It should not only be Catholics who think the Pope is an important global leader today. In a world where the behaviour of powerful heads of state justifies retrieving the label “moral hazard” from the economists, an international figure who can, and does, speak truth to power, who tries to model the virtuous life, and speaks to 1.25 billion followers, should be listened to and taken seriously.
Yes, sexual abuse has gravely eroded the moral authority of the Catholic Church and changed popular perceptions of it. The failure for many years of episcopal leadership to understand the profound damage caused to children by sexually predatory priests, their overriding concern to “protect the Church” and prioritise forgiveness for perpetrators over safeguarding, is an abiding scandal. That this kind of response is shared with other large institutions is no excuse. Whilst bishops were in denial or “protecting the Church” in dereliction of their duty to children, secular society was tightening up its protection of children, a special focus of divine love in Christian teaching.
Pope Francis inherited the child abuse scandal. For some time, it seems, he could not believe that prominent colleagues had behaved so wickedly. This was a bad mistake, one which he has admitted and has tried with limited success to rectify. He has not been helped by the continued revelations of bishops’ failure to act rightly when faced by the criminality of members of their clergy, nor by trials of high level clerical perpetrators. Blame clericalism, solidarity of a religious officer class if you like - and clericalism certainly facilitated this conduct - it was a tragic betrayal of the values promoted by Catholicism.
Sexual scandals are not the Pope’s only troubles. He has another Pope, the former Benedict XVI, in his back garden. The title “Emeritus”, as if Benedict had just retired from the University of Tubingen, doesn’t help, though the Church does have some emeritus archbishops. Inevitably Benedict’s emeritus presence, with his refined, academic theological insight, provided the Catholic critics of Pope Francis, not least in the Curia, the Vatican’s central government, with a focus for their opposition to his conduct of the papacy. Unlike Benedict, Francis does not steadfastly promote rigid doctrinal positions. But his critics demand public intellectual assent to the truths of the faith as they see them. The Pope’s idea of leadership is to model the imitation of Christ. His critics snipe away at his openness to change, his emphasis on social justice, and openly attack him in the manner of a political faction. The first to demand loyalty to the former Pope, they have been the first to show disloyalty to the present one.
Francis would have none of this. In his tweets he refers constantly to God’s love and forgiveness. He believes the place of the Christian is living on the periphery, beside the poor and rejected, open to the pain of divorced Catholics unable to receive Communion, and of gay people in Church circles experiencing subtle, and not-so-subtle forms of clerical rejection. For him the human person is the focus of the Church’s concern. I watched him shake hands with 300 people after a Vatican conference, dog-tired People are his priority. His visits to migrant detention centres, his invitations into the Vatican of the homeless, the washing and kissing the feet of prisoners in Rome’s Regina Coeli prison, emphasise his preaching of God’s love. He is not playacting.
Pope Francis’s message of compassion for the poor and marginalised is meant for the whole world as his recent visits to Mauritius, Madagascar and Mozambique demonstrate. He goes to the periphery following the biblical prophetic tradition. “Listen to this, you who trample on the needy and try to suppress the poor people of the country” (Amos 8:4).
But the Curia sees itself as at the throbbing heart of Rome, is at the Church’s authoritarian centre, and had seen off many former Popes who tried to reform it. As the recent BBC programme “Inside the Vatican” captures so well, the Vatican is far too human to neatly fit the stereotype of bureaucracy. But its formal culture, precious, nuanced language and affectations, often belie this humanity.
Pope Francis does not hesitate to speak truth to Curial power, does not mince his words both off-the-cuff and in allocutions, and often forgets that bees come to honey. Clergy in the Vatican City State on the west bank of the Tiber may need to encounter the “smell of the sheep” – Francis’ call for them to act always with pastoral concern - but their work offers them little chance to do so. It is probably no exaggeration to say that some Curial officials hate him. He appears independent of Vatican structures alien to him, as if has spent five years, as one friend put it, riding someone else’s bicycle.
So why should the secular world listen to Pope Francis? Simply because, at this time of international crisis, he is an outstanding counter-cultural leader with a steady moral compass and vision. Politically this has meant conflict, nowhere more than in his support for migrants and asylum seekers. Then there is Laudato Si, his second encyclical published in June 2015, which puts the Church in support of the scientific evidence for climate change. Laudato Si has already mobilised Catholics around the world in pursuit of climate change prevention and provided a distinctive backing for Christian participation in the global movement. Francis has denounced the “blind and destructive mentality” of those burning the Amazon rain forest. The populist President Jair Bolsonaro now has his Agência Braziliera de Intêlligencia, ABIN, keeping a careful eye on what he calls the “leftist and liberationist” Brazilian bishops involved in the Amazon Synod in Rome. Saving the planet and his option for the poor means conflict with powerful forces.
Pope Francis’s recent appointments as Cardinals demonstrate his commitment to improving relations with Muslim communities: Lancashire-born Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, fluent Arabic speaker, member of the missionary Society of Africa, the White Fathers, and former President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue (PCID), removed by Pope Benedict, now working in St. Vincent de Paul parish in Liverpool; the Spanish historian of Islam, Bishop Miguel Ayuso, currently President of the PCID, and Archbishop Cristobal Lopez of Rabat where Catholics make up only 0.1% of the country’s predominantly Muslim population. Such appointments represent commitment to eliminate prejudice and bigotry which endanger peace.
For the many who seek in vain an antidote to the rise of populism, with its orchestration and amplification of hatred, suspicion and fear, the Pope’s is a voice which speaks from and to the heart, reaching beyond the arcane language of Catholic theology and ethics into “the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties” of the current age. The Pope’s is a voice that has not been muted or silenced by the dreadful scandal of sexual abuse, as has the voice of so many bishops. Nor should it be. Pope Francis does not just speak to and belong to Catholics. He intends his message of love and compassion, which is far more than vague exhortation, for the whole of humanity.