Five years of Pope Francis: Lots of style, little substance

He has appalled the Catholic right, disappointed liberals and delivered little real change

Last Wednesday evening in Rome was much like that of March 13th, 2013: damp and drizzly with an air of no great expectation. Sightseers and pilgrims wandered around St Peter’s Square as the business of the day wound down and queues for St Peter’s Basilica trailed to an end.

It was only day two of a conclave (the meeting of Catholic cardinals to elect a new pope) that was expected to be long. It had been brought about by the sudden resignation of Pope Benedict the previous month, the first pope to have done so voluntarily since Celestine V stepped down in 1294.

But, at about 7pm that Wednesday, white smoke rose from a chimney at the Sistine Chapel, disturbing a hitherto nonchalant seagull. For the next hour the world waited to see who the 266th pope would be, as Romans crowded into St Peter’s Square, many now stressed out after a dash through the rush-hour city.

The pope has allowed an ambiguity around the margins, on such issues as whether divorced and remarried Catholics may receive Communion

Into this moment stepped Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, elected by the Cardinals in far quicker time than expected. The electors had spent almost two weeks talking about the man before they voted, but the crowds in St Peter's Square and watching on television world-wide had little sense of him.


When came to the microphone, as the crowd braced for momentous words, he greeted them with the unexpected, casual buonasera (good evening). The Italians fell about the place. They swooned when they heard he was to be Francis, after the patron saint of Italy.

They had been braced for solemnity. Instead they got a man in a plain white cassock who called himself Bishop of Rome and said the cardinals had gone to the end of the earth to find him. They laughed and chanted “Viva Il Papa” as bells rang. It was immediately apparent that Pope Francis’s style would be different, more folksy than that of other popes. He was clearly humorous and extroverted.

He was quickly adopted by liberals in the Catholic Church as potentially the greatest harbinger of change since John XXIII who had died in 1963. At the same time, those on the church's right caught their breath, fearing their long run of untrammelled dominance in Rome since the late 1960s might now be slipping away.

Fading faith

But the conservatives' worries were misplaced. Pope Francis may be an informal leader, but he is most assuredly Catholic. There have been no significant changes in church teaching or discipline since he was elected to office – and it is now hard to see any taking place under him.

What he has done is allow a certain ambiguity around the margins – for example on such issues as whether divorced and remarried Catholics may receive Communion. He has allowed more room for the complexity of human life.

The institution has begun to breathe more easily these past five years in applying church teaching to specific situations, and there has been a greater emphasis on compassion than on the letter of the law.

This has alarmed certain conservative Catholics who prefer red lines rather than fuzzy ones, but it does not nearly go far enough for those liberal Catholics. Their expectation of rapid change in an institution as old as the Catholic Church suggested a certain naivety.

The week just gone may have restored, somewhat, their fading faith in Pope Francis. The announcement last Wednesday that he had approved the canonisation of Archbishop Oscar Romero was a much needed fillip for the liberal wing.

Romero was assassinated by a death squad while saying Mass in El Salvador on March 24th, 1980 after criticising the regime in that country. (Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict had resisted calls for Romero's beatification, lest that be interpreted as a nod towards the more radical liberation theology of South America.)

Last Wednesday Francis also announced that Pope Paul VI was to be canonised. Paul VI is most remembered, possibly unfairly, for his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which sustained the church's ban on the use of artificial means of contraception. One saint to the left in the church then, and one saint to the right.

Another point of interest for the Catholic Church’s liberals this week was news from America. Survey findings published on Tuesday by the respected Pew Research Center in Washington found that 84 per cent of American Catholics retain a favourable view of Pope Francis “virtually identical to the share who expressed a positive view of the pope after the first year of his pontificate. Roughly nine-in-ten US Catholics describe Pope Francis as ‘compassionate’ and ‘humble’.”

Unchanged fundamentals

Such confidence, though, is not in response to any significant change brought about by Pope Francis. The fundamentals of the Catholic Church have not altered since that damp evening of March 13th, 2013.

