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What is Pope Francis up to?

If you read more than one piece on the one-year anniversary of Pope Francis' papacy (I'd also first recommend Paul Baumann's Slate essay) I might go self-referential and suggest a few stories that I reported from Rome that look ahead at where we may be going in this pontificate.

First is my take on how Francis' chief goal is changing the culture of the Vatican and the wider church -- converting the church, as it were -- and the three main approaches he is using to try to do that: preaching to the hierarchy; teaching clergy (and the rest of us) to talk openly and honestly again; and opening up to the world in order to make the church truer to her mission, more like Christ:

“Some in the Roman Curia” — the Vatican bureaucracy — “say, well, this pope is old so let’s wait a bit, and things will return to the way they were,” said the Rev. Humberto Miguel Yanez, a fellow Argentine Jesuit, who heads the moral theology department at the Gregorian University in Rome.

“If this is the attitude, then his words and his reforms don’t mean anything. I think conversion is the most important thing, and that explains why Francis speaks every day, why he preaches every day. Some say that this pope talks and talks and talks but doesn’t do anything. But I think he is preparing the ground.”

As Cardinal Theodore McCarrick said to me in a nice line that didn't make any of my stories, Pope Francis "wants the church to know that God really loves her." Or, "Be not afraid," as another pope said -- but don't be afraid of other Catholics above all.

Another story of mine tries to explain how Francis is still a Jesuit (yes, afraid so) and how profoundly that shapes what he is doing and is hoping to do. Not much new there to most Commonwealers, I'm sure, but I thought it important to try to explain to a wider readership why this is important, and just what Jesuits are.

I also wrote about the pope's health (he "eats work," they say, but add that so far so good -- he knows how to pace himself), and about what life is like in the Roman Curia these days.

That should keep you busy, or bored, until his second anniversary. Feedback welcome.

About the Author

David Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service and author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperOne) and The Rule of Benedict (HarperOne). He blogs at dotCommonweal.



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“When I watch, in this little everyday environment, various power struggles for position, I think to myself: These people are trying to play God, the Creator,” the pope said. “They still haven’t realized that they are not God. Here is where John XXIII paved the way for Francis. John wanted to say this to them but perhaps was intimidated. The most he would say as he did to Cardinal Cushing was that he "was in a box", referring to the overwhelming reach of the Curia. Now Francis says this to them directly. This is huge. People talked about reform of the Curia before and the Curia laughed as they drew  up the reform rules. This time it is different. There have been some denials of things Francis really did say. But for the most part Francis is laying it on the line to them. No doubt they are praying for his early death as Cardinal Rodriquez said. We shall see. But  even when Francis  passes the Curia might still weaken further with the next pope. 

I think that politically Papa Francesco is trying to move the ball down the field the best he can prefering the running game vs the passing game - apparently no "Hail Mary" passes for Bergoglio  [Sorry for the football metaphor.]

To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld: I guess you reform the church with the hierarchy you have -- not the hierarchy you might want or wish to have at a later time.

Francesco only has so many degrees of freedom to act, and so little time before his age and/or health catches up with him, just like it did for B16.  We're going to find out just what political skills are in Francesco's game that he brings from his Jesuit life experiences.

I believe that the real political trick for Francesco will be if he can move past his hopelessly alienated and irrelevant hierarchy and get the PEOPLE really involved in pushing for the needed reforms in governance and reforming the priesthood from parish to pope.  

I have to say that I find it somewhat hopeful that Francesco is gathering the hierarchs together in synod later this year to confront issues important to the PEOPLE - not somekind of etheral navel-gazing among hierarchs about how tough it is these days in the chancellory office.  

Even if nothing productive comes of the synod, the spectacle of male celibate geronticrats discussing the verities of married life should be entertaining if nothing else - kinda like Strangers in a Strange Land.

David G, these are great stories!  Although we better check the Catechism - self-referencing may be a mortal sin :-)

Bill M - I've seen the narrative that John called an ecumenical council as a sort of an end run around the curia.  Maybe Francis is trying to get the curia to let itself be reformed.

