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On Pope Francis's legacy.


Ten years ago, Jorge Bergoglio was raised to the Chair of Saint Peter on March 13, two weeks after the abdication of his predecessor. Benedict XVI had been the first pope to resign his office since Gregory XII, whose demission ended the Great Western Schism at the beginning of the fifteenth century. The unusual circumstances under which his current papacy began (to say nothing of the continued presence of Benedict himself within the walls of the Vatican, wearing white and styling himself “Pope Emeritus”) lent a quality of uncertainty to Pope Francis’s reign.

This feeling has persisted, for reasons that are understandable. Prior to his election, he had been neither a distinguished theologian, as both Benedict and John Paul II had been, nor (like virtually every other modern pope from Pius IX until Paul VI) a member of the Curia. Little was known of him save that he had been metropolitan of an archdiocese that does not factor much into the considerations of Anglophone Catholics. Rumors offered conflicting impressions: that he was a Perónist, that he had been soft on liberation theology, that he had obstructed the implementation of Summorum pontificum in his territory, that he had read the authorized biography of Archbishop Lefebvre—twice. His papacy began as a white wall—solid, irremovable, opaque—upon which the fancies of Catholics and secular observers alike could be projected via magic lantern.

“Whom the gods wish to destroy,” Cyril Connolly wrote, “they first call promising.” Exultant promise was certainly the mood that Francis wished to convey early in his papacy—a sense of the Promethean possibilities that awaited a Church whose future lay outside Europe, a rejection of the squalor and ennui to which years of sexual and financial scandal had given way. But hope is brightest when it dawns from fears. In his first papal address, Francis warned of a Church robbed of Her supernatural dimension, reduced to the status of a mere “compassionate N.G.O”; venal time-serving bishops, he said, were unworthy of the high severity of their apostolic calling; effete clergy did not “smell like the sheep”; the complacent laity, unwilling to entertain the idea that the dictates of the Gospel might be incompatible with respectable middle-class consumer lifestyles, were, mercifully, in a state of invincible ignorance and probably incapable of contracting valid marriages.

What, then, was to be done? These winter storms would doubtless give way to a summer moon, but how? The chief obstacle—indeed the only one—was, paradoxically, the Church Herself. For too long She had appeared to the faithful only under Her ancient (and regrettable) aspect as lawgiver and judge, even as tyrant. Law would not save Her. The graven images would have to be torn down and the stone tablets themselves laid under wrap. The faithful themselves knew this better than anyone, but they groaned beneath the yoke of an inflexible clergy—Wojtyła’s new men, the generation of candlesticks on the altar and stoles in the box, and Ratzinger’s toffs in their Gammarelli socks. The necessary self-effacement would come not from these “rigorists” and “doctors of the law,” the neo-Pharisees who would deny the grace of baptism to the children of unwed parents, but from village elders—the Samaritan woman who left her waterpot, and went her way into the city, saying, “Is not this the Christ?” For her sake the Church would become a field hospital.

With the Church reeling from the buffets of scandal—the so-called “Vatileaks” affair, the arrest of the pope’s own butler by Vatican police, the publication of letters written by the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States in which all manner of unspeakable corruption was frankly discussed—many of the reforms promised by Francis ought to have been welcomed as a matter of course. But such expectations do not take into account the American Church, whose bishops, the pope insisted, were “ideologized” and insufficiently pastoral. (In the hope of explaining what he meant when he said that bishops must be neither right wing, like the archbishop of Philadelphia, nor left wing, we are told that Francis added: “And when I say left-wing I mean homosexual.”)

