Pope Francis
Pope Francis; drawing by James Ferguson

On December 22, 2014, Pope Francis delivered the traditional papal Christmas speech to the assembled ranks of the Roman Curia. This annual meeting with the staff of the church’s central administration offers popes the opportunity for a stock-taking “state of the union” address. In 2005, his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI had used the occasion to deliver a momentous analysis of the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” that he believed had distorted understanding of the Second Vatican Council by presenting it as a revolutionary event, and to which he attributed many of the ills of the modern church. The phrase “hermeneutic of rupture” was eagerly seized on by those seeking a “reform of the reform,” and became a weapon in the struggle to roll back some of the most distinctive developments in the church following the Second Vatican Council of 1962–1965, which had been presided over first by John XXIII and then by Paul VI.

The scope of Pope Francis’s 2014 address, however, was far more local and specific. Having briefly thanked his hearers for their hard work during the previous year, the pope launched into an excruciating fifteen-point dissection of the spiritual ailments to which people in their position might be prone. It was a dismaying catalog of “curial diseases”—the spiritual “narcissism” that, as part of the “pathology of power,” encouraged some to behave like “lords and masters” (in Italian, padroni); the “Martha complex” of excessive activity, which squeezes out human sympathy and renders men incapable of “weeping with those who weep”; the “spiritual Alzheimer’s” that besets those “who build walls and routines around themselves” and forget the spirit of the Gospel.

The pope’s tally of curial sins also included cliquishness, acquisitiveness, careerism, competitiveness, and indifference to others; the “existential schizophrenia” and “progressive spiritual emptiness” of many who abandon pastoral service and “restrict themselves to bureaucratic matters”; the “theatrical severity and sterile pessimism,” the “funereal face” that often attend the exercise of power; and the “terrorism of gossip” by which the cowardly “are ready to slander, defame and discredit others, even in newspapers and magazines.”

Though presented by Francis as a pastoral aid to a seasonal examination of conscience, the speech was widely perceived, not least by many in his audience, as a scathing critique of the current papal administration. Such excoriation of the Curia by a pope is unprecedented in modern times, yet there was nothing in its substance that need have surprised. The conclave that elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope in March 2013 was beset by a sense of scandal and dysfunction at the heart of the church. The cardinals met in the wake of the startling resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and under a rain of revelations about corruption and money laundering in the Vatican bank, clerical sexual abuse, and the failure of the church authorities to confront it—all given lurid coloring by the “Vatileaks scandal,” the leaking to the press by Pope Benedict’s own butler of hundreds of confidential documents revealing corruption, maladministration, and internecine feuding within the Curia itself.

In the run-up to the conclave, cardinal after cardinal demanded a pope who would purge the church of these ills, starting with the reform of the Curia. Francis was elected largely because he was perceived as someone who would deliver this. His pastoral emphasis on the missionary proclamation of the mercy of God to fallible people in difficult situations seemed to point away from sterile preoccupation with ritual and doctrinal niceties, bureaucratic obstructionism, and the ignoble protection of the church’s institutional interests.

One of Francis’s first major acts was the establishment of a commission of eight (subsequently nine) cardinals charged with the radical overhaul of the church’s central structures, starting with the Vatican bank. His very choice of name signaled a turn away from the doctrinal and institutional concerns of his immediate predecessors, and pointed instead to his passionate insistence on the church’s loving engagement with the poor who make up most of the world’s population.

And yet in doctrinal matters Francis is no radical, no reformer. On the central issues often taken as the litmus test of Catholic orthodoxy his views are entirely conventional. He is strongly “pro-life” and an ardent supporter of traditional family values. As archbishop of Buenos Aires he opposed the Argentinian government’s 2010 bill to legalize same-sex marriages, while supporting civil unions for gay couples, a moderate pragmatism that was rejected by the rest of the Argentinian bishops, who favored a more confrontational stance. In his published “conversation” with the Jesuit Antonio Spadaro, he has called for a new and profound theology of women and a greater recognition of their crucial role in the church. But his own folksy remarks about the place of women and “the feminine genius” in the church have distressed even the most moderate feminists. He has made clear his belief that Pope John Paul II’s 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (Priestly Ordination) has settled “definitively” the question of women’s ordination—“that door is closed.”