And would add:

- the stress on empowering (especially via canon law) episcopal conferences (which is what VII called for and both JPII and Benedict feared and resisted)  (note - in a truly Jesuitical way, this would do the most in terms of reorienting any type of papal expectations and cult of personality and, one would hope, stop future popes from recentralizing power/control)

- the stress on *real* synods (the upcoming family life synod will be an example - already he has promoted openness and various viewpoints on remarriage, divorce, reception of communion, and annulments)   (note -again, VII called for real synods and both JPII and Benedict emasculated them to control the discussion and the final results)

- shifting the curia to a *service model* rather than the centralized highest point of control  (we will have to wait and see on this one but the decisions to decentralize are there)

- inclusion of women in the curia, etc.  (again, he is laying the groundwork and one would hope that these initiatives could not be reversed by future popes)

- remaking the curia such that *dicastery of state* is not the power behind the papacy - rather, it serves the function of the typical foreign policy departments e.g. ambassadors;  refashioning the power of the CDF - its role is not final judge and jury but as a service function to espiscopal conferences  (this hinges on law changes and then the actual initial decisions to reinforce the legal changes)

- refocusing on the VII goals - ecumensism, church of the poor; going on mission to the periphery (rather than cultural wars; doctrinal over-emphasis; etc.);   using VII and scriptural images for the church - bishop of Rome (vs. Supreme Pontiff); hospital for the sick (vs. idealized notion of those who are sinless, clean, meets certain ideologies); actually applying the VII concept of the people of God and priesthood as a ministry (not a higher or separate ontological state of being) - thus, preaching against airport bishops, careerism; clericalism; self-referential stances.

- addressing the long standing scandal of Vatican finances

That being said, do agree with Mr. Baumann's point about the personality cult threats - this goes along with decentralization......if we don't keep Francis in context, we will be disappointed.

There are two areas that I would separate from this overview - he appears to have a lot of catching up to do on the issue of sexual abuse (let's see what develops in his second year and in his proposed committee) and on the role of women (his call for a female theology reveals that he is not very aware of what has been done; the skills of folks already on hand, etc.)

Mr. Gibson - some added analysis of Baumann's Slate article. 

First, wonder what Rev. Komonchak would say about Baumann's stance that VII documents were so both/and or open ended that either the right or the left can find something to support their ideological interpretations?

Second, agree with Baumann that, in reality, we have had these differing interpretations create disunity, internal squabbles, etc.

Third, but will posit that history will not continue to interpret VII documents in this way.  In fact, IMO, the Komonchak School of Bologna VII history/interpretation will be the balanced and go forward accepted interpretation.  The impact of both JPII (episcopal appointments and never addressing the curia; fascination with new movements e.g. Opus Dei, LC, etc.) and Benedict's *restoration efforts*; the betrayal of the VII spirit and initiatives by Ratzinger who had both the power and the position to force his narrow and very minority interpretation upon church politics.  That period is coming to an end but will take another 10-20 years to be redirected.

Fourth, think Baumann's current analysis of the either/or VII interpretations will not stand....even before the death of Paul VI, Ottaviani and curial colleagues had swayed Paul VI into gutting VII initiatives and directives and JPII/Benedict only drove this deeper.  But, IMO, history will identify this restoration/resistance; it will see the new movements as very conservative, driven by wealth and what can only be called The Temple Police; a tiny minority (but, yes, financially and politically wielding much power).  History will show that this tiny minority's views only increased the flights from the pews and that the younger generations were dismayed by the internal squabbles driven by this minority.


Bill deHaas --

Who are these wealthy people with such power in the Church? Lay people? From where?

Both lay and clerical - follow the money trail - are you aware of the financial worth, giving, and impact of Opus Dei and LC alone?  They originate out of Spain and Mexico.  Read the life history of Maciel and his method of raising money, his very wealthy donors in Mexico and elsewhere.

Maciel had a continuous method of giving large gifts and payments to certain curia officials year after year with the expectation that they would both support his initiatives and community, etc. Nothing like buying influence.  (note - historical records show that Ratzinger refused his *gifts*.)

Bill deH. --
I have read that carlos Slim, the Mexican and richest man in the world. supported the Legionaires. And if Mexican law is still a lot like Louisiana law, his wife must own at least a chunk of his fortune, that couldexplain a goodly number of their new seminaries. I knoe that Opus dai is rich, but didn't realize it's that rich. Sounds like the Renaissance all over .

