Pope Francis has history, but not time, on his side in reform push

Pope Francis arrives to lead a Mass during his pastoral visit to the parish of Santa Maria Madre del Redentore in Rome on March 8.
Pope Francis arrives to lead a Mass during his pastoral visit to the parish of Santa Maria Madre del Redentore in Rome on March 8. REUTERS

Can the Roman Catholic Church change? And if so, how? And what’s on the table – traditions, rites, doctrine, none of the above?

Such fundamental questions go to the heart of Catholic identity, and they’re the same questions Pope Francis has raised almost since the moment he was elected two years ago March 13, a dark horse candidate who became the first pontiff from Latin America.

When he shunned the apostolic palace for a modest apartment, or cold-called people who wrote to him with problems, Francis’ humble approach endeared him to the masses. Yet he also surprised – maybe stunned – Catholics by encouraging open debate, especially about church teachings and practices that had long been considered out of bounds.

“A basic general condition is this: to speak clearly. No one must say: ‘This can’t be said; he will think of me this way or that,’” Francis told bishops from around the world last summer at a high-level Vatican summit on issues facing the modern family. “It is necessary to say everything that is felt” with candor.

That kind of openness and straight talk is also central to Francis’ enormous public appeal. But Francis’ glasnost – so revolutionary in the context of the recent history of the papacy – has also sparked fierce opposition on the Catholic right, with some high-profile prelates and pundits vowing to thwart reforms and resist any changes in pastoral practice.

The intensity of the opposition raises a basic question at Francis’ two-year mark: Can his reform campaign outlast his papacy?

Unlike the resistance to reforms within the church’s Roman bureaucracy, the backlash on anything touching doctrine is wider, deeper and more visceral because it cuts to the marrow of Catholicism. Indeed, the criticisms are so sharp that the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, an Italian Jesuit who is close to Francis, said he views the “anguish” of the pope’s foes “as more of a psychological problem” than a question of doctrine.

Francis’ emphasis on mercy “provokes in some Catholics a panic, the fear of a lack of certainty that stuns me,” said Spadaro, editor of the respected journal Civilta Cattolica.

The opposition percolated throughout Francis’ first year but boiled over at that Vatican family summit. It has continued unabated ever since and is likely to ramp up ahead of the pope’s September visit to the U.S., and then the second round of the Synod on the Family that will feature more debate – and possibly action – on issues of divorce, remarriage, cohabitation and the place of LGBT Catholics.

It’s an especially pressing concern for Francis’ allies, since the pontiff is 78.

So what can keep things from returning to the way they were for so long? As the Romans like to say, “That which a pope can do, another pope can undo.”


One factor in Francis’ favor could be the system he has created to foster openness and debate. Francis has revived and amplified the use of synods, the periodic meetings of bishops that were begun in the 1970s to create a collegial church. Instead, they became eye-glazing confabs that rubber-stamped conclusions foreordained by officials of the Roman Curia.

Francis is also gathering the College of Cardinals on a regular basis, using them as a sounding board, and he created a nine-member Council of Cardinals to advise him at meetings held every two months in Rome.


Another key to success for Francis’ program is appointing like-minded bishops and cardinals. As longtime Vatican-watcher John Thavis wrote, Francis is “working with a generally conservative hierarchy put in place by his two predecessors.”


A potential boost for Francis’ agenda in the future is his success now. Just as Benedict XVI’s papacy seemed doomed by a spiral of scandal and crisis, Francis’ legacy could be buoyed by his popularity, and if he can make concrete, visible reforms.


What is perhaps most critical to Francis’ efforts is acceptance of the idea that the church – and even doctrine – can change. History has shown the church changing on many occasions, something that popes as tradition-minded as Benedict have acknowledged.

“Theologically,” Spadaro said, “this is about the Incarnation” – the belief that God became man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. “If one takes seriously the Incarnation – that is, that God made himself part of history – it’s impossible to think of doctrine as fixed code that came down from heaven.”