This blanket endorsement of Papa Wojtyła’s attempt to close down discussion of the issue indicates the limits both of Francis’s radicalism and, arguably, of his theological sophistication. Critics of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis pointed out that popes do not have a hotline to God. “Definitive” papal utterances are not oracles providing new information, but adjudications at the end of a wider and longer process of doctrinal reflection, consultation, and debate, often extending over centuries: there are procedures to be followed if such adjudications are to command obedience. But the question of female ordination has never been subjected to this kind of extended theological scrutiny, and a properly theological basis for the prohibition remains therefore to be tested. So, it was asked, how did Papa Wojtyła know that the ordination of women was impossible, and what was meant by describing his preemptive strike on the question as “definitive”?

But these are not matters that greatly interest Francis, and his acceptance of conventional theological positions has enabled some alarmed traditionalists to downplay any suggestion that his election represents a significant break with previous papal regimes. George Weigel, biographer, confidante, and eulogist of John Paul II, for example, insisted that Bergoglio’s emphasis on evangelization, in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), was a continuation of John Paul’s and Benedict’s stress on the need for a “new evangelization,” and demonstrated “the seamless continuity between John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis and the continuity between the John Paul–Benedict interpretation of Vatican II and Francis.”

That judgment, however, carefully ignores the significance of Bergoglio’s consistent adoption of a rhetoric, in word and act, manifestly at odds with the ethos of the previous two pontificates. For admirers of the “dynamic orthodoxy” (a euphemism for the vigorous exertion of central authority) that characterized the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Bergoglio’s frank acceptance of clerical fallibility and the perils of authoritarian leadership are both startling and deeply unappetizing. Outraged conservative opponents like Cardinal Raymond Burke, in a dramatic departure from the protocol that inhibits cardinals from public criticism of living popes, have described the church under Francis as “a ship without a rudder.”

It’s not hard to see why. In a series of interviews and speeches, Francis has deplored clergy who “play Tarzan”—church leaders too confident of their own importance, moral strength, or superior insight. The best religious leaders in his view are those who leave “room for doubt.” The bad leader is “excessively normative because of his self-assurance.” The priest who “nullifies the decision-making” of his people is not a good priest, “he is a good dictator.” Bergoglio has even said that the very fact that someone thinks he has all the answers “is proof that God is not with him.” Those who look always “for disciplinarian solutions,…long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists” have “a static and inward-directed view of things,” and have turned faith into ideology. And so the experience of failure, of reaching one’s own limits, is the truest and best school of leadership. He has declared himself drawn to “the theology of failure” and a style of authority that has learned through failure to consult others, and to “travel in patience.”

There is a strong element of autobiography in all this. In 1973, while still in his mid-thirties, Jorge Bergoglio became provincial superior of the Jesuits of Argentina. The Argentinian hierarchy was deeply compromised by acquiescence in the savagely repressive rule of a military junta, but many Jesuits had embraced the political and theological radicalism of the 1970s. As Jesuit superior, Bergoglio avoided open confrontation with the regime, struggling to reconcile the demands of justice and compassion for those suffering atrocity with the need to preserve the order’s institutions and mission and to protect Jesuit lives.

His own deeply traditional piety was in any case unsympathetic to much of the social and religious experimentalism of the time. Hero-worshiped by many for his personal charisma and spiritual gifts, he was detested by others who saw him as a repressive influence, inhibiting the work of the Spirit in a time of crisis, and he was later to be accused of having betrayed politically radical Jesuits to the junta.