Do we want a more empowered episcopal conference here in the US?

Here is another excellent way of analyzing what Francis has done to date:


Irene - to your question, IMO, the answer is yes knowing that currently we need better and more pastoral US bishops (that will come) but to withhold reform because we don't like the current makeup of the conference gets us nowhere.

Key passage in the link above:

"In a second edition of True and False Reform (1968), Father Congar amended his original call for the Roman Curia to be more representative of “the immense diversity of the church and the broad trends of the world.” He noted that Pope Paul VI had already begun the internationalizing of the Curia. He went on to insist, however, that this has to mean more than “personnel who are international by origin but still purely Roman by mentality.” His own words are quite eloquent here:

If personnel are chosen only from men of a certain type, generally conservative and safe, reinforcing only the static dimension of fidelity and tradition—that is, choosing people who don’t cause problems and don’t take risks—then the institution creates a barrier of isolation between the periphery and the center, making the center a sort of “party.” This would meet the church’s needs for security and moderation, but would fail to address the church’s need to adapt and make progress in the world. Above all, in that case, the most dynamic elements of the church would never be heard.

Pope Francis may or may not have read Yves Congar’s True and False Reform in the Church, but he did mention “peripheries” in his pre-conclave speech to the cardinals. According to an outline of the speech authorized for release, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio said, “The Church is called to come out of herself and go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.” In his first year as bishop of Rome, his words and actions have suggested a vision of the church that is broad, inclusive and pastorally sensitive. The naming of an advisory group of eight cardinals to represent the wider church is but one dramatic sign that the center now wants to listen to the periphery."

The article ends with Congar's hopes in 1968 - "......see not only episcopal collegiality, the synod of bishops and the internationalization of the Roman Curia coming to life, but also new instruments of “contact with others at the center” in the five secretariats for Promoting Christian Unity, Non-Christian Religions, Nonbelievers, the Laity and Justice and Peace in the World."

As we know now, both JPII and Benedict did not share nor did they encourage these hopes setting back VII by 40 years.


VII occurred while I progressed through the upper grades of primary school and along into highschool as did so many other social movements and expansive inclusionary programs.  

After Pope John XXIII one could almost hear Church doors slamming shut. 

Many persons who are females, including myself, at some point began to realize that while the Church has specific uses for women, women do not actually belong, participate in concert equally, or become shepherds to the flock. This is still the case. 

This is not unique to the Church. In other world religions, one finds the same set of circumstances. These are institutions built up and ossified by men, excluding women except those who serve certain functions. There's a lot of lip service about blessed females, brides of Christ (nuns), Mother Teresa, etc.

Everyone has heard both lines of thinking many times: the Church's views on women, expressed and implied, and a 'fallen-away' female's objections to its excluding from full membership (by the Church's own choice)1/2 of the global population. 

In clinging to male primacy and other empty ideas so desperately for so long, the beloved tradition of my youthful faith has shown itself to be barely able to attract new adherents. It has razed and concolidated parishes in the US in order to remain economically viable at the local level, a fact which has not made the hierarchy pause to consider why parishioners are dwindling or coffers are bare - if they really are: the faithful cannot hold anyone accountable except themselves. 

Can this Church, whose devout women when in sorrow and mourning may turn over their most precious possession to the Church (i.e. wedding rings, etc.) in praise and to 'continue the mission', continue to prosper? 

I cannot leave my tradition behind completely; however, I ensured my children would by giving them a secular education, the best I could provide. My own education in Catholic schools was outstanding and we had many non-Catholic students at my highschool, also paying dearly for its excellence.  

In my Catholic school after VII they stopped teaching Latin to us girls, yet continued teaching it to the boys at their schools. Thanks a lot, Father Church, we got the message. It is repeated over and over in so many ways all the way up to yes, the 21st century. 

My point is this: being an eager and hopeful neice of a priest I keep in touch with the old faith, worship in my private way,  and it interests me endlessly. Surely 'this Pope gives me hope'.

Commentaries like the article above are written on the wind and mean little without a fundamental re-orientation regarding the other half of the world. It is apparent the Church is not for women. I want to ask Pope Francis how he envisions it succeeds without us. 

