Op-Ed: A popular Pope, a divided church, and the power struggle at the heart of Catholicism

On Friday, Pope Francis was awarded the prestigious Charlemagne Prize. The prize is conferred by the German city of Aachen to a public figure for his or her commitment to promoting European unity. The mayor of Aachen told those assembled at the award ceremony that “Pope Francis is a godsend for Europe”. As Francis emerges, for many, as an iconic contemporary leader, he faces, ironically, significant resistance from within the institution he leads. By RUSSELL POLLITT.

On 28 August 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech that became a defining moment in the American Civil Rights Movement. He dreamed of a racially reconciled America. On Friday Pope Francis gave his own “I have a dream” speech. He dreams that Europe undergo a “memory transfusion” so that it can avoid the mistakes of the past and build a future steeped in economic justice, respect for life and dialogue with everyone.

Vatican commentator and biographer of Pope Francis, Austen Ivereigh, summed up the speech: Like the best speeches of leaders, Francis’ Charlemagne Prize address freeze-frames the historic moment, names the crisis, and posits a clear way forward. There is no doubt where he sees the future of Europe: recovering its true mission in the prophetic vision of its postwar leaders.

Francis appealed to the Europeans to care for children, help the poor and welcome newcomers. Just a few weeks ago he made a day trip to the Greek Island of Lesbos which houses thousands fleeing the tyranny of the Islamic State. In an act of solidarity, with a green light from all the necessary authorities, he took 12 refugees back to Rome with him on his flight. He was encouraging European leaders to be generous to new arrivals. Many saw this gesture as a serious reprimand to European leaders for their unwillingness to act on what has been described as the worst migration crisis since World War II.

Pope Francis said that he dreams of a new “European humanism,” involving “a constant work of humanisation” and calls for “memory, courage, a sound and humane utopian vision”.

Francis went on to say that he dreamt of a “Europe of families, with truly effective policies concentrated on faces rather than numbers, on birth rates more than rates of consumption. I dream of a Europe that promotes and protects the rights of everyone, without neglecting its duties towards all.”

When he began his speech the Pope asked what had happened to a continent that was once a “champion of human rights, democracy and freedom”. He said: “What has happened to you, Europe, the home of poets, philosophers, artists, musicians, and men and women of letters? What has happened to you, Europe, the mother of peoples and nations, the mother of great men and women who upheld, and even sacrificed their lives for, the dignity of their brothers and sisters?”

Before the Pope’s acceptance speech, the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, said that the continent was going through a “crisis of solidarity” and that this was “the time to fight for Europe”.

Francis had previously said he did not want to receive any awards because he does not want the pope to be seen as “a star” or “superman”. However, he clearly wants to speak to Europe, and that could be the reason he accepted this particular award. As he accepted it, he reminded his audience of what he said in the European Parliament in 2014: “I noted [then] that there is a growing impression that Europe is weary, ageing, no longer fertile and vital, that the great ideals that inspired Europe seem to have lost their appeal.”

Schulz told Vatican Radio that Francis was given the prize because “he not only gives criticism, but he also reminds us that we could do better if we remembered our traditional forms of co-operation and especially our values”.

But, while the Pope is being awarded prizes from bodies outside the Church, fewer seem to be willing to do so inside the Church. There seems to be a growing internal resistance to Pope Francis.

In his “Letter from Rome” last week, published in Global Pulse Magazine, Vatican journalist Robert Mickens says that a cardinal working in the Vatican recently confided in him that 85% of the people working in the Vatican Curia (the central administration or bureaucracy of the Church) are opposed to Francis. Mickens goes on to say that the opposition is on many fronts and to different aspects of his pontificate.

But it is not only in Rome that there is resistance. There are clergy all over the world that are not happy with Francis. At a recent clergy gathering in South Africa I heard a middle-aged priest, commenting on the Pope, say: “We wait it out, he won’t have long to go and then things can go back to normal.”

