Last week Rolling Stone magazine (Italian edition) put Pope Francis on the cover with the description “A Pop Pope.” This is the umpteenth proof that the secular world loves Pope Francis. The striking fact, however, lies in the motivation behind the Pope making this magazine cover, as was the case back in 2013 when Time magazine elected Pope Francis “Man of the Year.”
The cover was explained this way: “Rolling Stone celebrates Pope Francis who has conquered young people with his words of attention toward the least and the poorest, with his close attention to regular people, with a decidedly popular attitude, even better, a pop attitude: the Pope that really fits our times.”
These things might be true. On the other hand, it is yet to be understood why this pontificate was called “pop,” while the Pope’s words on gender ideology – so much in opposition to the dominant culture – are not even considered? It also must be determined why all the other topics that Pope Francis has put on the table are overshadowed?
The answer mostly concerns the way the narrative around Pope Francis was constructed, and to understand that, we should look back to his election. Shortly after Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation, the Cardinals gathered in pre-conclave meetings where they noted that the Church had been disgraced by scandals, and needed a change of narrative. Pope Francis seemed the person who fit the role. Looking back to four years ago would help to understand the current situation.
Back in 2013 we had, on the one hand, scandals over the alleged wealth of Cardinals (often artificial scandals, never focused on those who should really have been targeted), while, on the other hand, we had the image of a new Pope who, when he was a Cardinal, was known for using public transport, who never missed an opportunity to disdain a certain kind of capitalism and to flaunt a sober life. At the same time we had, on the one hand, a Church described as cloistered and enclosed, and on the other hand, a Pope who implored the Church to “go out toward the peripheries.” These factors made Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio – Pope Francis the “only possible solution” in order for the papacy to acquire a new missionary impulse.
This was the reason why Cardinal Bergoglio became one of the candidates, almost in a hidden way at the beginning. Later, revelations about a “team Bergoglio” and about the St. Gallen group showed that in fact Cardinal Bergoglio had been identified as a possible candidate long time before. Rumors about the possible election of Bergoglio surfaced during the pre-conclave meeting, but no one really took them seriously.
After the election, the narrative around Pope Francis was built: from the pictures of the Pope who personally paid the bill for the room he was living in before the conclave, to the silver cross, to his simple way of dress: all of this contributed to create the idea of a poor, renewed and evangelical Church.
Pope Francis made his own contribution to the construction of this narrative, by preaching daily morning homilies in the Domus Sanctae Marthae and by authorizing Cardinal Ortega y Alamino to deliver his pre-conclave speech, some of the sentences of which were immediately taken out of context.
After four years, however, things might have changed. The Italian Rolling Stone cover is perhaps why some say that Pope Francis’s honeymoon with the media is coming to an end, or at least that his image is undergoing decline. But at the very least, the cover shows the secular world’s determination not to see what really happens around Pope Francis.
Some examples. The posters displayed throughout Rome lamenting Pope Francis’s lack of mercy, as well as the fake copy of L’Osservatore Romano that invented mock responses of the Pope to the dubia using words of the Pope taken out of context, were immediately targeted and described, with a certain nervousness, as part of a plot against the Pope, or in the best case, as the symptom of a resistance to Pope Francis’s reforms. Pope Francis himself defended his reforms one by one in his Christmas speech to the Roman Curia.
The clergy sex abuse scandal is again a threat behind the Pope’s back, and Pope Francis is accused of having ignored justice in order to help out some friends. The most common example is that of Fr. Mario Inzoli, who had plead guilty to abuse, who was laicized and then recently reinstated in the priesthood. Fr. Inzoli’s story will not end soon, as the issue will be back and will grab additional headlines. In the meantime, the image of zero tolerance policy on pedophilia was weakened by Marie Collins’s resignation: a survivor of abuses, she was member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
All of these episodes were taken as a sign of dissent against Pope Francis. In fact, more realism is needed. For instance, the crisis within the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors was foreseeable. The commission outlines the guidelines and assist dioceses, but it does not replace the tribunal of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. However, the institution of a sort of parallel tribunal was part of the initial idea. Nevertheless, replacing or sidelining a tribunal by a commission would in effect weaken the juridical structure itself. It was reportedly Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, who brought to light the possible overlap of functions, and then brought forward a more reasonable pace in the reform. More than resistance, it was the Cardinal’s effort to complete a reform that risked living on out of sheer sentiment.
Likewise, the several commissions established during this pontificate came about out of sentiment. Joking (but not too much), Pope Francis once said that when someone does not want to accomplish something, he establishes a commission.
Commissions and external consultants represent a risk: that they use their position to collect information and later destroy the Vatican system from within.
But the biggest risk that lies behind the appointment of commissions comes from a certain mentality. The risk is that people will eventually think that “new is good, old is bad,” without making any judgment between the harvesting of fruits and the ability to produce them. This is the risk of this pontificate, and the media helps to emphasize the “new is good” issue.
It is noteworthy that media pervasiveness and the continual flow of news prevent a lucid and detached analysis. Reading back the articles published at the beginning of the pontificate, it becomes evident that the words most used are “revolution”, “Pope Francis’s style” and “new Church”. These formulas are used by the media to generate readership, but also to give the readers the notion of a Church that is going to change completely. The Church, however, does not change suddenly, and Pope Francis is always a priest with a traditional deposit of faith – no matter how he eventually denies it.
