Francis at the two-year mark: Early achievements and persistent obstacles

Francis at the two-year mark: Early achievements and persistent obstacles

Pope Francis’ pontificate hits the two-year mark this week, and it’s a delicate moment for his program of bureaucratic house-cleaning and pastoral revitalization. The pope has set new directions and new priorities, reflecting his vision of how the Vatican should operate and how the church should evangelize. I think he’s seen real success in several areas, but he’s also encountered serious obstacles.

Here is a brief summary:

-- Financial reforms at the Vatican. With the recent consolidation of the Secretariat for the Economy, the pope has put in place a system of financial safeguards that is unparalleled in Vatican history. His reforms have effectively cleaned out hidden accounts and rogue budgets, and thankfully lessened Italian influence over Vatican finances in general.

But the fierce infighting over the Economy secretary, Cardinal George Pell, along with other turf battles that have simmered in the background, only illustrate that the culture of power struggles persists inside the Vatican walls. That culture is the real problem, and I see no sign that it is disappearing.

-- Reform of Roman Curia offices. The planned streamlining of the Vatican bureaucracy is at least halfway to the finish line, and eventually we’ll see fewer agencies and greater coordination, especially among communication agencies. That’s all to the good.

It’s equally clear, however, that the pope has no intention of challenging the “system” in the Roman Curia, by which I mean a network of powerful administrative departments, headed by cardinals, where decision-making is linked to clerical identity and lay people function in auxiliary roles.

The pope has called several times for an attitude of service in the Curia, but it appears to me that few if any structural changes are being contemplated that would end careerism at the Vatican.

-- The pope as a communicator. By speaking plainly and spontaneously, without the usual Vatican filters, Pope Francis has revolutionized papal communication and, I would argue, papal teaching. It’s not just that he’s willing to converse freely with journalists and visitors; he has made this kind of direct discourse, often in interviews and off-the-cuff sermons, a primary method of instructing the faithful.

Spontaneity, however, has brought with it a wider margin for misspeaking and misinterpretation. And the wars of interpretation over the pope’s words are being fought, rather predictably, along familiar battle lines by conservative and liberal wings of the Catholic Church.

-- “Synodality” and collegiality. By challenging the Synod of Bishops to have truly open discussions about a series of pastoral problems (including but not limited to divorced and remarried Catholics), I believe the pope is trying to tackle collegiality from the ground up – beginning with how bishops relate to each other. How the bishops might share greater responsibility with the pope in church governance and pastoral care is a related question, but one that so far has barely been posed.

Keep in mind that the pope is caught in a bit of a paradox. There’s no doubt Pope Francis wants to govern more collegially and involve the bishops in any major pastoral changes. But he’s working with a generally conservative hierarchy put in place by his two predecessors. For many of them, the very topics that need a fresh pastoral approach are considered “off limits.” In other words, the pope’s own pastoral initiatives may not survive the collegiality test today.

-- Papal popularity. We read last week that Pope Francis’ popularity rating in the United States is 90 percent. Global media interest also remains sky high. There is much applause for the pope’s willingness to tackle social and environmental issues like climate change, and for his more recent statements that Catholic morality and theology are pointless without mercy and without direct contact with suffering humanity.

For many, these words are a welcome change from the doctrinal litmus-test approach of recent decades. But have the pope’s words been translated into energy and engagement in local parishes around the world? Because that’s what Francis has in mind. If the net result is merely a collective “like”, then that’s not good enough for him.

In some ways, energizing Catholics remains the biggest challenge facing Pope Francis. And in that regard, here’s another paradox he’s dealing with: The pope said at the outset that he wanted to move the church away from self-referential debates and preoccupation with its own structures, and move it toward engagement with the world. Yet in his first two years, interest in his pontificate has been largely focused on these very things: structural reforms and pastoral policy debates.

As the church looks ahead to the next two (and more) years of Pope Francis, here’s a thought to keep in mind, a “mission statement” expressed in the pope’s own document on evangelization, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”):

I dream of a “missionary option,” that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself.

14 comments (Add your own)

1. Trish Johnston wrote:
Thank you for this helpful summary John. It does, however highlight to me how much we expect of our world leaders. Pope Francis included. I am stunned at what he has already accomplished in 2 short years. The resistance is understandable, as many are afraid of anything other than "business as usual." I pray that the more Francis speaks out the more he will reach the people in the pews and beyond, tyrning them towards Jrsus.

Tue, March 10, 2015 @ 9:45 AM

2. Trish Johnston wrote:
I wish I could type better: "turning towards Jesus"

Tue, March 10, 2015 @ 12:38 PM

3. Sydelle McCabe wrote:
Perfect timing John. I'm just putting together our health care community mtg presentation on the 5th challenge offered in the Joy of the Gospel - Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the Gospel. (#97)

Tue, March 10, 2015 @ 4:26 PM

4. Dhani wrote:
"A welcome change from the doctrinal litmus-test approach of recent decades"?

This is a very unfair characterization of recent papal leadership. Consider that recent decades have given the world two saints and one blessed for popes, in addition to one emeritus pope whose writings will be studied for centuries. We don't need to change from that kind of leadership; we need more of it.