Ecclesiastical historians of the future will show how, slowly, by imperceptible degrees, a permanent breakdown in relations between Francis and the Americans was achieved. Who, really, is to blame? Is it really the case that a pope whose emails are printed for him, whose genuine horror of technology is well known, was influenced by Twitter threads and YouTube videos of his most excitable critics? While it is tempting to say that from the first Francis was regarded with suspicion and contempt, if not by the American episcopate, then certainly by the laity, evidence of such prejudice is difficult to come by. In 2014, months after he had been stripped of his responsibilities at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Cardinal Burke took to the pages of L’Osservatore Romano to praise Francis’s hardline views on sexual matters. The pope’s visit to the United States was regarded as an occasion of joy, not least by the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives. While it is true that his preferred candidates for ecclesiastical appointments would be frequently rejected by the American bishops’ conferences, such froideurs are not unknown. Even Laudato si’, his first encyclical (Lumen fidei had been drafted largely by his predecessor), a gloomy Heideggerian meditation upon the “the technocratic paradigm” was greeted respectfully, though respectable “conservative” commentators hastened to remind their readers that the pope was not in their view qualified to pronounce upon (for example) the morality of air conditioning.

Even a pontiff who believes that “ideas are greater than realities” must make some concession to sublunary minds: there must be activity. Thus in 2014 Francis convened the Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (not to be confused with the Fourteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which soon followed it). Under discussion would be the results of a survey given to the world’s bishops. Speakers were called from China to Peru. A lay Australian couple, Ron and Mavis Pirola, unburdened themselves of the opinion that “marriage is a sexual sacrament with its fullest expression in sexual intercourse.” Even the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Nichols, was taken aback: “That’s not what we bishops talk about mostly, quite honestly.” From this hodgepodge, a summary was prepared. Among its findings were an apparently widespread feeling that Holy Communion for divorced persons living in concubinage “needs to be thoroughly examined” and various suggestions about the so-called “law of gradualism,” which had been condemned by John Paul II. (It was to be regretted that the document contained no references to sin.) The interim report led to another document, with section headings such as “Listening” and “Context.” A similar gathering was arranged in 2018, devoted to the subject of “Young People.” It is unclear how many were called, but some twenty-eight were chosen, apparently representative examples of the species. Among the topics set for discussion were pornography, video games (“a major challenge for society”), “reaching the youth through Social Media,” and the appalling specter of fake news. But the Fifteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (as it was officially termed) somehow attracted less attention than its predecessors. The ecclesiastical wire services dutifully reported its conclusions. “Young people feel a lack of harmony with the Church.” This was undoubtedly true.

During this period, between Years of Mercy, various Jubilees and canonizations, exhortations, and a number of very interesting apostolic letters, Francis would also announce his intentions of regulating the Vatican Bank, of re-organizing the sclerotic bureaucracy, of reckoning decisively with the problem of sexual abuse among the clergy. At the root of all this was clericalism. There would be, in future, fewer monsignori. (Indeed, Archbishop Bergoglio had never requested this dubious honor for any of his clergy.) But there would be more cardinals, perhaps a hundred more, of whom the majority would be eligible to participate in a future conclave. Thus would the Augean Stables be cleaned.

Meanwhile in a series of interviews and off-the-cuff pronouncements, Francis would also hint at an even more dazzling possibility (one denied by Father Lombardi, the old Vatican press wizard, after the first meeting of the Sacred College): the possibility of a decisive break with seemingly immutable teaching on sexual issues. These provocations, eagerly blazoned by progressive Catholics and secular journalists and denounced or explained away by conservatives, lay somewhat uneasily alongside expected affirmations of Church teaching on abortion (the moral equivalent of “hiring a hitman”) and “gender theory,” which the pope once compared to nuclear weapons, and his constant references to the Devil.