Conservative African Cardinal, Robert Sarah from Guinea, sat on an instruction from the Pope making a change to the washing of the feet ritual on Holy Thursday for almost a year before he issued it. (The instruction had previously said that it should be 12 men who participate in this ritual, Francis opened this up to include anyone –including women) When it was issued, Sarah made it known that he was not happy with the change.

A number of local priests were also not happy. It became (as if this was a life-and-death matter!) a heated topic of conversation among some clergy. Some quickly pointed out that the symbolic act of washing feet was “optional” according to the rubrics of the liturgy. A number said that they would not do it. One told me that he had a “crisis of conscience” when the announcement was made: “What do I do, stick to the tradition or make the change Francis has made?” This kind of question, I suggest, would not have been asked if Benedict XVI or John Paul II had introduced a change.

Meanwhile, for many years now, all over the world, including in South Africa, a number of clergy have simply ignored that instruction and have been washing the feet of young, old, men and women, straight and gay, for years.

About a month ago the bishops of Malawi issued a pastoral letter which dealt with various issues in their country. The statement was well-crafted and highlighted many socio-economic issues facing Malawi. It was also meant to be a pastoral letter to encourage Malawians during the “Year of Mercy” called by Pope Francis in April 2014.

Then came an unbelievable paragraph. The bishops lamented that the Malawi government had put a moratorium on the prosecution of active gay people. Just days later, Francis would release a document that would not, I suspect, be in line with what the Malawian clergy said.

Although Francis has not condoned gay relations, he has spoken very forthrightly about such discrimination more than once. He did this again in his Apostolic Exhortation on Family Life, entitled Amoris Laetitia (AL) (in English: The Joy of Love). He makes it clear that gay people should be respected and their dignity honoured. It is significant that Francis does not condemn gay people in this document.

The heated debate around AL has also revealed a divided, resistant Church. Many on the right have either criticised the document or gone to great lengths to show that there was no real change in the document, just a change in “tone”. Those on the left feel that Francis did not go far enough and were disappointed.

The real bone of contention is whether or not Francis opened the way for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion. Wisely, he does not prescribe any neat, clear-cut formula for dealing with this. He recognises that life is complex and says that all the complexities of life need to be taken into account, in context, and then good decisions can be made. Francis emphasised compassion, inclusivity, mercy, listening and dialogue. A sensible way forward? Not so for many hardliners who wanted a neat “black and white” answer.

Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of the most vociferous anti-Francis voices, suggested, in reaction, that the document was simply the musings of a pope and did not have to be taken seriously. This is not true. Burke was, effectively, fired by Francis in 2014. He went from head of the Vatican’s highest court to being a figurehead as patron of the Knights of Malta. Burke, just a few years ago, would have been a great advocate for taking every word seriously that came from a pope’s pen.

A careful reading of AL will show that there is much more than a change of tone. The deceptively simple style of the document means that much more is said between the lines. Pope Francis makes a strong call for decentralisation, broadens categories like “family” (no longer the nuclear family but a “network of relationships”), says that love-relationships which fall short of the Church’s ideal still have things that are good and true in them, and re-orientates the Church’s pastoral practice to one that is far more open, listening and merciful.

Perhaps the biggest change in the document is that Francis insists that Catholics have to think moral issues through for themselves. He says the Church should assist in forming consciences but it does not replace them. This is a significant shift. In the Papacy of John Paul II there was a concerted effort to tell Catholics what they should think and what they should do. The primacy of conscience was down-played and pushed to the periphery. Francis has brought it back to be central in moral decision-making.

Further push-back was evident in April when the Vatican halted a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) audit of its accounts. In the crossfire around this decision many claimed that it was a victory for those who were desperately trying to block Francis’ reform of the finances of the Church.

It emerged that one of the key issues was who signed the contract with PwC. This reflects deeper tensions over who has financial control. Cardinal George Pell, himself embattled over allegations that he knew of sexual abuse cases when he was bishop in Ballarat, Australia and did nothing about them, signed the contract and seemingly did not have the power to do so. He signed it, apparently, under the guise of “manager of the Vatican”.