Vocations are still decline in the western world and the priesthood itself is in danger of disappearing. Ireland exemplifies the shift. In the late 19th century St Patrick’s College Maynooth was the largest seminary in the world. Now it is the only one in Ireland, and has just 36 seminarians. The average age of an Irish priest is almost 70. Pope Francis hasn’t slowed this trend.

Weekly Irish Mass attendance continues to drop, towards the more typical low 20 per cents of the rest of Catholic Europe. Attendance has almost disappeared in working-class urban areas and is dominated by older people.

In that part of the world formerly known as Christendom, the current model of the Catholic Church is disappearing and the pontificate of Pope Francis has made no difference to that.

It was Ireland's Cardinal Sean Brady who spoke of the church's failures in dealing with child abuse and the need for greater involvement of women in its governance

Elsewhere, the numbers of adherents and seminarians continues to grow rapidly, particularly in Africa and the Americas. His main impact has been in terms of image: his relaxed style and emphasis on compassion, or, to use his favoured word, “mercy”. He is the pastor reaching down to raise up, not the stern teacher wagging a finger.

Ordinary Catholics appear to like the man more than anything he has done. They like that he has urged priests to be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep”.It is the same quality that makes Francis a figure of hatred (and “hate” is the right word) for some on the Catholic right. US Cardinal Raymond Burke and others have just stopped short of calling him a heretic over his moves on divorced and remarried Catholics. Such voices belong to a minority within the church, but a growing one. Francis’s critics take solace in the fact that he is 81 and hope that when he goes, the pastoral, open style they despise will depart with him.

Long-term health

The pope has endeared himself to a wider world, particularly as a left-leaning leader in an increasingly right-heading world. He has shifted the emphasis in his church from dogma towards a more caring, compassionate institution concerned about those on the margins, those suffering, and the environment. For that, he is loved by many.

But has he made any difference to the longer-term health of his church? On his election, the institution faced many challenges: on governance, Vatican finances, the position of women and child sex abuse.

It was Ireland’s Cardinal Seán Brady who, in lengthy discussions preceding Francis’s election in 2013, spoke of the church’s failures in dealing with child abuse and the necessity for greater involvement of women in church governance. Brady also emphasised that what was required in a new pope was a man who could inspire people with his practical Christianity, particularly love of the poor.

Besides Pope Francis's inspiration of people with his love of the marginalised, another unequivocal success of this papacy to date has been his 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, into which Irish Columban Fr Seán McDonagh had significant input. It was widely praised for its expressions of concern about the effects of global warming, particularly on the the developing world's poorest.

Pope Francis is expected to visit Ireland in August, for the World Meeting of Families. He has made a number of significant foreign trips: to Albania early in his papacy, to Myanmar late last year, when he was criticised for a delay in expressing sympathy with the Rohinga people; and to the US in 2015. He implicitly criticised Donald Trump during the presidential election campaign of 2016, saying that building walls was unChristian. He also played a role in improving relations between Cuba and the US in the final years of the Obama presidency.

Pope Francis has also been very positive on ecumenism, and relations with Islam have improved greatly with his papacy. They appear to have recovered from the strongly negative reaction to a speech in Germany’s Regensburg by Pope Benedict in 2006 where it was believed he had linked Islam and violence.

But what of other issues? Here’s an assessment of his record in five key areas.

Church governance

One of Pope Francis’s major innovations was his selection of a Council of Cardinals, nine in number, to advise him on reforms in the Curia, which runs the church from the Vatican. It has not been easy.

Last December he said that “to do reforms in Rome is like cleaning the Sphinx of Egypt with a toothbrush,” itself a quotation from Msgr Xavier De Mérode, an 18th-century Belgian prelate.

He has merged a number of Vatican offices into the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, headed by Dublin-born Cardinal Kevin Farrell, as well as offices for Promoting Integral Human Development, and for Communications.

Francis has been appointing cardinals in places that rarely had one before. This is considered one of the most revolutionary things he has done

In terms of personnel, probably it was his decision not to reappoint Cardinal Ludwig Müller as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith last July, and not to reappoint Cardinal Raymond Burke (to the Congregation for Bishops, the Congregation for Divine Worship, and as patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta) that have attracted most interest.

