The Italian Job

Can Pope Francis Manage His Local Opposition?

A few weeks after Benedict XVI announced his resignation, the political philosopher Giorgio Agamben published a short book called The Mystery of Evil: Benedict XVI and the End of Times. In that volume, Agamben calls the pope’s resignation a prophetic moment, and argues that it highlights the crisis of institutional legitimacy. His conclusions may be farfetched—an eschatological showdown between church and political power probably isn’t in the offing—but he does bring into focus the sense of crisis that shook the Vatican in the months leading to Benedict’s departure. A series of scandals—from Vatileaks to the Vatican bank—raised questions about Benedict’s administrative capacities, questions he himself seemed to answer when he chose to resign in February 2013. As the cardinals assembled in Rome to elect a new pope, curial reform became the conclave’s watchword. That is Francis’s mandate. It is also one of his greatest challenges. Whether he is able to rouse the church from its institutional coma depends entirely on his ability to manage his opposition.

Francis’s first year has been characterized by a carefully coded fight for the ground between the old guard and the new. An abstract debate about the “continuity or discontinuity” of Vatican II has been replaced by a conversation about concrete issues such as poverty and inequality. Francis has shown a willingness to discontinue old practices—for example, the Vatican officially prohibits priests from washing women’s feet on Holy Thursday, but that’s exactly what he did just weeks after his election. Francis’s new language and style have not been universally welcomed by the bishops, especially those in his backyard. Some of them silently resist these changes.

In Italy, for example, the old guard seems especially recalcitrant. The most prominent Italian bishops—the cardinals of Venice, Milan, Turin, Genoa, Florence, Naples, and Palermo—were all appointed by John Paul II or Benedict XVI. Now it seems that many of the most powerful and visible Italian bishops have little to say about Francis’s agenda. Only Cardinal Carlo Caffarra of Bologna—a drafter of John Paul’s most important document on life issues—has been willing to publicly comment, if only to oppose Cardinal Walter Kasper’s proposal to allow some divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist. The rest of the Italian bishops have been more or less absent from the public debate about family and marriage in advance of next October’s episcopal Synod.

The German bishops are another matter. They’ve long engaged the question about sacramental practices for remarried Catholics. In the early 1990s, the German bishops proposed pastoral practices that would admit some divorced Catholics to Communion. But the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—forced them to drop that proposal.

As a whole, the German bishops conference has taken seriously Francis’s call for a “poor church that is for the poor.” When it came time to elect a new conference president, the German bishops chose a scholar of Catholic social teaching named Cardinal Reinhard Marx. Francis had already appointed him to his Council of Cardinals, which is advising him on curial reform. The German bishops also investigated the “bishop of bling,” Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, for spending lavishly on a new residence. The pope recently accepted his resignation.

But Francis seems to sense that he has his work cut out for him in Italy. He has begun by naming several bishops who are quite different from those appointed by John Paul and Benedict. For example, he appointed three auxiliary bishops with strong ties to the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, a sometime critic of the past two pontificates. Martini, who served as archbishop of Milan from 1980 to 2002, was the most influential Italian bishop of the post-Vatican II era. When Martini’s successor, Cardinal Luigi Tettamanzi, took over, he “exiled” priests who were closest to Martini. Francis’s decision to make a few of them bishops sends an unmistakable message to the conference.

Francis has also tried to change the structure of the Italian bishops conference itself. This body did not include all the Italian bishops until 1964—during, and as a result of Vatican II. But ever since it has served as a kind of satellite office of the Vatican. It is the only bishops conference whose president is appointed by the pope. Cardinal Camillo Ruini, appointed by John Paul II in 1985, served as conference president for over two decades. He made sure the Italian bishops’ agenda was in keeping with with John Paul’s. Francis has changed all that by inviting the Italian bishops to elect their own conference president. But not all of them welcomed that offer. Instead, the Italian bishops struck a compromise: they will vote for a “terna” of three names from which the pope will select the conference president. That isn’t exactly what Francis wanted, but perhaps this compromise will save him the headache of facing a conference president who works against him.

