Argentina’s Juan Domingo Peron thought the people were like the Parliament. In his view, a leader who desired to maintain power had to “adjust” with the people. Peron would float legislative ideas, observe the reactions, and adjust everything accordingly.
It has often been said that Pope Francis is a Peronist.
In any case, Pope Francis has some characteristic traits of that political movement. His use of trial balloons is one such trait. He also gauges reactions and– sometimes very suddenly – changes tack according to what he sees. It has happened often enough and with big enough issues to make it a characteristic also of this pontificate.
Think of how Pope Francis handled women deacons: with two commissions, but no debate. On financial reforms, he danced: sometimes taking two steps forward and one step back, sometimes two steps back and one step forward. Even the last Vatican trial was characterized by the Pope proceeding with adjustments:
1. He asked Cardinal Becciu to resign from everything, even from cardinal prerogatives.
2. He allowed the same cardinal to be tried.
3. He went to visit him at home on Holy Thursday and then asked Becciu to participate in public events involving members of the college, without ever giving him back his cardinalatial prerogatives.
The great novelty of this last part of the pontificate, however, is that the Pope is accompanied in this adjustment process by an ally, a friend, and a confidant: Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, inspirer of many of papal texts and also of the theology of the Pope.
And it is Fernandez who, in recent months, has been exercising the role of “the Pope’s lieutenant in hacer lio,” that is, in making noise and then seeing the reactions. Fernandez does not fail to give interviews, and many of them, to explain his position and even to ridicule those who highlight doctrinal and practical problems with his choices. In a recent interview with La Stampa, he went so far as to say it is not decisions that cause tensions; decisions are moments of truth because they bring out tensions.
That’s one way to look at it.
The Fiducia Supplicans hurricane served two purposes. One was to burnish the pope’s public image by giving him a good few days in the papers. The other, arguably more important purpose: to count the people faithful to the papal line. Those who want reforms or want to exploit the possibilities given by these new documents ask for obedience to the Pope and complain of resistance. Those who instead notice the pitfalls behind these new documents risk finding themselves cast into the vortex of organized groups that attack the Church from the so-called “traditional world” of the right.
In the middle, there is Pope Francis.
Like Fernandez, Pope Francis does not fail to give interviews. He does it often (over a hundred in ten years of his pontificate) and with the media and people he trusts. Sometimes, the “request” for an interview came directly from the Domus Sanctae Marthae. Also, in the next year or so, a book will come out in several languages, in which the Pope will talk about his life and the significant events that affected it.
The Pope speaks to the media every time he needs to “fix” his image in the face of public opinion that is becoming aggressive. If necessary, the Pope is not afraid to make tough decisions that have a tremendous widespread impact. It happened in Chile in 2018, an actual turning point of the pontificate. Pope Francis decided not to address the issue of abuse and, above all, the problems related to the appointment as bishop of Osorno of one of the followers of the abuser, Fernando Karadima. Then, faced with ferocious public opinion, he immediately changed his mind, summoned the Chilean bishops twice to Rome, pushed them to resign en masse, and sent a mission led by Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna.
In practice, this pontificate works in the wake of public opinion, putting forward specific ideas while remaining willing to change those ideas when the issue becomes difficult.
The point, however, is to understand which public opinion matters to the pope. So far, Pope Francis has enjoyed great press, especially in the secular world. Catholic media do not fail to recognize some problems inherent to the pontificate. At the same time, the Catholic press itself has often followed in the wake of public opinion.
It hasn’t always been this way. Even John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and – going even further back in time – Paul VI had their share of criticisms, attacks, and internal divisions to deal with. Francis’s predecessors had to deal with their share of unfavorable public opinion, as well.
The difference in this pontificate is that public opinion becomes an integral part of this pope’s modus gubernandi. Pope Francis once justified his acceptance of the resignation of an embattled archbishop by appeal to the “altar of hypocrisy”. That was the case of the Archbishop of Paris, Michel Aupetit, who was accused in the media of an improper relationship with one of his secretaries even though the secretary never filed a complaint. French authorities eventually exonerated Aupetit completely.
But how does this altar of hypocrisy apply to Francis’s other decisions? Why is there so much attention to public opinion?
Perhaps because the Pope seeks consensus given some decisions that he could make, which would be even more unpopular. We know that rumors, Vatican gossip, are often the expression of fear rather than a real danger. The Pope’s fixations, however, are also known.
And so, there are rumors that the Pope would like to tighten further pressure on the traditionalist world, in practice also suppressing the functions of the Ecclesia Dei commission, which had already been folded into another office with the reform of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. According to the official papal line, preferring the traditional Mass can be consideredalmost a repudiation of the Second Vatican Council, the implementation of which in liturgical matters has been included among the objectives of the new Dicastery for Divine Worship.
Reform of the Conclave is another area subject to testing by trial balloon, and it could be a two-part reform.
The first would be to reduce the weight of the General Congregations – i.e., the pre-conclave meetings – by dividing the cardinals into small linguistic groups with moderator/secretary, as happens at the Synod, and as happened at the last consistory with a discussion element, in 2022.
The second is to restore the lowering of the quorum after a certain number of ballots. Benedict XVI had established that at least two-thirds of the assembly was needed to elect a Pope. Previously, the quota decreased at the 33rd vote. Pope Francis reportedly wants to reduce the vote threshold starting from the 12th scrutiny. If a group of cardinals were to hold out on a name for six days, they could also have a good chance of electing the Pope.
We will see whether the rumors about these reforms were spread artfully, to understand the reactions, or whether they will instead turn out to be true. Meanwhile, the Pope prepares for his umpteenth pop interview. At the same time, one of the journalists who professes to be closest to him has called for the dismissal of Cardinal Sarah because he criticized Fiducia supplicans, calling it heretical.
Never mind that Sarah didn’t quite say what journalist thought he said. The development illustrated how significant the pope’s management of the media landscape really is. It also serves as a measure of how significantly the climate has changed on the Vatican beat.
There has been such a division in the debate over Fiducia supplicans that it will now be difficult for the Pope to walk it back. That is significant because the doctrine of the Church is now at stake.
We have seen from the reactions to Fiducia supplicans how the Church is united in terms of doctrine. It’s much more compact than you think. After all, even at the Synod, a joint decision led to not using the acronym LGBTQ+ in the summary document. And it should not be forgotten that those most critical of this choice, which arrived with an almost overwhelming majority, are among those who immediately allowed themselves to be filmed blessing homosexual couples, complete with a photographer.
Indeed, there is one major absentee in this debate: Faith. It’s the big theme, always. But the Pope’s actions, in the end, do not only create crises. They make Christ disappear from the debate.