Both are conservatives.

He has already had four consistories to appoint new cardinals. To date it means he has appointed 63, 49 of whom were eligible to vote for the next pope when they received the red hat. The maximum number of cardinals who may take part in a papal election is 120, who must be under 80.

In his selection of new cardinals particularly, but also of bishops and archbishops, he has been appointing men in places that rarely had a cardinal before and not to those sees which would traditionally have expected one. This is considered the most revolutionary thing Francis has done to date in terms of church governance, and with a view to ensuring that the legacy of his papacy is continued into the future.

Child abuse

For many this has been biggest disappointment of Pope Francis’s papacy to date. It was expected he would act directly and vigorously on this issue. In his first year in office he set up the Commission for the Protection of Minors, led by Archbishop of Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, and including Irish abuse survivor Marie Collins.

Soon problems emerged, particularly with a commission proposal that a tribunal be set up at the Vatican to deal with bishops who had failed to protect children. It was supported by Francis but ran into the ground at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which said it could not be done.

It became clear that insufficient resources were being made available to the commission, in terms of finance and personnel.

Through frustration and exasperation, Collins resigned in February 2017.

In 2015 three members of the commission met with Cardinal O’Malley to object to his appointment of Chilean Bishop Juan Barros to the diocese of Osorno. Bishop Barros has been accused of complicity in an abuse case there.

In January on his visit to Chile, Francis defended Bishop Barros and dismissed accusations against him as “slander”. On the plane home to Rome later he told a reporter: “You, in all good will, tell me that there are victims, but I haven’t seen any, because they haven’t come forward.

It prompted Collins to recall how members of the commission had, in April 2015, hand-delivered a letter to Cardinal O’Malley for Pope Francis about Bishop Barros. From abuse victim Juan Carlos Cruz, it detailed the abuse which he said Bishop Barros witnessed and did nothing to stop.

She produced a photograph of Cardinal O’Malley being handed the letter by herself for Pope Francis. Shortly afterwards it was announced that Pope Francis had launched an investigation into the matter, which is still ongoing.

Vatican Bank

One of the first things Pope Francis did in attempting reform the Institute for the Works of Religion (to give it its formal name) was to set up a new Council for the Economy, made up of cardinals and lay financial experts, to establish policy.

A Secretariat for the Economy was set up to implement reforms, and an independent Auditor General was also appointed. Australian Cardinal George Pell led these reforms, but is now back home defending himself against abuse charges.

All was assumed to be going well at the Vatican Bank, but it emerged last week that Vatican prosecutors have indicted the former president of the bank, Angelo Caloia, and his lawyer Gabriele Liuzzo on embezzlement charges, holding them responsible for losses of more than €50 million from real estate sales.

The trial begins on March 15th. A third suspect died while under investigation.

Last month, the Vatican’s civil tribunal found two other former bank heads, Paolo Cipriani and Massimo Tulli, liable for mismanagement for bad investments during their tenure and ordered them to repay the institution. The two resigned from the bank in 2013.

The bank launched a massive internal overhaul and reform of its operations as part of a process launched by Pope Benedict XVI to clean up its reputation as a scandal-plagued offshore tax haven. It is a work in progress.

Role of women

Where women are concerned there has been no real change under Pope Francis. He has adhered to the views of his two immediate predecessors, who opposed the idea of women priests, and proposals concerning the possibility of women deacons have been on his desk for over a year.

Yes, some women have been appointed to administrative roles in the Vatican and he had encouraged this elsewhere, but when it comes to matters of faith and doctrine the input and role of women is slight.

A growing number of influential Catholic women are unhappy about this.

As the former president of Ireland Mary McAleese put it memorably in Rome this week, the church’s opposition to women priests was “misogynist codology dressed up as theology”. Women, she said, were walking away from the church “in droves”.

McAleese quoted with approval a comment by Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin last November when he said that “the low standing of women in the Catholic Church is the most significant reason for the feeling of alienation towards it in Ireland today”.