All Francis’s recent biographers agree that the latter accusation was false, but his role as Jesuit provincial has divided even the best of them. Paul Vallely’s Pope Francis: Untying the Knots was one of the earliest in the field. Admiring but keenly questioning, its judgments have worn well. For Vallely, Bergoglio’s failures in wisdom and courage in the 1970s marked a watershed in his life, in the wake of which he underwent a profound conversion to the humility and insistence on the primacy of the needs of the poor that characterized his work as archbishop of Buenos Aires and that now dominate his papacy.


Austen Ivereigh’s The Great Reformer benefits from the privileged insights of some of those instrumental in securing Bergoglio’s election, and from Ivereigh’s own intimate knowledge of his Latin American background. He argues, by contrast, that while Bergoglio did make mistakes as provincial, in essence he ruled wisely and well in a wild time, and that his spiritual and personal values have remained consistent throughout his life.

However that may be, Bergoglio himself has acknowledged that as provincial, “I had to learn from my errors along the way, because, to tell you the truth, I made hundreds of errors. Errors and sins.” Significantly, however, he attributes those sins not to religious or political reaction, but to inexperience and failure to consult: “I have never been a right-winger. It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems.”

That perception is bedded deep in Bergoglio’s psyche, and has shaped his actions as pope. Francis is the first pope to have been ordained after the Second Vatican Council: his commitment to conciliar values is instinctive, strong, and different in kind from that of either of his immediate predecessors. In Evangelii Gaudium, his most important papal utterance to date, he pointedly spoke of the need to “discern the signs of the times,” a crucial phrase from the council’s document on the church and the modern world that Pope Benedict especially disliked and repeatedly criticized.


Gregorio Borgia/AP Images

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis at the Vatican, September 2014

But above all, Francis is the first pope to embrace wholeheartedly the Second Vatican Council’s aspiration for a church in which authority is shared among the whole episcopate, rather than monolithically focused in the papacy. At the end of the council in 1965, Pope Paul VI had established a permanent Synod of Bishops as a forum for continued collaboration between pope and bishops. Many saw the synod as the major expression of “collegiality” that would devolve much of the decision-making of the Roman Curia to the bishops in synod and through them to the local churches.

Such hopes proved illusory: the Roman authorities saw to it that the synod remained a powerless talking shop with no independence or initiating power. Bergoglio shared the general episcopal dissatisfaction with this situation, and as pope, in one of the most striking passages of Evangelii Gaudium, he has called for “a conversion of the papacy” on such matters. John Paul II, he reminded his readers, had invited suggestions for a renewal of the papal office to make it more visibly an office of service, but “we have made little progress in this regard.” The papacy and the central structures of the Church must heed the call to “pastoral conversion,” because “excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.” In particular, Francis insisted, there had been a failure to realize a truly collegial spirit within the church, and episcopal conferences needed to be given “genuine doctrinal authority.”

He has proved as good as his word. Opening the Synod on the Family in October 2014 that, among much else, dealt with the fraught issues of sexuality, contraception, divorce, and remarriage, Francis encouraged the bishops to express their views frankly. No one should be silent or conceal his true opinions, “perhaps believing that the Pope might think something else.” To do so would be a failure in “synodality, because it is necessary to say all that, in the Lord, one feels the need to say: without polite deference, without hesitation.” These were not empty platitudes: under John Paul II and Benedict XVI open questioning of official positions was routinely branded as “dissent,” and bishops who deviated even mildly from the official line were subject to reprimand or removal. For a pope to encourage fearless public outspokenness among the bishops was a startling novelty.

The debates that ensued were the most openly contentious since the closure of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. Press attention focused on an emergent liberal pastoral agenda, which favored the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to communion and a more welcoming attitude toward people in same-sex relationships. This was fiercely contested by those who saw such concessions as surrender to a godless culture. Pope Francis, who had notoriously remarked to journalists that “if a person is gay and seeks God and has goodwill, who am I to judge him?” and who declared in Evangelii Gaudium that the Eucharist was not a reward for the perfect but medicine for the weak, was seen as favoring these calls for liberalization. The failure of the synod to endorse moves in that direction was accordingly trumpeted as a personal defeat.

