The Vatican after Francis: Has the Pope Met His Mandate for Change?

September 24, 2015
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by Jason M. Breslow Digital Editor

Pope Francis listens to applause before addressing a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Pope Francis’ arrival in the United States this week has focused the nation’s attention on the man who two-and-a-half years ago became the spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

Francis inherited a church beset by scandal and many Americans are wondering what comes next. What has Francis done to reform the church? What do some of his early statements on issues like the environment and income inequality mean for the future of the faith? And what impact could his address to Congress on Thursday — the first ever by a pontiff in U.S. history — have on the nation’s political landscape?

For the answer to some of these questions, FRONTLINE spoke recently with John Thavis, the former Rome bureau chief for the Catholic News Service. Thavis is the author of The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church, and the recently released follow-up, The Vatican Prophecies: Investigating Supernatural Signs, Apparitions, and Miracles in the Modern Age.

The pope has arrived in the U.S. after only two-and-a-half years at the Vatican. He inherited a long list of problems and set out on a pretty ambitious reform agenda it seems. What have we learned about him so far?

I think we’ve learned first of all that he’s very determined. A lot of popes have been elected and come in with vague ideas of instituting reforms. I think Pope Francis came in with a mandate to institute reforms, and he’s taken it very seriously. And I think to a great degree he’s had a level of success that no previous pope has really enjoyed.

I would say that his greatest accomplishment so far in the area of reform has been bringing transparency and accountability to the Vatican’s financial operation.

In a sense that was the easiest task facing him, because he had the most support for that. Although there was some Vatican resistance, in this day and age it’s kind of hard to resist the idea of transparency in financial operations, and it’s hard to resist the idea that the Vatican bank and other entities should be in line with international guidelines and regulations.

The pope has also strengthened money-laundering laws. He’s strengthened the role of the Vatican’s financial authority. He’s reformed the Vatican bank with barely a whimper. He’s closed down thousands of accounts. They now have regular audited reports by external auditors, which had never been done before, so these are huge moves for any pope, and to have done all that in two-and-a-half years is remarkable.

The sex abuse crisis is obviously another of the major scandals he inherited. How has Francis responded and has it been enough to satisfy victims?

What Pope Francis has done is primarily two things, and they’re both very important. He’s set up a sex abuse commission at the Vatican and really empowered them to give real concrete advice, [to] advance proposals. The novelty here was that more than half of them I believe were lay people.

The second thing he did was he acted on their proposals. He set up a tribunal at the Vatican that will be holding bishops to account for their actions regarding sex abuse cases, so if a bishop is thought to have been negligent by his own faithful, the Vatican has now invited Catholics to please report him.

On the other hand, he’s had individual cases where bishops have seemingly flown under the radar. There was a case in Chile, and a couple of other cases where still, abuse victim organizations have faulted the pope for not making the right decision. I think in general, though, most of the groups that represent abuse victims have been very encouraged by what the pope has done.

Another big theme has been reforming the Vatican’s massive bureaucracy, the Curia. A few of the things we learned from the VatiLeaks scandal is that before Francis, there was cronyism in the Curia, there were power struggles over the super-secretive Vatican bank, and even a campaign to undermine the Vatican’s secretary of state. What has the pope done to turn this culture around?

On the whole broader reform of the Roman Curia, things are moving more slowly than on financial reform, but they are moving.

His first move was to name a [advisory] council of nine cardinals, all of whom except one work outside the Vatican. So he immediately moved the framework of the discussion outside the Vatican bureaucracy. He did not, as previous popes have done, ask a bureaucracy to reform itself.

There is a waiting game here going on in terms of Curia reform. We don’t know exactly how all the pieces are going to fit together, but in the meantime this pope really doesn’t have much to do with the Roman Curia offices and that alone sends a huge message.

The people who are working in the Roman Curia, they feel like the pope has done an end-run around them, and they feel ignored. About the worst thing you could do if you’re a Roman Curia official is have the pope ignore you, so even while he is reforming the structures, I sense that there’s something else at play here.

I think that in those two areas where he’s made the deepest reforms, the pope has acted — and really has been forced to act — by instituting a whole new level of bureaucracy. These secretariats that now kind of stand over other existing structures, I think he’s found it easier to do that than to try to suppress an existing Vatican agency. That may come later.

