christianity. But his genuine openness to what Vatican II called ‘separated brethren’ (as opposed to the earlier language of heretics and schismatics!) has thawed inter-church relations with both the East and West. To the chagrin of more triumphalist Catholics he has acknowledged that Martin Luther had good grounds for protesting. His collegial style within the Church and his friendship with Patriarch Bartholomew has built up warmer relations with Orthodoxy.

He has also displayed greater warmth towards Islam, gently encouraging Muslims and non-Muslims to distance themselves from both violent extremism and Islamophobia, and has tried to deepen good relations with Judaism, while appealing consistently for a peaceful and just solution in Israel-Palestine. He has been more generous in his relations with Eastern religions – strained perhaps by past statements by predecessors which, though they may have been interpreted out of context, put a chill on post-Vatican II interfaith dialogue.

But, once again, are these reforms innovations? No. All they do is actually affirm the Second Vatican Council’s teachings on ecumenism and interfaith relations. And behind that there is, I suspect, a particular interpretation of Lumen Gentium’s statement that the fullness of truth subsists in, but is not necessarily restricted to, the Catholic Church. Some years back, there was a strong move by some to say that subsistit in was in effect ‘exists in’. Based on recollections of those bishops who were at Vatican II and voted on the text, and on those who in fact drafted it, the former, more ecumenical reading was what most of the Council Fathers believed. I suspect it is also what Francis believes.

In the global political sphere, Pope Francis has been forthright in commitment to human rights, particularly for migrants and refugees, his opposition to war, his commitment to justice for the poor and his firm stance on the environment. Though there was substantial engagement with environmental issues from his predecessors – notably Pope Benedict XVI – Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ has been widely praised and welcomed by environmental activists and by scientists. While many of them criticise his position opposing artificial birth control to limit population growth (a major but by no means sole factor, most scientific studies agree, in environmental crisis), they have welcomed his insistence on the fact of climate change, dangers of pollution and the need to reverse the damage to the planet. In some ways, due to the grim present political circumstances, he has become a kind of world leader for environmentalism, a counterblast in this (and most other respects too) to President Donald Trump of the United States.

Pope Francis has spoken up consistently for greater human rights for the poor, marginalised and displaced. He is credited with having helped to facilitate the re-opening of United States-Cuban diplomatic relations in the final years of Barack Obama’s presidency, and has tried to ease Israeli-Palestinian relations. Whether his interventions will have a lasting impact is unclear. The global tendency towards right wing populism, xenophobia and elite greed remains as strong as ever. Big money and bigger egos dominate, not least in the realm of social media where false facts and character assassination is the norm. But even if he cannot make more than a dent in such a global system, even if he gets mauled by Catholic and non-Catholic online trolls, the fact that someone like Francis has the courage to say what he does is a source and sign of hope to those many – the nameless multitude – who live with the consequences of social sin.

While principled, he has also shown signs of pragmatism. He avoided overt criticism of Myanmar’s treatment of minorities because he was advised – correctly I think – that doing so would have caused further violence against them. He has also worked to ease church-state relations in China. For some supporters of Francis, such pragmatism may feel a bit like compromise, a slight betrayal of principles. Yet in all honesty one must admit that in any process seeking change there may be times when caution and prudence may be more effective than direct confrontation. Even the pope must pick his battles.

Does this make Francis a leftist? I think not. Despite coming from Latin America, he is by no means a liberation theologian. While not hostile to Marxists – he once commented that he had Marxist friends in Argentina and has certainly engaged convivially with left-wing politicians and journalists in Italy – he rejects Marxism in favour of Catholic Social Teaching, which permeates his thinking from politics to the environment.

Which brings us to the question of theological reform. Here again, one should see Francis less as an innovator – let alone dangerous liberal or radical that his critics claim – than as a …traditionalist. This deserve qualification. Francis embraces the full breadth of Catholic tradition. Rooted in Vatican II, which he recently insisted should be the basis from which Catholic theologians should work, his thinking spans two millennia of Catholic tradition. His statements suggest a profound familiarity with Thomas Aquinas and not just its neo-Thomist variants (some might say distortions). This is most obvious in his emphasis on personal formed and informed conscience, with perhaps a significant nod to its latter developments by theologians like Alphonsus Ligouri. (Both Aquinas and Ligouri emphasise the need to apply theology pastorally and prayerfully – once again, echoed by Francis).

His emphasis on Mercy – though probably influenced by his friend and brother bishop Walter Kasper – is another dimension to his thinking that bears on his reforms. As a former Jesuit he is steeped in Ignatius of Loyola’s emphasis on the redeemed sinner, echoed at the 1975 Jesuits’ 32nd General Congregation formulation that a Jesuit knows that he’s a sinner yet loved by God. (Francis knows this text well: he attended the Congregation in his capacity as Provincial of Argentina). This underlying theology and spirituality explains his general attitude to the Christian life: Christians are fallible, sinners loved by God, struggling with their imperfections as they try to grow into deeper relationship with the Lord.

While by no means liberal, my sense is that Francis is uneasy with an excessive legalism that forgets mercy and forgiveness, intellectualism that passes over pastoral care, and any practices that create elitism – whether spiritual or institutional – within Church or society. It is this that is key to his sometimes controversial engagement with clergy and bishops, something that reflects deeper questions in his pontificate regarding his capacity to sustain his reforms in its remainder – and his legacy.

This is a revised edition of an article first published in the February/March 2018 issue of Worldwide magazine. We thank the editors for their permission.

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Read the final part of the series here. 

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.