On a few occasions, Pope Francis has acknowledged resistance to his program. Church historians are reminded of the start of John XXIII’s pontificate, especially the months leading to the Second Vatican Council. But Francis’s pontificate features something different: a “pope emeritus” and his entourage.

A group of Italian publications give voice to the resistance, such as the neo-conservative paper Il Foglio and the more populist outlets Libero and Il Giornale (all have close ties to the Berlusconi media empire). And some political pundits at the Milan-based Corriere della Sera, the newspaper of the capitalist establishment in Italy, also seem worried about Francis. They often warn readers about Francis’s populist streak, especially on questions of immigration and economic justice.

In addition, there are Italian bloggers and journalists who remain close to some Vatican officials (especially Sandro Magister at L’Espresso). They remind readers that there are “two popes.” Il Foglio is republishing in installments the teachings of Ratzinger/Benedict XVI (including his much-criticized speech at Regensburg), which looks like an attempt to undermine the new papacy. For those writers, the key issues are Francis’s liturgical preferences (especially his lack of passion for the preconciliar rite revived by Benedict XVI in 2007) and his alleged lack of theological clarity, as compared with his predecessor. They rely on sources inside the Vatican. Bear in mind that Pope Francis’s famous line “Who am I to judge?” was a direct response to an accusation against a priest published a few days earlier by Sandro Magister.

Arguments against Kasper’s proposal that some divorced and remarried Catholics be admitted to Communion appear in Italian publications with ties to bishops who consider it “doctrinal change.” They worry it would amount to a betrayal of the Wojtyla-Ratzinger legacy in sexual ethics. After Kasper delivered his proposal to the consistory in February—at the pope’s behest—Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Cardinal Caffarra of Bologna were repeatedly interviewed by Il Foglio. They presented Kasper’s argument as a disavowal of centuries of moral theology on family and marriage. But they failed to mention that rethinking those pastoral practices would mean rethinking language they (Caffarra specifically) drafted for John Paul II. They’re not just fighting for John Paul’s legacy. They’re fighting for their own.


IN MAY, POPE FRANCIS delivered speech to open the general assembly of the Italian episcopate (a pope has never done that before). His tone was brotherly, but he pressed the bishops to change the agenda of the Italian church. Under Cardinal Ruini, the Italian bishops focused on the “anthropological challenge” of secular modernity. But Francis highlighted social issues (family, work, immigration) and urged the bishops to live simply. He asked them to “follow Peter” and to update their pastoral plans. In this respect, he sounded a lot like Paul VI. In a 1964 speech to the Italian bishops, Paul VI encouraged them to grow up and be pastors of their flock.

Why is Francis being so bold with Italy’s bishops? First, few of them openly support him. And second: Francis was elected in part to clean up after the scandals that plagued Benedict’s and John Paul’s administrations, and most of the Curia remains Italian.

Tensions between Francis and the old guard will linger because the bureaucratic culture of the Catholic Church is resistant to change. Bishops don’t have much experience with demotions—other than the old promoveatur ut amoveatur. But they’ve seen Francis move against the “bishop of bling,” along with bishops who have been tainted by financial scandal. The pope has even said he’s weighing the “punishment” for a bishop who was found guilty in a case related to sexual abuse. That hardly eases the anxiety of bishops who are wary of Francis.

A new book provides a window on these tensions. Il progetto di Francesco. Dove vuole portare la chiesa (“Francis’s Project”) consists of an interview with Víctor Manuel Fernández, rector of the Catholic University of Argentina and who—more important—was appointed a bishop by Pope Francis in May 2013. Fernández is one of the pope’s closest advisers. In the interview, conducted by Paolo Rodari, Vatican correspondent for La Repubblica, Fernández expands on the theological intuitions of Francis, which have been expressed in a way that avoids direct confrontation with his predecessors. The book serves as a guide to the theological insights of Francis’s pontificate, especially with respect to his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.

Fernández was one of the theologians who helped then-Archbishop Bergoglio draft the final document of the Fifth Assembly of the Latin American Episcopate at Aparecida (Brazil) in 2007. So he is a key witness to the paradigm shift embodied by the Argentine Jesuit. In the book’s conclusion, Fernández reveals that a few years before the 2013 conclave, he was anonymously reported to the CDF for doctrinal shortcomings. He replied to the CDF, but that didn’t satisfy his critics. At that point, Fernández explains, Bergoglio “insisted that I keep my head up and…not let them [the CDF] take my dignity from me.”

