Damian Thompson

Pope Francis: despite the glowing headlines, the jury is still out

Pope Francis: despite the glowing headlines, the jury is still out
Text settings

How many of Pope Francis's spiritual diseases do you suffer from? The pontiff laid out no fewer than 15 of them in an 'exchange of Christmas greetings' yesterday. They included 'spiritual Alzheimers', 'existential schizophrenia', 'working too much', 'planning too much', 'working without co-ordination' and, above all, 'the terrorism of gossip'.

I did a quick check and found two I definitely don't suffer from: working too much and 'feeling immortal, immune and indispensable'. It reminds me of the narrator of Three Men in a Boat who, on leafing through a medical dictionary in the British Museum, discovers he suffers from every ghastly malady except housemaid's knee.

A funny way to wish your staff a Merry Christmas, you might think – but this is Francis, so the media were full of praise for his 'devastating critique' of the corrupt Curia. An exception was the veteran (and famously non-partisan) Vatican expert John Allen Jr, who asked whether 'his sharp critiques have served to clarify his expectations and get his aides on the same page, or if they risk demoralising the very people he most needs to motivate'.

The Curia is undoubtedly full of lazy gossips and Machiavellian time-servers; but there are good people there too, and they're sick of the Pope being rude about them. Some of them will have been running down the list of spiritual maladies and checking off ones that may just possibly afflict the Holy Father. Seen close up, he's not as breezily benevolent as the photo-ops imply; charismatic figures rarely are. Some clergy in Argentina remember him as an unsmiling ass-kicker, so you can imagine them spluttering over their mate as they read that being 'funeral-faced' is one of Francis's new cardinal sins.

Also, although the Pope speaks powerfully about gossip, forcing even the most loose-tongued commentators (I plead guilty) to think about the consequences of their words, you can't help wondering if his hatred of rumour-mongers reflects a refusal to listen to criticism of people close to him. His most famous line, 'Who am I to judge?', was in response to a specific question about Mgr Battista Ricca, the Pope's delegate to the Vatican Bank and director of the Domus Sanctae Marthae hostel where he lives. Ricca was allegedly caught with a rent boy in a lift. To quote John Allen again, 'many assumed the Pope would be forced to remove Ricca. Instead, Francis stood by his man, and Ricca remains on the job.' I'm told that Francis believes his friend is innocent and that is that. So, no gossip, please. I doubt that Benedict XVI would have been allowed to shrug off the scandal without a formal investigation. (Incidentally, a priest tells me that there are signs around the Domus telling visitors not to speak to the Holy Father if they pass him in the corridor; someone please tell me if this is true.)

I'm sorry to intrude myself into this blog post, but writing critically about Francis makes me uneasy. He's a good man. He's entitled to dispense with the elaborate liturgies that traditionalists love: he is Pope, after all. His denunciation of greed comes from the heart: he pricks consciences in a way that dear Pope Benedict could not. His reform of the Vatican finances, desperately overdue, seems to be proceeding quickly and efficiently under the supervision of Cardinal Pell. But my confidence in Pope Francis is shaky compared to a year ago – and that's also true of countless priests and devout lay people who have never identified with the bitter traddies who started sneering at 'Bergoglio' from the moment he appeared on the balcony of St Peter's.

The doubts really set in during that wretchedly chaotic opening session of the Synod on the Family in October. You can read my thoughts on it here. Basically, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Let's set aside the question of whether the Catholic Church needs to rethink its attitude towards divorced and gay people. The Pope clearly thinks it does, and he may be right, but he chose the wrong instrument for bringing about whatever change is possible (which is not very much). Here are two fundamental problems with his strategy:

1. Francis sought to rekindle the spirit of the Second Vatican Council when he invited cardinals and bishops to discuss issues of sexual morality at the extraordinary (ie, preparatory) session of the Synod last autumn. He succeeded in one respect: there was confusion and bickering among the cardinals, as there was 50 years ago. The spectacle of Cardinal Burke accusing Cardinal Kasper of racism brought to mind the blazing row at the Council between the conservative Cardinal Ottaviani and the reformist Cardinal Frings (right-hand man: Fr Ratzinger) which 'nearly blew the roof off St Peter's', according to one observer.

Pope Francis invited the synod fathers to speak freely, and he may well have anticipated Vatican II-style rows that would resolve themselves in the end. But times have changed. The Council managed – broadly successfully, whatever its critics say – to reorientate the Church towards the world at a time when 'liberalism' meant renouncing anti-Semitism and treating non-Catholics as fellow Christians rather than heretics. The liturgy was changed drastically, even clumsily, but Pope Paul VI held the line on birth control and transubstantiation – indeed, made such teachings non-negotiable. Now, in contrast, the major litmus test of liberalism is attitudes to gay marriage – a concept so alien to Christian tradition that the Catholic Church will not countenance it.

To complicate matters, liberalism can no longer be portrayed as 'the spirit of the age' as it could during the Council. It is the spirit of a western culture rejected by millions of Christians in the countries where Catholicism and Protestantism are growing fastest. African cardinals, like African Anglican bishops, will not be pressured by colleagues from wealthy but empty churches – the Germans in particular – into watering down biblical teaching. The concept of aggiornamento, 'bringing up to date', that informed Vatican II is meaningless in a world in which the congregations that engage most successfully with modernity, in the West as well as developing countries, are those that seek to reclaim tradition. Benedict understood – understands – this paradox better than Francis does. (The English bishops don't grasp it at all, which is perhaps just as well: if they knew how many of their seminarians are secretly practising the rubrics of the Tridentine Mass they'd have a fit.)

2. Put simply, the Catholic Church has a magisterium and other churches do not. Its core teachings are set out in such a way that they can be tweaked, no more. The major questions thrown at it by secular society are what John Rentoul calls QTWTAIN: Questions To Which The Answer Is No. Gay marriage? Divorce? Contraception? Women priests? All forbidden in terms that ensure they cannot be un-forbidden. The latter two were set in stone by Blessed Paul VI and St John Paul II. Popes, unlike governments, can bind their successors. So, to repeat, the most the synod fathers can do is tweak, and since even the tiniest movement in any direction sets off a row when they are gathered together, one wonders what good can come of their meeting. Conservative Catholics may despair at Francis's mid-flight obiter dicta, but they do less harm than synodical disputes conducted in jargon.

I'm sick of pointing out that the Catholic Church is following the example of the Anglican Communion, which has fallen apart because it assumed that the Holy Spirit would lead American and African Christians in the same direction. But at least it is now headed by a man who understands the limitations of his office: Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who in his understated way is just as effective a leader as Pope Francis. Welby anticipated the histrionics of the 2018 Lambeth Conference – and wisely cancelled it. I hope I'm proved wrong, but after the second session of the Synod of Bishops in 2015 the Holy Father may wish he had done the same.