But that is not how he sees it. In his closing speech to the synod he reminded the bishops that discussion had not ended: they were launched on a true experience of synod, “a journey together” in which even confrontation was a sign of the activity of the spirit. He insisted that “I would be very worried and saddened…if all were in a state of agreement, or silent in a false and quietist peace.” And he reminded all the parties in the debates of the perils of entrenched positions.

On the one hand there was the temptation to “hostile inflexibility,” of “wanting to close oneself,…not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises,” clinging to “the certitude of what we know.” This was the special temptation of the zealous, and the so-called “traditionalists.” On the other hand he warned against “a destructive tendency to do-goodism” (buonismo in Italian) that “in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots.” This, he told them, was the special temptation of the “do-gooders,” and of the so-called “progressives and liberals.” But they should continue to listen to each other with tranquility, confident that the Spirit would guide what seemed to outside observers a “disputatious Church” through choppy waters.

Though always meticulously respectful of his immediate predecessors, the differences between Francis and them are wide, deep, and, as his handling of the synod makes clear, momentous for the church. His distrust of religious leaders who “play Tarzan,” secure in their own certitudes, does not sit well with admirers of John Paul II or his style of leadership. Though he has commended the “prudence” of Benedict XVI’s rehabilitation of the old Latin liturgy, he is suspicious of the reactionary ideological freight that the Latin liturgy often carries with it, and he despises ceremonial pomp.

The exalted doctrine of priesthood that has been in favor during the last two pontificates undoubtedly contributed to a resurgent clericalism (and interest in ecclesiastical millinery) among many of those trained for the priesthood since the late 1970s. It has been notably absent from Francis’s utterances: he has abolished honorific titles and dress for the younger clergy working in the Curia, since for him priesthood is essentially about service to the poor and vulnerable, rather than a symbolic status or the exercise of sacramental power.

Perhaps most momentously, Francis has pointed the church away from culture wars with secular society that were such a feature of Benedict’s papacy, toward a less confrontational approach to the social circumstances in which the faithful have to live, and a more fruitful reengagement with the church’s mission to the poor and underprivileged, in whom he sees both the natural and the most receptive hearers of the Gospel. Where Benedict was inclined to blame the increasing marginalization of Christianity in Western society on a collective apostasy rooted in the shallow materialism of secular modern society, Francis is inclined to attribute the corresponding decline in Latin America to the church’s own shortcomings:

Perhaps the Church appeared too weak, perhaps too distant from their needs…perhaps too cold, perhaps too caught up with itself, perhaps a prisoner of its own rigid formulas, perhaps the world seems to have made the Church a relic of the past, unfit for new questions; perhaps the Church could speak to people in their infancy but not to those come of age.

There was a sense in Benedict’s pontificate that the best response to the crisis of secularization might be a strong repudiation of secular culture and consolidation within a smaller, purer, and more assertive church. By contrast, Francis believes that the church

is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.

The church must be “capable of rediscovering the maternal womb of mercy” in “a world of ‘wounded’ persons in need of understanding, forgiveness, love.” It must never retreat into itself, never opt for “rigidity and defensiveness.” It works with people as they are, not as they ought to be, taking pastoral risks to meet human need, even if in the process “its shoes get soiled by the mud of the streets.”

That open evangelical and pastoral vision was memorably encapsulated during Francis’s first Holy Week as pope, in March 2013, when he celebrated the solemn liturgy of Maundy Thursday not, as was usual, in the Lateran Basilica, but in an institution for young offenders, where he washed and kissed the feet of twelve prisoners, one of them a Muslim woman. Predictably, the gesture scandalized the liturgists and canon lawyers, who pointed out that canon law forbade the ritual washing of any but male feet on Maundy Thursday, since the ceremony (allegedly) commemorated Christ’s inauguration of an exclusively male priesthood.

Pope Benedict’s penchant for solemn liturgy had been widely pressed as the model of correct practice. Crestfallen “precisians”—partisans of strict and precise observance of rules—now insisted that the pope’s liturgical actions were uniquely privileged, above law, and not a model for imitation. Unmoved, Francis broke the taboo again on Maundy Thursday 2014, when he washed the feet of men and women in a home for the elderly and infirm.