A Goddess does not turn her back on anyone, and neither does God. This is where I think the Church went off wrong, and won't or is unable to backtrack. I am not a pagan because I say 'Goddess'. You are not religious because you say 'God".

One can only respond to life from their inmost sacred being, and understand it with their own vision, references, and thoughts. The Church in my experience divides its flock. 


Ann O:  I'm sure that Carl Anderson is a major contributor (KC funds, of course) .... why else would he be on the new Finance Council (whatever it is called) on which there are 8 cardinals and 7 laymen (gotta keep that clerical power imbalance!)?  Then there are individuals such as Ken Langone of Home Depot infamy. 

And that's not even tapping the non-US money boys.

Jimmy, I don't think Anderson is on that council. I was surprised actually. He remains on the IOR (Vatican Bank) board I believe.

The piece explaining the Pope's personal and philosophical connections to the Jesuit order was extremely helpful.  Thanks!

CS Bernard, thank you for expressing so clearly what so many Catholic (and formerly Catholic) women experience in this church.  I have copied your entire post to save!

"Many persons who are females, including myself, at some point began to realize that while the Church has specific uses for women, women do not actually belong, participate in concert equally, or become shepherds to the flock. This is still the case.

And too many Catholic women accept this second-class status passively, as they were taught.

I cannot leave my tradition behind completely; however, I ensured my children would by giving them a secular education, the best I could provide

I cannot either - and even though we educated our two older children in Catholic schools, finally switching to an Episcopal high school for the youngest, it was because we wanted them to have a foundation for developing a spiritual life. The Episcopal school turned out to be a far better choice for that purpose than the Catholic high school the older children attended. I also wanted my chilldren to be "free" of the ties that bind, that have prevented me from leaving the Catholic church behind completely. 

 I keep in touch with the old faith, worship in my private way,  and it interests me endlessly. Surely 'this Pope gives me hope'.

Yes - this is the experience of so many women.

Carl Anderson very successfully runs an enormous insurance company/ philanthropic organization, right?

And your point is what?

Can think of any number of hundreds of folks who run successful companies but that doesn't mean that I would want them on the board of the IOR or any board of the catholic church?

Geez, Maciel was a successful businessman; one could argue that Bill Donohue is also.

Hmm, not sure I understand you, Bill. What is it that Anderson has said, has done, or stands for that you think disqualifies him for Vatican service?

Perhaps you would prefer only a somewhat embarassed sense of Catholic identity in Catholic leaders, like a commissioner of baseball who secretly prefers hockey.

Here you go:

Key points:

- "A case in point is Carl Anderson's sitting on the Vatican bank's lay supervisory council. Anderson, head of the U.S.-based Knights of Columbus, inherited his seat in 2009 when Virgil Dechant -- Anderson's predecessor as supreme knight -- stepped down after nine years on the body. Do the Knights have a permanent seat on this council? Anderson has used the Knights' millions of dollars, generated from investment proceeds of the fraternal organization's insurance portfolio, to leverage extraordinary influence into every level of the Vatican bureaucracy. By paying for everything from infrastructure renovations to chauffeured limousines for visiting prelates, Anderson has made himself a Vatican establishment guy. He serves on several other pontifical councils, too. It is also worth noting that he has been largely silent on the decades-old clergy sexual abuse crisis, hardly the kind of courageous leadership a corrupt banking operation needs."

So, he inherited this postion - sort of puts your earlier statement about his *skills* in a different light.  And, of course, you make no mention of any of his other *pet projects* as if these qualify him for this position.

Thanks for linking to the editorial, Bill. It helps me to understand better the point of view of the NCR editorial board.

Which pet projects are you referring to?

examples - poured millions of dollars into supporting certain bishops' same sex marriage opposition; poured millions into a campaign against the Affordable Care Act going much further than even the narrow and lame Fortnight for Freedom USCCB campaign (which, by year two, had less that 30% of US dioceses involved in it); etc.

I thought these causes were in keeping with the USCCB's stated goals. Why would it be a problem that a Catholic organization supports them?

