Damian Thompson

Why is Pope Francis’s leadership such a confusing mess? This may be the answer...

Why is Pope Francis's leadership such a confusing mess? This may be the answer...
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This week the Catholic Herald published a blog post by Dr Edward Condon, an American canon lawyer, that began with a description of the Holy Father's method of communicating his thoughts to the faithful:

... soundbites lifted from off-the-cuff remarks, second hand accounts of midnight phone calls, and semi-reliable digests of interviews with nonagenarian atheists all making the news, followed by a maelstrom of interpretation and counter-interpretation before an eventual 'clarification' comes out of the Vatican press office amounting to little more than 'We don’t think any of you have it quite right'.

I've made the same observation myself (though not nearly so memorably). What I couldn't explain was why Francis was behaving in this erratic fashion. But Condon has a theory, and it rings depressingly true. Here are some highlights from his post:

Excepting by some outlying voices, it isn’t credibly held that the Holy Father is aiming for confusion. Indeed, his interventions, when they come, seem to have an almost impatient tone at the inability of the rest of us to get with the programme, whatever it might be. So, if the Pope isn’t trying to leave himself open to constant contradictory interpretations, what is going on? The most obvious answer seems to be that the he is simply unaware of the turmoil carrying on outside the Vatican walls.

... Francis seems, in many ways, to be more remote than either of the two previous popes; he seems unable to avoid confusion over whatever he says, or to hear clearly the questions he’s being so earnestly asked to address. But why?

Earlier this year, in an interview with an Argentine newspaper, it came out that the Pope had not watched television for more than 20 years, did not use the internet, and read only one newspaper. When we really think about what this means in terms of the Holy Father’s exposure to and appreciation of what is going on in the wider Church and world, it seems that he has, perhaps unwittingly, become even more of a creature of his advisors then they ever could have achieved through keeping him locked in the papal apartments. It certainly makes sense of Francis’s seeming reticence to weigh in on increasingly heated debates about what he meant when he said X – he isn’t necessarily aware there is a debate.

There is a real danger that Francis is becoming the new prisoner of the Vatican, and it’s a jail of bad advice and lack of information. The results of his being totally reliant on what his advisors tell him are a real roadblock to his own financial reforms of the Vatican and beginning to seriously undermine the credibility of his appointments. This can be seen, for example, in the otherwise inexplicable decision to invite a man as compromised as Cardinal Danneels to the synod (on the family of all things!) despite the scandal surrounding his reported attempts to silence victims of sexual abuse.

As I say, this rings true, though Condon is perhaps a little too charitable. Who built this 'jail of bad advice and bad information'? The Pope did. And I find it hard to believe that any of his advisers would say to him: 'Your Holiness, the synod refused to change the rules on divorced Catholics, so why don't you ring up that 91-year-old guy – you know, the one who doesn't take notes and who's already landed you in hot water twice – and brief him that all divorcees will eventually be given the sacrament?'

Francis and Francis alone must take responsibility for the disorientating weirdness of this pontificate. And if you doubt that it is weird, just try to imagine John Paul II picking up the phone to an atheist and saying: 'Hello, it's the Pope again! Now, about this outdated Catholic teaching on communion...'