Tue, March 10, 2015 @ 8:40 PM

5. ciao wrote:
"I dream of a “missionary option, ". The Church is missionary by her very nature, "Go out to all the world and preach the good news to all creation."

".transforming everything...suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation." Without self-preservation of the authentic Catholic true faith, there can be no real evangelization.

" make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open,.." The destruction of the priesthood and the few vocations being seen are the direct result of taking away the duties of the priesthood and giving them to the laity.

God help us.

Tue, March 10, 2015 @ 8:50 PM

6. Paulo wrote:
Pope Francis informality when communicating has had a tremendous impact on the manner the media sees and refers to the Church. While on occasion some of his remarks are quoted out of context, his simplicity has reached countless people in ways that few would have ever imagined.

His "mission statement" is spot on, and remarkably aligned with his predecessor's own views:

"Many people perceive Christianity as something institutional -- rather than as an encounter with Christ -- which explains why they don't see it as a source of joy. (May 2004)

The Church must never be satisfied with the ranks of those whom she has reached at a certain point or say that others are fine as they are (...). The Church can never retreat comfortably to within the limits of her own environment. She is charged with universal solicitude; she must be concerned with and for one and all... We must... as the Lord says - go out ever anew ‘to the highways and hedges’ (Luke 14:23), to deliver God's invitation to his banquet also to those who have so far heard nothing or have not been stirred within.”
(May 22, 2006)"

Tue, March 10, 2015 @ 9:32 PM

7. Terry wrote:
I still believe that just before Francis dies, he will make plans for another Ecumenical Council in order to tackle and resolve the problems that John Thavis mentions above.

Wed, March 11, 2015 @ 6:00 AM

8. Gabriel wrote:
In the last 50 years or so there has been a profound misunderstanding of what the Church's message is -- the Love of Christ. Pope Benedict touched on this when he spoke of a misunderstanding in the media of the true meaning of Vatican II. Somehow, as by a miracle, Pope Francis has managed to clear that smoke away so that the real beauty of the Church is shining through in a way we have not seen in those many places that the Pope would refer to as the "peripheries" of our media world which shapes and is shaped by global opinion.

Wed, March 11, 2015 @ 7:15 AM

9. Morton wrote:
Excellent synopsis of the first two years of this pontificate.

I too have been noting the paradox of the Pope's wanting to move the church into a missionary mode and away from the self-referential debate mode but instead we are presently witnessing a church that hasn't seen this degree of self-referential debate since the late 60's and 70's.

Wed, March 11, 2015 @ 8:16 AM

10. wrote:
The Pope started out fine. 1) "Go and evangelize the world, be Christ to the world" 2) "Serve the poor"

These were ideas everyone could get behind. Conservatives and liberals, everyone could feel challenged to live a better Christian life. You could see the excitement back then - people were being challenged, and were responding to the challenge regardless of which way they leaned.

Then the Pope allowed himself to be taken advantage of. The media told us that he was harshly critical of capitalism, and thought it was terrible. The media told us that he thought gay marriage was wonderful because "who were we to judge". The Pope was seen to be attacking Conservatives by wild and confusing statements about not following the rules, as if doctrine should routinely be ignored. He was seen to support ditching doctrine, or simply ignoring it, by seeming to be in favor of communion for the divorced and remarried, he was thought to be looking the other way as doctrine was discarded. Some people stopped trusting him

As a result, the last two years have been very contentious. We can never tell what this guy is really saying. The media twists his statements to be unrelentingly anti-conservative when they are not. So he could have been the Great Evengelizer. Instead, he is the Pope of Confusion in large degree. He does set up straw men quite frequently in order to knock them down. The Media twiss his words (see the Christmas address to the Cardinals)

He had everyone pulling the same way in the beginning, now some are wondering whether he is secretly trying to blow things up.

Wed, March 11, 2015 @ 9:41 AM

11. Tony wrote:
Because of its institutional face, the Catholic Church does not operate at the personal evangelical level which leads to a personal relationship with Christ. Francis wants to work on this.

Wed, March 11, 2015 @ 11:34 AM

12. Tambe wrote:
Yes to the financial achievements Francis has had. No to the doctrinal confusion that has marked these two years.

Wed, March 11, 2015 @ 3:19 PM

13. Sygurd wrote:
In three words: a big mess. And it's growing.

Wed, March 11, 2015 @ 9:18 PM

14. Linda Roberts wrote:
I would be wonderful, if the Pope has not done it already, have each cardinal and other leaders in the Vatican read The Humility Prayer by Rafael Cardinal Merry de Val (1865-1930), the Secretary of State for Pope Saint Pius X.
It has helped me to recognize my pridefullness so very much. Always a work in progress.
Thanks for the wonderful blog.

Thu, March 12, 2015 @ 3:12 PM

Add a New Comment


Comment Guidelines: No HTML is allowed. Off-topic or inappropriate comments will be edited or deleted. Thanks.