There were clauses in the contract that other Vatican officials were not happy with. The Vatican said that the audit will go ahead once the issues have been cleared up. All this confirms the perception that there are deep divisions in Francis’ top-level management.

Late last week German Cardinal Karl Lehmann of Mainz highlighted another power struggle. He said that the names of people who are being submitted to Rome as potential bishops are being vetoed by “unauthorised people” in Rome.

Catholic bishops are appointed by the Congregation for Bishops – the appointees have to be approved directly by the Pope. The procedure is that after a local investigation and consultation, three names are submitted to Rome. The Congregation for Bishops then decides which of the three would be most suitable and makes a recommendation to the pope. That name is presented to the pope for approval. Somewhere, in the process, Lehmann suggests, things are being manipulated, a power game is being played.

Lehmann claimed that the nomination process was being disrupted by people “focused on a strict church policy allowing no deviation” and who had “knowledge of how things work in Rome”. In other words, Lehman is suggesting that people who are being appointed – in a manipulative way – are not of the mind of Francis. He went on to say that “much greater attention should be given to an episcopal candidate’s theological competence than his formal orthodoxy. There’s an urgent need for clarification otherwise the whole appointment process will come into question.”

It is no secret that not everyone is happy with the kind of bishops that are being appointed by Pope Francis: like-minded men who support his vision. Francis does not want men who simply wait on Rome to be told what to do. In the previous two papacies men were appointed who were, for the most part, not expected to think and act for themselves. They merely put into practice what Rome wanted. Francis has a very different vision of a decentralised hierarchy. But this means that many bureaucrats in Rome have significantly less power and, of course, they are not happy about this.

One of Pope Francis’ severest critics is Italian writer Sandro Magister. He recently accused Francis of “stage managing” a pontificate built on “theatrical gestures”. He mocks Francis’ decisions and style: for his off-the-cuff remarks, for visiting places like Lesbos in Greece, and for carrying his own briefcase. He also takes issue with the Pope for not living in the Apostolic Palace.

Magister believes that Francis has cheapened the Church’s Holy Week liturgies by giving too much attention to the ritual of the washing of the feet. Francis has, since the beginning of his papacy but also as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, shunned basilicas and performed this ceremony in different places (like prisons, orphanages and homeless hostels) with different people – including non-Catholics and non-Christians.

While numerous world leaders give Francis accolades and look to the Pope for leadership, many inside the hierarchy of the Church are not applauding. He may be getting better ratings than Obama and Merkel, but there is a battle, a power struggle, going on in the heart of Catholicism.

Francis does not always get it right. He certainly has not dealt definitively enough with clergy sex-abuse. There is still a strong feeling that the Pope needs to come down much harder on bishops who did not deal with abuse cases appropriately – greater accountability is needed.

The pope has spoken often about honouring women and giving them their rightful place in the Church. He has, actually, done nothing to change anything which would begin a conversation as to how the Church could honour and value women better.

Francis has also been slow in ensuring that reform gains traction in the Roman Curia. He has made some surprising appointments of conservative men who oppose reform, like Cardinal Robert Sarah, head of the Church’s Congregation for Divine Worship. He has allowed others, who quite clearly do not share his vision, like Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellett (head of the Congregation for Bishops), to stay on in his position. Ouellet was a Benedict XVI appointee.

It’s no secret that the Argentinian Pope has made a huge impact on people around the globe, from all walks of life. A friend recently related a story. He was talking to a group of people about the absence of good leadership in the world. He said that all in the group agreed. Then a Muslim man, out of the blue, said: “Wait, there is one leader we can all look to, our father Francis.”

No doubt Francis often hears the echoes of Jesus Christ’s words: “A prophet is never accepted in his own home town.” It looks like he is set to remain a divisive figure – in Catholicism anyway. DM

Photo: Pope Francis (L) arrives to lead the weekly general audience in Saint Peter’s Square, Vatican City, 04 May 2016. EPA/ETTORE FERRARI


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