For those who hoped that Francis would be the herald of a new progressive Church, it is fair to say that their fondest hopes have not been realized. The pope has not relaxed the disciplinary norm of priestly celibacy for priests of the Latin Rite, as many conservative commentators expected. Nor has he attempted to elevate women to some non-sacerdotal version of the diaconate, much less to the priesthood, though Sister Nathalie Becquart was appointed co-undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops and one Castia Summaria became Promoter of Justice in the Vatican’s Court of Appeals. Despite what truculent American critics have suggested, Amoris laetitia simply carried the absurd logic applied by Familiaris consortio to the divorced and remarried to its implicit conclusion. (John Paul II had blithely assumed that they would live indefinitely “as brother and sister,” a generation of bigamous saints.) Even the death penalty could not be ruled contrary to natural law, only “inadmissible,” a vaguely phrased prudential judgement that would seem (as some wags have suggested) to bind only the leaders of confessional states.

Like the would-be dogmatic revolution, the practical reforms have also largely failed to materialize. Financial and abuse-related scandals have continued apace. The would-be rationalization of the Vatican bureaucracy—which has involved, among other things, renaming various departments and shifting responsibilities among officials seemingly at random—has been met with bafflement. Francis’s attempts to enliven the ranks of the Sacred College with little-known clerics from far-flung dioceses have eliminated its raison d’être. The revival of Vatican realpolitik in China (with its apparent rejection of the post-conciliar norm of Western-style religious liberty as a universal ideal) looks to some like a sordid betrayal of Chinese Catholics who had experienced persecution in exchange for very few meaningful concessions. During Francis’s pontificate, Brazil has become a majority Protestant country—a subject to which the various documents that emerged from the Amazonian synod did not once refer. Other Latin American nations find themselves on similar trajectories. The ongoing Synod of Synodality (a name that suggests origins in the Alice books or Monty Python), with its meretricious graphics and Davos-style sloganeering, is in many ways the embodiment of everything Francis had warned about in his first address.

It increasingly looks as if Francis’s papacy will be largely defined not by longed-for reforms but by his decision to undo the most significant legacy of his predecessor. While it had been rumored for years that Francis intended to restrict the traditional Latin Mass, whose liberalization was arguably Benedict XVI’s most consequential achievement, there were good reasons for supporters of the old rite to be skeptical. After all, in 2018 traditionalists were given permission to celebrate Holy Week as it had been before 1955. In the meantime, Francis regularized the Society of Saint Pius X, giving its clergy the faculty to hear confessions.

When the restrictions on the old Mass were announced in July 2021, many bishops were reluctant to implement the restrictions, even though the decision was presented as the result of a survey canvassing their opinions on the matter. Subsequent attempts to clarify the legal status of the restrictions have stripped bishops of the authority promised to them in the original document that had announced the changes. This, too, was an unexpected reversal of course from the liturgical decentralization that Francis had ostensibly desired.

Whatever the future of the traditional Mass (who does not fear that it will become subject to a Mexico City Policy-style cycle of reversals under future popes?), it is clear that, like hopes for spiritual revival and much-needed administrative reforms, desire for a peaceful end to the so-called “liturgy wars” have proven ill-founded. This is to say nothing of those of us who wished that even secular observers might find value in Francis’s Heideggerian warnings about social media and environmental spoliation. Every bit as much as Benedict on the eve of his resignation, Francis seems to have decided that the forces arrayed against him are insurmountable. A keen Wagernian, he gives one the impression that he is now resigned to an ecclesial Götterdämmerung, a Twilight of the Church.

The gloom is contagious. Vatican gossip blogs report widespread disillusionment among the Curia. Priests say they are demoralized. Mass attendance continues to decline, and it is possible that in many countries it will never return to levels observed before the recent lockdowns. Vocations to the priesthood have fallen to their lowest rate since 1999; anecdotal evidence suggests that in some cases this is because orthodox aspirants have been rejected. (I know of one major archdiocese that in recent years had gone without a single priestly ordination turning away a candidate because of his fondness for the traditional Mass.) In Germany there is now a distinct possibility that we are being led once again in the direction of—could it be?—but no, it is simply unthinkable.

For my part, I suspect that the defining image of this pontificate will be of Francis walking the empty rain-filled streets of Rome in May 2020, reciting ancient prayers against plague while shrouded in an otherworldly blue light.

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