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 An abstract debate about the “continuity or discontinuity” of Vatican II has been replaced by a conversation about concrete issues such as poverty and inequality.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.

Published in the August 15, 2014 issue: 

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is Catholicism and Citizenship. Political Cultures of the Church in the Twenty-First Century (Liturgical Press, 2017). He is a contributing writer for Commonweal. Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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