So, there probably was an agenda at work behind Pope Francis’s back, but the fact is that this effect was also a media invention to sell more newspapers and to attract readership. That is part of how the market works.
At the same time, Pope Francis was smart to make use of this effect. He still does. In the interview he granted to the German weekly Die Zeit, he speaks about the lack of priestly vocations and the possibility of using viri probati to counter it. Viri probati, men of proven faith, even married men, are those to whom the Church may exceptionally entrust to guarantee the celebration of the Eucharist. He also talked about an eventual discussion of optional priestly celibacy. But – he stressed – optional celibacy “is not a solution.” That is: it is not by allowing priests to marry that we can solve the lack of vocations. This conclusion comes at the end of a very upbeat discourse, one which signals that the topic should be discussed.
This is his way of doing things. And it is typically Jesuit: no possibility is excluded a priori, everything must be discussed, reasoned, in a never-ending dialogue with the world that the Pope wants to develop within the Church.
Even within the Church, Pope Francis shows his traditional roots, yet they are filled with the notion of pueblo, and this Latin American populism has some hidden Marxist categories in it. The Pope is traditional when he speaks about “Holy Mother Hierarchical Church.” He is also traditional when he centralizes powers: Pope Francis listens to everyone, and then makes his decision, sometimes without regard to any particular suggestion he had been given. This behavior underscores the fact that Pope Francis is often alone in command. Simply put, people wait for clarity, with the understanding that a different opinion can be argued by opponents.
This entire situation must be carefully addressed, because any claim of normality in Pope Francis’s pontificate is strongly targeted. The Pope is the Pope: he places trust in the people he wants, he has his personal spoils system, and he also has an inner circle of counsellors that counts more than the Curia. That is normal. But the narrative wants the Pope to be collegial, open to the world, synodal. Above all, the narrative wants the Pope to be “pop”, and any time this image is debated, the reaction is harsh. In his biography of Pope Francis, Paul Vallely recalls that after the years of his provincialate in Argentina, Bergoglio left a Society of Jesus divided in “pro Bergoglio” and “anti Bergoglio” camps. The same is happening in the Church.
How much Pope Francis is intentionally creating this division is yet to be assessed. Looking attentively at his moves, it seems that he does not opt simply for the right or the left. The final goal seems to be a sort of revenge of the South and of the pueblo, that is, the people in the positive sense in which Pope Francis interprets the term. This revenge is attested by an increased representation of the globe in the College of Cardinals, by his meetings with popular movements, by his insistence on the profile of priests with the smell of sheep.
Is there something Pope Francis is likely to do? In the upcoming times, a motu proprio that will bring the Priestly Society of Saint Pius V (the so called Lefebvrists) into full communion with the Church is rumored. The motu proprio will not ask the Society to accept the Second Vatican Council, which was one of the minimum requirements that Pope Benedict XVI set during the talks. It is yet to be seen how progressives will eventually take Pope Francis’s opening toward the “right wing” of the Church.
But things will be rebalanced by a commission to study a liturgy for an ecumenical Eucharist, that has been reportedly been established and is being led by Archbishops Domenico Sorrentino of Assisi and Piero Marini, former Papal Master of Ceremonies. Both of them are gurus of an alleged modernist liturgy.
The Pope, in the end, extends his hands to everyone, based on his ideas of pragmatism and of the culture of the encounter.
Other possible moves. It has been widely rumored that the Pope will increase the limit of voting cardinals in a conclave from 120 to 150, in order to allow a wider representation of the Catholic world. If this is so, a new consistory might be convoked already in June. Though the possibility of such a reform has already been circulating, there still may be surprises.
However, Pope Francis cares about these reforms beyond anything else. The Curia reform is stalled, while the Pope maintains a high interest on the issue of migrations: he personally leads the office for migration within the new dicastery for the Service to Integral Human Development, he calls the office or sends it a message every two or three days, receives the undersecretaries of the dicastery every month and always stresses what to focus on and what not, what to make public and what not.
Pope Francis in the end likes to do things, more than to think things out. For this reason, he is a centralizer; he calculates whether a gesture is convenient or not, and thinks of diplomacy as he thinks of theology: both of them should be done in the walking.
For this reason, despite the fact that he paid a lot of attention to Ukraine, he stressed in the Die Zeit interview that he cannot go to Russia because in that case he should also go to Ukraine, letting it be understood that the Ukrainian situation is still too tricky.
De facto, around the pontificate there is a sort of “untold” story that does not help the interpretation of this pontificate. This “untold” story helps the secular press which sees in Pope Francis a pop Pope, creating a sort of myth around him, while obviously avoiding to report anything that the Pope says or does that would in the end spoil the narrative.
This is not news either. St. John Paul II was celebrated as the “Superstar Pope”. But his message was clear. So much so that a US newspaper once headlined: “We like the singer, not the song.” Nowadays, the song does not count. This is not good for this pontificate, as it does not help in looking at it both in terms of its brighter and darker sides.