Beyond these reforms, he definitely seems to have his gaze on the future, and here I’m thinking of his decision to appoint something like three dozen new cardinals, but only a fraction of them are from Europe. What should we make of this?

That definitely is another area where he’s conducting a reform policy through appointments. He’s reaching out to what he calls the periphery of the church.

That, down the road, is going to make a huge difference because the expectation of a cardinal’s hat is no longer a given if you have a major archdiocese, and if you look at the geography [of major] archdioceses, you see that most of them are centered in Europe and in big cities in countries like the United States. In the developing world, the major archdioceses that are large in number don’t have the same kind of representation in the College of Cardinals. Again he’s adopting a whole different attitude here.

I mean half of the College of Cardinals is still European, and if he wants to change that balance he’s got to do exactly what he’s doing.

In terms of lasting influence, to a large degree it depends on how long he’s pope. I think he will have named the majority of voting-age cardinals somewhere down the line in another two or three years. So it’s not going to be immediate. And although this pope goes around saying, “Oh I probably wont be here too much longer,” I don’t quite believe that and I think he probably wants to stay in office for as long as his health permits.

If more cardinals are coming from the developing world then, what might that mean for the future of the church?

Most, if not all of them, seem to be on the pope’s wavelength when it comes to social justice. I mean, I was in Rome, I went around and talked to practically all of these cardinals, at least exchanged a few words, and they all said basically what Pope Francis was saying: The role of a cardinal is to be close to his people. We need to have a church that works for the suffering. We need to have a church that’s for poor people. And I think Pope Francis is vetting these folks very, very carefully. I don’t think it’s just because they’re from say a developing country that they get the cardinal’s hat.

These are people who’ve worked in the slums of their cities — like in Uruguay, I remember talking to the man, he works in the barrios, and the guy from Panama who had been involved in indigenous concerns over mining concessions. The new cardinal from Mexico was one of the more forceful leaders on immigration and drug violence. And so these are people who the pope, even if he may not have a personal relationship, he’s done his research on them clearly.

How should Catholics in the U.S. think about Francis then? There are conservatives who say his positions on issues like the environment or income inequality show he’s too progressive. Then there are liberals who say his stance on issues like abortion or women in the church shows he’s not progressive enough. Is it an either/or?

Inside the church he’s certainly striking progressive notes when it comes to economic policies and the church’s social teaching. His big concern is poverty in the world and the global economic system, the effect it’s having on people’s livelihood and on their spirits. And so I think there’s no question that if we put everything on the spectrum of left, right, center, on most of the issues he’s to the left of center certainly.

On the other hand, this is a pope who’s not going to go and change church doctrine. That is not his role. He’s made it clear in some cases where his limits are — no to women’s ordination, for example. Likewise, marriage for him will always be between a man and a woman. He’s not going to change the church’s definition of that and for some people those are the litmus tests.

But I think that for most people who are in the church, they don’t see it that way. I think they see him as a breath of fresh air and somebody who has moved away from this focus on doctrine and Catholic identity and culture wars to a much more open and engaging invitational sort of message. And so I think when he’s in the United States, we’re going to see in a sense a less political pope then we might be imagining right now because I think he’s going to talk about the church’s role in reaching out to the poor and the suffering. He’s going to talk about the throwaway culture and make sure that people understand he’s against that. I don’t think he’s going to go down a legislative checklist, and I think his message is primarily going to be spiritual.

To that point, how much can any one pontiff even shape the political debate?

He didn’t come here to endorse a candidate, that’s for sure, but I think it’s going to be natural after the pope gives his speech, and then leaves the country, that people will be then turning to people who are candidates for office and asking, “Where do you line up on these issues? Does what the pope says about income inequality resonate with you or not?”

Same with climate change. Same with immigration policies, which I think is going to be a huge issue in his speeches, and so I think there will be fallout. I think that it’s going to force politicians to squirm a little bit because they’re going to have to say, “Look I disagree with the pope,” or “I totally agree with him” or somewhere in between. I think he will become a kind of standard measure on some of these issues against which politicians might be held.

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