According to Fernández, Bergoglio has little patience for any “ideological obsession”—not even when it takes the form of debates on the interpretation of Vatican II. Fernández insists that Bergoglio wants to “apply Vatican II in its entirety…without backtracking, with the intention of leading the church out of itself, in order to get to everyone.” For example, “this also applies to many paths of reform that were opened by Vatican II but were stopped halfway—such as the importance the council gave to collegiality and episcopal conferences.”

Francis’s anti-ideological approach “can be annoying to some who are a minority and not representative of the entire church,” according to Fernández. He connects this with a central idea of Francis’s pontificate, the hierarchy of truths. “If we had a missionary style truly able to get at everyone, [we would] focus on what is essential, which is simultaneously what is more attractive, because it responds to the deepest needs of the human heart.” By focusing on essentials, Fernández continues, “the pope has taken up a forceful teaching of Vatican II: the ‘hierarchy of truths’ (see Unitatis Redintegratio), which applies “as much to the dogmas of the faith as to the whole teaching of the church, including the moral teachings.” In Francis’s view, when one disconnects doctrine from its context—the kerygma—it becomes “ideological.”

When it comes to church politics, Fernández is quite blunt. He candidly acknowledges the pope’s opposition, exploring the problem of “conservative dissent” in a church where conservatives are unaccustomed to disagreeing with a pope. “Until two years ago,” he explains, some people would never question what a pope said. But “now they…disseminate all kinds of criticism of Pope Francis.” Those whose projects differed “even slightly” from that of past popes, Fernández says, “were very respectful of [those popes’] choices, or at least accepted them in silence.” But now he sees “some in the church who feel threatened by the speeches and the style of Francis, and they seem to have suddenly lost all their affection for the figure of the pope.”

According to Bishop Fernández, Francis believes in the participation of the people of God (bishops, priests, and laity) in the church’s decision-making processes. The pope is interested in reforming more than the Curia. That is important, but it won’t solve all the church’s structural problems. The church needs more “synodality.” That is, the church must develop processes through which all Catholics “can feel represented and listened to…giving more autonomy to the local churches.” In this sense, it is time for “more listening to the people of God.”


BUT LISTENING ENTAILS risk. If the pope really does want to allow all Catholics a place at the table, then he’ll have to listen to a lot of people who aren’t especially pleased with his leadership so far. Not all of these critics work in the Curia. There are the orphans of Joseph Ratzinger who see the conservative theological pushback against modernity as the only chance to save the West. For example, the philosopher Marcello Pera (former president of the Italian Senate), who—with Ratzinger—co-authored a 2004 pamphlet connecting moral relativism, Muslim immigration, and the decadence of Europe, has disappeared from the public scene. But he and his confreres are still active in think tanks and doctoral programs; their influence is difficult to measure.

Some members of the new Catholic movements—long favored by John Paul II—have been challenged by Francis. He asked the Neocatechumenates to rebuild unity where they have created division. Other movements and orders, such as the Legionaries of Christ, are just fighting for survival. They too are the orphans of previous pontificates.

Francis also faces criticism from those who seek to restore nineteenth-century European Catholicism, like the historian Roberto de Mattei. His Lepanto Foundation holds that Vatican II was a radical break with tradition, as do the online magazines he oversees: Corrispondenza Romana and Radici Cristiane. The neo-medievalists resist Francis because they oppose Vatican II on liturgical issues. The widely read blog Rorate Caeli falls into this camp, as does Vittorio Messori, who co-authored the famous Ratzinger Report (1985). As recently as May 28, he wrote about the church’s diarchical papacy—two popes, Benedict and Francis—in Italy’s most important newspaper, Il Corriere della Sera.