Actually, no:

- in terms of the Fortnight for Freedom, the November USCCB meeting resolved that this campaign/issue was now to be decided by each bishop/diocese.  Why?  There was significant disagreement with those leading this campaign; with its goals, methods, etc. and disagreement with its stated principles

- same sex marriage - same thing. USCCB has no deliberate process that it fosters or pushes.  The decision by an individual bishop runs the extreme of Nienstedt (who spent a couple of million at a time his diocese is facing parish/school closings and serious abuse settlements in the near future).  He also had significant push back from key pastors.  The same in Seattle - in fact, bishop had to stop his plans because his pastors (in unison) rejected his plans.

- Affordable Care Act....this is the most maligned issue in terms of the USCCB.  The USCCB has produced any number of announcements and statements supporting the overall goal of the ACA - insurance is a human right and part of supporting human dignity.  Unfortunately, some bishops and catholic organizations have twisted the HHS mandate provision into a complete and full rejection of the ACA (it is not).  KC/Anderson is one who has made this mistake.

What is truly unfortuate is that Anderson pushes national and global issues that do not follow catholic social teachings - rather, they appeal to a minority of catholics...and he collects funds from thousands of KC groups without being transparent about this.  The KCs were founded to help the poor widows in Connecticutt........guess what, the ACA can also help poor widows.  Funny how far Anderson has twisted the original call and charism of the KC founder.

I'm not sure I understand, Bill. When I go to the USCCB website to the Issues and Action pull down tab, it doesn't suggest that religious liberty or families are dubious values. If what you are saying is that there is a broad spectrum of activities that a particular bishop can take on to foster and protect these values, no argument from me. The K of C, then, is part of that big tent, right? And it certainly does not follow that the Church teachings involved are questionable.

Religious liberty is a broad umbrella under which all kinds of actions can be taken and some may not be according to the social justice teachings of the church.

Sure, there is a broad specturm of activities - but again some of these activities may or may not be helpful e.g. Fortnight for Freedom per many US bishops.

My point about Anderson - he dictates what the national/global KC activities are under the guise that this is church teaching - his goal may be a church teaching but his activites and methods may be counter (and have been counter) to what the church advocates.  It is the old truism - the end doesn't justify the means.  Anderson falls into that truism frequently.

I really don't follow you here, Bill. What are you saying that the Church advocates, which Anderson is countering? I don't think the bishops have forbidden the Fortnight for Freedom, for example. Certainly birth control is still counter to Church teaching, as are same-sex sexual relations. Formal cooperation with evil is as wrong as ever. The natural law still exists.

Somehow I think it is actually ends, not means--teaching, not discipline--that is at stake in your objections. I could be mistaken.

You are - folks such as Anderson are consumed with ethics (not the catholic faith that begins with call, invitation, metanoia).  Rather, they have the answers and the truth (you touch upon that in your comment - natural law (a philosophical understanding that some, like you and Anderson, use as a cudgel); birth control (sorry, the hierarchy lost this one decades ago and are too arrogant to listen to the sensus fidelium as you and Anderson are).

Here is an interesting viewpoint that highlights the danger and weakness of folks such as Anderson (and yes, it is both ends and means).

Highlights that pertain to Anderson or you:

"Conservatives are never shy about invoking doctrine when they defend their positions. How many times have we heard in the past couple of years during the debate over the HHS contraception mandate that the Church’s opposition to contraception is “a core doctrine” of the Church. Of course, the Church’s opposition to contraception has the same doctrinal weight as the Church’s support for the right of workers to organize. Both were affirmed in papal encyclicals. There is always a difference between a negative proscription of the moral law, a “thou shalt not,” and a positive proscription of the moral law, “thou shalt,” because there can be a variety of ways to pursue a “thou shalt.” But, both are morally binding. And, neither is what I would call a “core doctrine.”  (and yet, Anderson has misaligned tKC from serving the poor to marketing and pronouncing on each cultural war issue)

"Love is a doctrine and, indeed, the core doctrine of our faith. This permits us a much more accessible answer to the question why we help our neighbor than any secular NGO can offer. And, all the Church’s moral and social doctrines flow from these core Christological and Trinitarian doctrines. Francis is not denying those doctrines, but he is reminding us that at the center of our faith is a commitment to love God and neighbor."  (con't see much of this approach in some of Anderson's pet projects)

"If, however, we allow ourselves to adopt the role of an ethical authority in the public square, over time, we begin to see ourselves in that role, our self-understanding of what it means to be a Church begins to look like that public role. Pretty soon, the Christian Church becomes a group of finger waggerers, some on the right and some on the left to be sure, but people who have reduced religion to ethics and, just so, are halfway down the slope of secularization before they know it."

