Massimo Franco, the political editor of Corriere della Sera and widely respected commentator on the Vatican, said this week (Wednesday) that he believes the “revolutionary appeal of Pope Francis is almost over”.
Speaking without reporting restrictions at London’s Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs independent think tank, he contrasted the expectations of reform that followed Jorge Bergoglio’s election in 2013 with the actual results five years on. Referring to Francis’ remark in his annual Christmas speech to the curia on 21 December last year, that reforming the Vatican is like “cleaning the Sphinx with a toothbrush”, he said that this comment was an indication of Francis’ powerlessness.
In that address Francis said some in the Vatican bureaucracy were part of “cliques and plots” and spoke of those “traitors of trust” who had been entrusted with carrying out reforms but “let themselves be corrupted by ambition and vainglory”.
This expression of frustration, Franco argued, showed that the “rosy” picture of Francis in the world outside veils huge problems in the Church that Francis has not been able to solve.
The case of Libero Milone spoke volumes as regards the difficulty of reforming Vatican finances, Franco said. The Vatican’s first auditor general resigned without explanation in June last year, then broke his silence in September saying he was forced to step down with trumped-up accusations, after discovering evidence of possible illegal activity. Milone believed that some in the Vatican wanted “to slow down Pope Francis’s efforts at financial reform”.
Last week’s resignation from the Vatican Bank’s Board of Superintendence of the former US ambassador to the Holy See, Mary Ann Glendon, was another indication, Franco felt, that this suspicion may be well founded.
The sources of the Pope’s advice and information had also become problematic, Franco suggested. The concept of the Council of Cardinals (C9), set up to discuss with Francis the major issues facing the Church, was a good one. But these days, the C9 met less frequently than envisaged, and suffered from a lack of transparency that might well indicate a lack of coherence in its deliberations, Franco thought. Meanwhile the Pope’s decision to install himself in the Casa Santa Marta guesthouse rather than the Apostolic Palace had proved in Franco’s view to have serious hidden costs. Cliques and coteries had developed that were fluid in nature, he observed, but none of which was necessarily reliable in the quality of information that was being whispered in the Pope’s ear.
Moreover, in Franco’s view, the voice that Francis listens to most attentively is that of Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina in Buenos Aires, whose thinking is incorporated into the controversial apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia. Fernandez has referred to critics of this document, that is generally understood as charting a path to receiving communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, as deploying a kind of “death trap” in their logic, and risking a “betrayal of the heart of the Gospel”. He is also an advocate of shifting the centre of gravity of the Church away from Rome – an idea that Franco said simply “doesn’t work”.
The controversies over Amoris Laetitia have been encapsulated in recent remarks by two cardinals. Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago in a lecture in Cambridge this month argued that the document represented a programme for revolutionary change in the Church. He said its emphasis on mercy and conscience meant the Church in its ministry should regard the family in its contemporary reality as a source of doctrinal development. This, Cupich said, marked a “paradigm shift” in the Church’s self-understanding. Cardinal Gerhard Muller, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who explicitly saw his role as a theological and doctrinal guide to the pontiff and whose tenure Francis did not renew when Muller came to the end of his term in July last year, argued in an article in First Things this month that there can be no such thing as a “paradigm shift” for the Church. Some developments are valid and some are corrupting, he said, but there can be no overturning of established and valid tradition in ways that have been mooted.
It is on this basis that Muller has warned of a schism in the Church. In his talk at Chatham House, Franco said he thought that Muller was overstating the depth of the crisis, but it was still true that “we don’t know what will happen next”.
Franco said that – to borrow one of Francis’ best-known phrases - if the Church was a field hospital in 2013, then it is a field hospital with even more confusion today.
There was, Franco said, growing resentment over the contrast between Francis’ easy and direct contact with ordinary people and his less happy and often fractious relationship with his “ecclesiastical army”.
In terms of international diplomacy, in Franco’s view Francis was seen as giving some countries an easy “pass” – for example Russia after its annexation of Crimea – while his pragmatic approach to communism as seen in his overtures to China, was also seen by many as suspect, in allowing Beijing too much of a say in episcopal appointments.
Francis was trying to build the next conclave into one with a decisive presence from the “peripheries”, which he hoped would continue his attempted reforms, Franco observed – but time was not on his side. Franco hoped that conclave would “not be soon” but the question of the moment, he felt, was: will Francis be cancelled from the memory of the Church, or will his successor continue his work?
PICTURE: Pope Francis ©PA