And on the other side, there are those who think Francis has not gone far enough. The monthly journal Micromega, for example, provides a venue for some of the theologians exiled under John Paul and Benedict to push for radical revolution within the church. Italian Catholics who write for Micromega, like Fr. Paolo Farinella and Fr. Franco Barbero, tend to see Francis as little more than a wider smile painted on the same old patriarchal, repressive church.

In other words, Francis has no shortage of opponents. The size and shape of the resistance are products of church leadership over the past few decades—problems left festering by John Paul II and made worse by his successor. Say what you will about the pontificates of John Paul and Benedict; they did little to heal the growing rifts within the church they led.

The transition from Benedict XVI is still unfolding, and the next year will bring critical moments in Francis’s pontificate: the Synods of 2014 and 2015. The situation is comparable to the one John XXIII faced after he became pope. In 1959 he announced that he would convene an “ecumenical” council. He started speaking with new words and teaching with new gestures. The pope encountered strong resistance from bishops committed to maintaining the status quo. And as preparation for Vatican II continued, most external observers began to doubt the chances of its success. After all, was a seventy-seven-year-old pope strong enough to steer the barque of Peter in a new direction? Would a Vatican outsider even know where to find the wheel?

But for all the differences between the church of the late 1950s and that of 2013, the “institutional loneliness” of John XXIII is similar to the loneliness of Pope Francis today. Francis’s promises do not depend on Francis alone, but largely on the rest of the church—and in particular bishops and cardinals. Like John XXIII, he is not young enough to carry out his own reforms. It will be up to the bishops and the faithful to reconstruct Catholicism’s credibility. Of course, the paradox is that a pope constantly in the media spotlight is trying to save the church from a “papolatry” partly created by that spotlight.

After Pope Urban VIII died (1623-1644), the Barberini family, the servants, allies, and clientes of the deceased had to flee Rome overnight to save their lives. Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini—“what barbarians did not do, the Barberini family did.” Retribution for having served a pope was not only political. Times have changed since the papal court of seventeenth-century Rome. A kind of “spoils system” still exists, and transitions from one pontificate to another have always been complicated. But Francis has a pope emeritus who still wears white and lives in the Vatican (unlike his predecessors who resigned), along with all those bishops appointed by him and by his just-canonized predecessor, whose pontificate was the second longest in modern history. This time, however, the papal transition could hardly be more complicated.

About the Author

Massimo Faggioli is associate professor of theology and director of the Institute for Catholicism and Citizenshipat the University of St. Thomas. His most recent book is Pope Francis: Tradition in Transition (Paulist Press 2015).



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Thanks, Massimo Faggioli, for this piece, the most illuminating thing I have read about Pope Francis. I am particularly heartened to learn that he made bishops of three marginalized followers of his great Jesuit confrere C. M. Martini and that he is both restoring to the Italian bishop's conference their legitimate autonomy and foiling the resistance of the Caffarras etc. 

The complaint about his "lack of theological clarity" is ironic. Benedict XVI was theological clarity in person, but a clarity often misapplied, too much point-scoring and Besserwissen, too little sense of the enveloping pastoral context. Such clarity easily becomes a permanent ideological rant. 

Francis has a more integral pastoral outlook. And "pastoral" does not mean "fluffy" or "lacking in authority", as conservatives insinuate when they dismiss Vatican II as a merely "pastoral" council, unlike the sharply dogmatic Trent.

Pastoral theology is the truest and fullest theology, because it places all dogmas and teachings in their proper, functional place, at the service of the gospel healing and enlightenment. Vatican II was sparing in the formulation of new teaching but it did a wonderful job of putting the old teachings in a broad perspective of pastoral care for the people of God, in dialogue with the moden world, and in retrieval fo the accents and outlooks of Scripture as received and interpreted in Tradition.

Now we need more and more pastors in the image of Francis and Martini. The harvest is great but the laborers are few.