(sorry, some of your comments and the Anderson activities are best described as *finger waggerers*)

"The mercy of God, the love of God, the human dignity of all, these are the core doctrines that we must embrace and defend, but our defense must be characterized by utter humility in part because we all so easily and so often offend against them! And, these doctrines shape all that we do."

(one thing Anderson does not have is *humility*)

So when you say that the Church does or doesn't stand for something, it seems perhaps that you mean that you, MSW or John Gehring are the ones who define the Church's position. The Church's teaching isn't found in the Catechism or Scripture or Tradition, but in NCR. Is that right?

Keep twisting what I say - sign that you are again desperate to score points....your usual MO.

Let's see - I can say the same thing you did:  "So when Kathy says that the Chuch does or doesn't stand for something, it seems perhaps that you mean that Kathy, Anderson, Raymond Burke are the ones who define the Church's postion.  The Church's teaching isn't found in the Catechism or Scripture or Tradition, but in KC, or Rorate Coeli.  Is that right???

Actually - in the above, I explicitly laid out exactly what the church stands for and it is based upon Scripture.  As you well know, the issue with naming tradition or catechism is that these express human interpretations that are usually more both/and than your simplistic black and white (since you have such an inordinate need for that)

To reiterate my point AGAIN:

As I argued, I think the pope is asking us to remember that all these issues are derivative of our Christological commitments, and that too often we have forgotten that, both the left and the right. Yes, the left and the right read the conciliar texts in different ways and reach different conclusions. But, Pope Francis seems to want to remind us that what unites those various conciliar texts was a commitment to follow Jesus more closely, and with our eyes open. Some people see different things with their eyes. Some prefer to keep their eyes closed, to be sure. But, the key is not to let the disagreements blind us to the essential question: Are we following Jesus?

And Pope Francis is certainly reminding us that what “goes to the heart of Catholic self-understanding” is not these neuralgic issues, but our encounter with the poor. The Second Vatican Council called our special attention to share the joys, hopes, griefs and anxieties of “those who are poor or in anyway afflicted,” not the joys, hopes, griefs, and anxieties of the readers of Rorate Coeli.......someone has their priorities wrong, and I do not think it is Pope Francis. and I am suggesting that Anderson is fixated (like you) on Neuralgic issues and, in the process, he has moved the KCs from the poor to his own "pet projects" (typically from the right wing of the church)




Bill, I think we are in substantial agreement re: your penultimate paragraph. Thank you for that.

I imagine that we agree that Pope Francis' focus on simplicity of life--after all, he is a religious priest himself--is a breath of fresh air. If someone had told me even a year ago that the average clergyman might consider a Ford Focus as a live option when shopping for his post-ordination new car, to replace the clunker that barely got him through seminary, I would not have believed it. And I believe that Pope Francis' reform of the curia will go down in history as one of the greatest papal moments ever.

What is still at issue between us, as I see it, is the question of how the issues that are important are defined. Certainly Catholics receive input on this question from every point of view and through every medium known to humankind.

Although I do not regularly read Rorate Caeli--not sure where you got that idea--it seems to me that a simple reading of the signs of the times shows a disconnect between Catholic belief, which is as positive, joyful, and incredibly demanding as it has ever been, and Catholic liturgy, which has only barely begun to regroup from its thoroughly depressing and boring nadir of the 70s and 80s. I'm happy to contribute in whatever small way I can to liturgy's revival, for the consolation of the faithful.

As for the issues of life and marriage, these are basic issues of the natural law, which has scriptural foundations. While these foundations are not limited to Romans chapter 1, this is the clearest formulation, particularly regarding marriage, as crystal clear as the teaching of Matthew 25.

What surprises me about your argument is that it seems a bit naive. There are people actively working to undermine the good. Life is a good. Beauty is a good. When we foster these things, we are doing something good. There are people who would like to undermine work like this. I don't really understand why you might be adding fuel to their fire.


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