Francis is manifestly, among much else, seeking to place the papacy and the church it heads on a different course from the one it has followed for the last thirty-five years. By word and example he is modeling a style of leadership that is personal without being autocratic, that encourages outspokenness and local responsibility, and that directs the eyes of the church beyond institutional concerns to the needs of suffering humanity. In establishing his advisory council of cardinals he has launched a far-reaching scrutiny of the church’s central governance and of the Vatican’s finances, but he is concerned with far more than a renewal of the church’s machinery. His passionate concern for the poor, which underlay the denunciation in Evangelii Gaudium of an “economics of exclusion”—which outraged Catholic neoconservatives—lies at the heart of what he believes the church is called to be. Beyond institutional reform, he is calling for a new openness in which the church defines itself not by what it excludes but by whom it reaches out to.

Whether he will succeed is a moot point. To achieve change a pope needs the loyalty of those around him. A pope with a long time in office can ensure that those around him share his vision. Rome appoints all the world’s Catholic bishops; the pope himself decides who will be a cardinal. The long pontificate of John Paul II and the succession of his right-hand man, Benedict XVI, have created a hierarchy who share much of their vision for the church. Gerhard Müller, still head of the Vatican’s most influential department, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is also the general editor of Benedict XVI’s collected writings, though his admiration of liberation theology no doubt commends him to Pope Francis.

Francis himself is unlikely to have a long pontificate: he is an old man, with only one functioning lung. Both in Rome and in the dioceses of the world he has been quietly putting in place men who share his vision. But the announcement in January 2015 of his second consistory for the creation of new cardinals was anything but quiet, because the pope’s startling list of the twenty cardinals-designate, fifteen of them under eighty and therefore eligible to vote in the next papal conclave, represented a positive fanfare for Francis’s alternative vision of the Catholic Church. Once again, no North American was included. Flouting convention, major sees in America and Europe whose incumbents would normally expect to join the Sacred College “ex officio,” such as Chicago, Venice, and Turin, were bypassed in favor of bishops from tiny dioceses in Asia, Africa, and Oceania, most of which had never had a cardinal before, like Myanmar, Tonga, and Cape Verde. It seems clear that the new appointments are intended to empower the “church at the peripheries,” promoting pastoral bishops who, in the pope’s own phrase, “smell of the sheep,” while simultaneously frustrating the clerical careerism he loathes, by refusing the “automatic” promotions associated with more prestigious sees.

Yet he has been slow to remove critics and opponents. Even the demotion last November of Cardinal Raymond Burke as head of the Apostolic Signatura, the church’s supreme court, was notably tardy, considering that Burke’s regular appearances in the capa magna, the twenty-foot-long train of scarlet watered silk sported by cardinals until the late 1960s, signaled an understanding of the church utterly at odds with that of the pope.

Francis’s humility and spontaneity have won the plaudits of the world’s press, but his style has not delighted everyone in the organization he heads. Two generations of clergy conscious of the dignity of their priesthood and formed as culture warriors under Papas Wojtyła and Ratzinger do not immediately warm to Francis’s loathing of clericalism and disregard of liturgical convention. However traditional his personal doctrinal views are, some see his unscripted utterances and spontaneous personal inclusiveness as potentially dangerous erosions of the deposit of faith. His Christmas address to the Curia reminded some hearers of the sermons during the annual Te Deum masses at which Bergoglio presided as archbishop of Buenos Aires, and which he used to berate the policies and shortcomings of President Néstor Kirchner and the other politicians who customarily attended, until the angry president decided to absent himself.

As that comparison suggests, Francis’s direct methods are not always calculated to win friends and influence people. Even the friendliest curial officials in his audience last December may have felt battered by their boss, whatever the pope’s intentions. No pope, however charismatic, can change the church alone: they need the help of their civil servants. For as they say in Rome, popes come and go, but the Curia is immortal.