Very interesting piece. Two points:

1) Faggioli’s emphasis is virtually all on Europe, despite our non-European pope. But Europe’s probably where it should be, though when I read about the Italian opposition to Francis, I wonder if someone over here will do an article on the North American opposition as well. And though I don’t know much about European politics, I was struck by how much the disagreements in the European church seem to parallel disagreements in the EU. The curia, for example, as analogue to what many see as the over-stuffed, overpaid, overly-complacent, self-interested, ever-interfering bureaucrats of Brussels and members of the Europan Parliament and the European Council. And the failures of the EU to get its act together in the face of threats like the Eurozone crisis (to say nothing of Putin and his minions). The recent elections to the European Parliament may have been a clear alarm bell; but were any of the bureaucrats in Brussels and elsewhere listening?  As the historian Timothy Garton Ash wrote right after the elections, “I have a dreadful feeling in my bones that future historians may write of the May 2014 elections: ‘This was the wake-up call from which Europe failed to wake up.”’ How many wake-up calls do church leaders need to understand that they can no longer continue simply to say “not our fault,” and return to their old ways?

2) Galloping secularism, particularly but not exclusively in Europe. This convenient whipping boy is whipped out on all occasions by ecclesiastical leaders to show where the “fault” for the church’s problems lies. But what about self-inflicted wounds? When will those leaders start to ask themselves how far the institution of which they’re in charge has itself contributed to the secularism? Francis, for example, seems determined to clean up the Vatican bank. But why should an allegedly Christian bank need cleaning? It was hardly the secular world, after all, that turned it into an Augean stable. And of course the continuing, ever-expanding child abuse crisis and its satanic coverups. How many people has that massive failure of church leadership driven into secularism, in Europe and elsewhere? And whose fault was it? Not that of secular culture, I think.

"The Vatican officially prohibits priests from washing women’s feet on Holy Thursday." Why? Why are women banned from the priesthood? The Catholic church discriminates against half the human race in ways that can't be justified. It has many problems, but based purely on the number of people affected, misogyny is the worst. This is immoral. It needs to be addressed.

Perhaps Francis is bringing to birth a third untried project of Vatican II, to join those of synodal collegiality and subsidiarity. I believe it was Rahner who remarked that at Vatican II the church became a "world" church. Yet, as Faggioli so clearly demonstrates, its bureacracy has remained fastened in Italian knots, grown so tight as to cut off circulation. The Pope cannot get global blood in there fast enough.

Francis's "institutional loneliness" is, I hope, temporary. It is good that he lives and eats at Santa Marta--healthier and safer. Meanwhile, he will need the skill of an Argentine soccer star to avoid being blocked by the exile critics--both the newly exiled"orphans" and the formerly exiled cynics. The good news of the "Francis Project" is that in the world and the world church he wants to see there are no exiles.

I am hopeful that Pope Francis continues to embark on change. After John Paul II and Benedict XIV Papacy I have heard of every day normal Catholics vote with their feet over their increasing frustration with the Roman ways because of the Curia being an impediment to rational commonsense implementation of the Second Vatican Council reforms. Francis is placing an increased awareness on placing dogma and doctrine to the light of Jesus Christ. As Han Kung put it so clearly in his latest book, "Can We Save The Roman Catholic Church". One of the priorities must be putting each doctrine and dogma along side and decide if those are CHRISTIAN elements to help the People of God grow in their discipleship with Christ Jesus. If they do keep them, if they don't its time to get rid of them. Truth in the Church must be authentic and real all the more so from the Church of Rome.

I would characterize Faggioli's "Italian job" more pasta fazool than pasta faggioli.  What we are experiencing is a back-to-the future time in the Church.  Those who have been in hiding for the past 40 years or so are now coming back like a new production of "Hair" or "Jesus Christ Superstar".  There are real problems with the reception of the Second Vatican Council and these problems are theological and do not go away by going back to a discredited rallying cry of the "Spirit of Vatican II" to advance a "liberal"(in Newman's negative sense) rethinking of the Catholic Church and the Catholic faith.  I am in no way a "neo-medievalist", but I have the sense and intelligence to see that there is indeed a discontinuity between the Novus Ordo rite of Paul VI and the Traditional Roman Mass. And, I might add, so do most young Catholics I know, including young priests.  The problems of Councilolatry and Papolatry  are also real and stand in the way of that re-evangeliation of the world that has been talked about now for the past forty years.  How can one disagree that what is needed is a return to the kergyma of the Gospel in the Church's missionary effort to the world?  John 3:16 seems to be a good place to begin this kerygmatic preaching.  But this would involve demanding repentance, acknowledgment of sin, before that healing that can come only through faith in Jesus Christ.  The Bad News is part of the Good News.  That must be at the heart of a true pastoral theology in a world of radical individualsm and a deadly sentimentalism that denies sin.


