• John Thavis

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

Updated: Feb 19

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.

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