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By Ross Douthat
Lent is with us, and so is the 10th anniversary of Pope Francis’s ascent to the papal throne — an appropriate conjunction, since these are days of tribulation for his papacy.
There is the two-front war that Rome finds itself fighting on doctrine and liturgy, trying to squash the church’s Latin Mass traditionalists while more gently restraining the liberal German bishops from forcing a schism on Catholicism’s leftward flank.
There is the latest example, in the grim case of the Jesuit priest-artist Father Marko Rupnik, of well-connected clerics accused of sex abuse who seem immune to the rules and reforms that are supposed to put limits on their ministry.
And then there are the grim numbers for the Francis-era church, like the accelerating drop in the number of men studying for the priesthood worldwide, which peaked around the beginning of Francis’s pontificate and has been declining ever since. Or the unhappy financial picture, now bad enough that the Vatican is charging higher rents to cardinals to compensate for years of deficits.
In the secular press the narrative of Francis as a great reformer was established early on, and as contrary evidence has emerged the response has often been a decorous silence. It’s been mostly left to his conservative critics to compile the lists of clerics accused of abuse who have been given favorable treatment by this pontiff; or to harp on the failures of financial reform and the absence of any obvious renewal in the pews; or to point out that a pontificate that once promised to make the church less self-referential, less inward-focused, has instead produced a decade of bitter internal arguments and widening theological divisions — while Catholicism’s official verbiage is received with conspicuous indifference by the wider world.
Regarding the church’s evident polarization, at least, the pope’s admirers have their own narrative: The problem is just resistance from conservative Catholics, especially American conservative Catholics, who have blocked, impeded and sabotaged this pontificate, defying both the Holy Spirit and the legitimate authority of Rome. The Catholic right has started a civil war and blamed it unjustly on the pope, and his apparent failures of governance and leadership are just a testament to the difficulty of true and deep reform.
I have some personal reasons to disagree with this narrative: I was an early doubter of Pope Francis, fearing roughly the kind of unraveling we’re seeing, and my doubts met intense early opposition among many of my fellow conservative Catholics, who were extremely loath to imagine any daylight between themselves and Rome. So the fact that many of them have since ended up in some sort of opposition seems like a consequence of the specific ways that Francis has pursued his liberalization, rather than just a reflexive opposition to anything outside their comfort zone.
Consider a counterfactual scenario where the pope’s early months played out identically — the gestures of inclusivity and welcome, the famous “who am I to judge?” — but thereafter his approach was focused, strategic, designed to seek change but also to maintain unity. This could have meant, for instance, pushing through the changes sought by liberal Catholics that are easiest to square with existing doctrine, like relaxing the rule of celibacy for priests or even allowing female deacons, while simultaneously making strong efforts to reassure conservatives that the church wasn’t just surrendering its commitments or dissolving its teachings about sex and marriage.
That kind of push would have still met conservative opposition (my personal view is that lifting the rule of celibacy would be a mistake), while the limits and reassurances would have still disappointed liberals who wanted much more thoroughgoing change. But the goals would have been concrete and achievable, the limits and boundaries clear, and the pope would have been trying to play something like the role of the father in the parable of the prodigal son, with his rush to welcome the younger brother but also his loving reassurance of the older one.
Instead, Francis’s opening gambit involved a controversy much more clearly entangled with Catholic doctrine — the question of remarriage after divorce, where the very words of Jesus are at issue. Meanwhile, his larger approach has been to open controversies on the widest possible array of fronts: Sometimes through his statements, sometimes through his appointments, and for a while through the bizarre strategy of conducting repeated conversations with an atheist Italian journalist who famously did not take notes, leaving ordinary Catholics to puzzle over whether the pope had really denied, say, the doctrine of hell, or whether he was just content for readers of La Repubblica to think so.
All of this Francis has supplemented with a running critique of conservatives, and especially traditionalists, for being rigid and pharisaical and coldhearted, for being “all stiff in black cassocks” and wearing “grandma’s lace” — the equivalent of the father in the parable turning his elder son and chewing him out for being such an uptight weirdo. And when the traditionalist faction became, predictably, a locus for sometimes paranoid online opposition, the pope who preached decentralization and diversity embraced a micromanagerial cruelty, attempting the strangulation of Latin Mass congregations through such merciful gestures as forbidding their masses from appearing in parish bulletins.
And yet with all this the pope has not actually delivered all that much concrete change to the church’s progressive wing, pulling back repeatedly instead — retreating into ambiguity on communion for the divorced and the remarried, pulling up short when it appeared he was going to allow new experiments with married priests, permitting his office of doctrine to declare the impossibility of the blessings for same-sex couples that many European bishops wish to license.
Which, also predictably, has created both disappointment at unmet expectations and a constant impulse to push as far as possible, even toward the liberal Protestantism that the German church especially seems to seek, on the theory that Francis needs to be forced into embracing the changes he’s always contemplating but never quite delivering.
Seen now at its 10-year milestone, then, this pontificate hasn’t just faced inevitable resistance because of its zeal for reform. It has needlessly multiplied controversies and exacerbated divisions for the sake of an agenda that can still feel vaporous, and its choices at every turn have seemed to design to create the greatest possible alienation between the church’s factions, the widest imaginable gyre.
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