Tom Melvin:  those who have no vote, regularly vote with their feet.

"Now it seems that many of the most powerful and visible Italian bishops have little to say about Francis’s agenda. ... The rest of the Italian bishops have been more or less absent from the public debate about family and marriage in advance of next October’s episcopal Synod."

And that counts as "opposition"? The comments about  "Some members of the new Catholic movements" are just as vague.  This article extrapolates and interprets a lot but is rather short on hard facts.

Massimo's momentous essay on how the Vatican undercut the authority and status of Episcopal Conferences in a series of blocking moves over several decades is now to be published for the first time in English, in this month's Japan Mission Journal. 


As usual you question a substantial article with zero facts of your own.

Jim, I totally agree and we can see that vote in every Parish by the lack of folks in the pews each Sunday. The Bishops must be keenly aware that their "old" messages regarding what will happen to lapsed Catholics has lost its punch. Fear is no longer a motivator to pack the pews.


I am not a journalist who claims to have a major story and needs to support it, so what facts do you expect me to provide?


Actually, there is a pattern I have noticed bout Pope Francis: that everybody who talks a lot about his "opposition" usually turns out to be trying to recruit the Pope for his own ideological agenda. The Pope himself said something about these lines a few months ago when he quoted a sentence by Freud that in every idealization there is an aggression. If there is something very clear about Pope Francis is that he is not ideological, nor is the majority of the Italian episcopate. Hence, I expect them to get along just fine.

I suspect that the undertone of the 2014-2015 Synod on the Family under Pope Francis will be very different from undertone of the 1980 Synod on the Family under JP II. During the papacy of John Paul II, any priest who whispered that certain teachings should be the subject of a rethinking would never be made a bishop. Theologians who spoke out for responsible reform lost their Catholic teaching licenses and bishops who did the same were removed from their episcopal responsibilities.

During the previous two papacies, the power and authority of the Conferences of Bishops were sharply curtained and public statements concerning doctrine or teachings were subject to the approval of the Curia. The power and authority of the magisterium were strenghtened and concentrated in Rome.  For all practical purposes, the Church was ruled solely by the pope's voice and pen. There was virtually no collegiality or subsidiarity.

On the other hand, Pope Francis is encouraging all bishops to offer their advice and counsel. He wants bishops to reflect not only the love of the Gospel but the voices of the non-clergy theologians and laity as well. I am not naive but have a reasoned hope that the minority who oppose what Pope Francis is doing will not stifle the voices of the majority and that all bishops will be enlightened by the Holy Spirit so that our Church will not be divided over so many teachings but solidified. It is time to bring back into the Church those that are disenfrancized, especially divorced and remarried Catholics, so that healing and salvation can begin.



Agreed.  While the sex abuse crisis calls for decisive action (and not just apologies) the injustices perpetrated against half the Catholic population cry out for remedy.  We will never be able to effectively preach and live the Good News until the gifts and vocations given to both men and women are recognized and honored. 

JOL: "Massimo's momentous essay on how the Vatican undercut the authority and status of Episcopal Conferences in a series of blocking moves over several decades is now to be published for the first time in English, in this month's Japan Mission Journal."

If possible, please provide text or a link here.

Superb article and same for many comments. 

"ideological" cuts both ways: against traditionalists and against progressivists...a plague on both your houses...


Very interesting article.

Church historian Ted Ross, SJ, discusses the need for curial reform in two short videos made by yours truly. The "Spirit of Vatican II" can serve as an intro to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Fr. Ross situates this Council within the modern history of the Church.

Please go to My Channel on YouTube -- -- and scroll down to the bottom of the list.

Joe Mulligan, SJ

Whoops! Re my previous comment, you may get to my videos more easily if you just go to YouTube and then to MyChannel -- josephmulligan1


Joe Mulligan, SJ

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