Pope Francis: A Report Card

On March 13, 2013, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was elected Pope after the almost unprecedented and not much lamented resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.

The choice of Bergoglio was certainly surprising. Although he was a considered candidate back in 2005 and was rumoured to have been “runner-up” when Cardinal Ratzinger was elected, in 2013 he was not on the list of the dozen or so papabili.  He was 76; his letter of retirement, a requirement for all bishops 75 and older, was awaiting approval in a Vatican office; and he had already picked out where he would live out the rest of his life—an old-age home for priests in his birthplace, the city of Flores in Argentina.

While he may be elected - albeit by a very limited constituency, the College of Cardinals - the Pope is a monarch and an absolute monarch at that. The sovereign of the Vatican City State holds sway over more than 1.2 billion souls, and plays a very significant role in world affairs. So perhaps it was not surprising that Time magazine named Pope Francis its 2013 Person of the Year, “the person or persons who most affected the news and our lives, for good or ill, and embodied what was important about the year.” The election of any pope is newsworthy and the election of Francis was more newsworthy than most.

So, on the eve of his first anniversary in the job, can we venture to give the new pope a report card on his performance?  

Certainly he did not waste very much time in signalling that his papacy was going to be different. He prefers a simple priestly robe to the gold and brocade that popes normally wear, he prefers his sturdy orthotics to the traditional red shoes and he lives in the more humble guest house rather than the grand papal apartment.

Many of his other actions and pronouncements also indicate that here is a very new broom doing a lot of sweeping. His choice of name, Francis, indicates that he wants to turn the church from one obsessed with riches and doctrine to what he called “a field hospital after battle” – a church which embraces the poor, the broken, the lonely and rejected.

Francis may portray himself as a humble man but he is a very canny operator. He knows how to use the media to convey his message. He is portrayed washing the feet of female convicts, embracing a man with a disfigured face, making softened statements about abortion, homosexuality and divorce, phoning Church members in foreign countries who are facing personal problems. In a well-publicised manoeuvre he apparently ordered a “period of leave” for the flamboyant Bishop of Limberg, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, following his extravagant spending on a new house. Francis has also moved to clean up the corrupt and messy affairs of the Vatican Bank. Soon after he was elected he named a special commission to investigate the bank, leading to an independent audit and the issuing of an annual report for the first time in the bank’s 125 years.

There are many more indications that Francis might be a reforming pope, with a deep concern for the poor which goes much further than beneficent charity and addresses poverty and suffering as injustices which must be rectified. In his first apostolic exhortation he directly attacked capitalism and globalisation, saying:

“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This ­opinion … has never been confirmed by the facts.”

He added that he was obliged in the name of Christ to remind everyone that “the rich must help, respect and promote the poor”.

In April 2013 he formed a group of eight cardinals from around the world to “advise him on the government of the universal church” and “to study a project of revision” of the Roman Curia.

All this sounds as though I should be giving Francis very high marks indeed on his report card – but I cannot.

It is true that extravagance in the Catholic Church is, and has been a problem for a very long time. Many people, Catholics as well as Protestants are sickened by the ostentatious displays of riches in much of the church while many of its parishioners are among the world’s poorest people. Many people, including mainstream bankers, are appalled by the corruption and criminality rife in the Vatican Bank. Many people have yearned for some acknowledgement of the human suffering surrounding the Church’s hardline policies on abortion, contraception, divorce and homosexuality. Any attempts to address and remedy these problems deserve considerable credit.

And yet – by far the most challenging dilemma facing Francis as Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, Servant of the servants of God, is not the extravagance of some bishops, not corruption and criminality in the Vatican Bank, nor yet the appalling poverty of much of the world’s population. The primary moral challenge facing the Catholic Church and Francis as its sovereign, is the devastating suffering occasioned by the abusive actions, including sexual abuse of children, by priests and nuns and monks over many, many decades.

On this matter, at best, there has been an almost deafening silence from Rome.  At worst there has been more deft coverup or blatant obstruction.

It is true that on December 5, 2013, the pope’s group of eight cardinals named a new commission on sex abuse. The commission is charged with studying better ways to protect children, developing screening processes for programmes that involve children, and choosing priests to lead them. Apparently this commission will lay down a new set of best practices for all dioceses to follow. As the Church has been maintaining for years that it already had put in place adequate safeguards against abuse, creating this commission is a striking admission (though only by implication) that its previous claims in this area were false.  It remains to be seen whether the commission will be able to do the serious work the Church needs in this area, or will be another fig-leaf deployed during a decades-long history of cover-up aimed at protecting the church rather than the abused.

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), the leading United States-based support group for clergy abuse victims, called the news a disappointment that reflected badly on the new pope. David Clohessy, executive director of the group, said that a new discussion panel is “the last thing that the kids need”. He went on to say, “Church officials have mountains of information about those who have committed and those who are concealing horrible child sex crimes and cover-ups. They just have to give that information to the police.”

Anne Barrett Doyle, the co-director of BishopAccountability.org, an organization that has amassed an enormous collection of documents on the abuse problem in the church, expressed very cautious optimism: “It’s good that the Vatican will be giving this terrible problem high-level and focused attention, but we are concerned that the commission will be toothless and off-target.”

The Vatican does not need a commission on this subject. Surely the Church has the best guidelines already. Simply, no adult should ever, ever be engaged in any sexual activity with children or with any other adult who is under duress.  And at this late stage in the child abuse crisis, if the Pope does not know already what he should do then no commission is going to be able to spell it out for him.

Francis knows that the Vatican is harbouring criminals. He needs to make all relevant records available to the civil authorities so that proper criminal proceedings can be brought against abusers who are still alive and so that remedies may be offered to survivors whether their abusers are alive or dead.

If Francis is serious about wanting the Catholic Church to truly serve the poor and the weak and suffering ones, he needs to use his almost absolute power within the church to say unreservedly that sexual abuse of parishioners, children or adults, will no longer be tolerated and that any priest accused of such behaviour will be reported to police and if found guilty will be summarily expelled from the priesthood.

Only when he has done these things will I be able to take Francis seriously as a reforming pope. Until then my report card has to say, “Could do better, much better”.