When Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected to fill the Chair of St. Peter nine years ago, no one imagined the chair as having wheels. Lately though, Pope Francis has been seen more often in a wheelchair than on a gilded throne — a mobility impairment that has been sparking speculation about yet another papal resignation. The prospect of Francis joining Benedict VI as a second pope emeritus has set the tongues of Vatican rumormongers wagging, but at this point the insider whispers remain baseless speculation. Still, the apparently declining health and advanced age of Pope Francis (he is 85) do suggest that he is entering the twilight of his papacy, a time when a look back at the significance of his rule can seem appropriate.
Any assessment of this pontificate must begin with the astoundingly positive impact Bergoglio has had on the church and broader world simply by virtue — not just of his attractive personality, but of his palpable goodness. The extraordinary outpouring of affection from all across the globe that first greeted him upon his election has not really faded, even as the challenges of his position have inevitably complicated how he is viewed. Early on, the new pope’s evident charisma was soon reinforced by actions and statements that promised a world-changing pontificate, and in important ways, he delivered on that promise. Following Catholic tradition, he opposed abortion and may support the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, but he never made that a major focus. Instead, Francis became the steadfast champion of beleaguered migrants, an advocate of tolerance for the discriminated-against, a critic of xenophobic populism, a fierce opponent of the free-market capitalism that impoverishes legions, a proponent of climate change mitigation, a defender of science, a staunch critic of war.
Such advocacy earned Francis enemies, especially within the Church, which is undergoing its own culture war. Samurai bureaucrats in the Roman Curia, the Vatican’s governance structure, have slow-walked the pope’s efforts not only to streamline administration but to clean up financial corruptions. Late this summer, Francis will lay out what his reformed Curia will look like — a transformation that will include the possible appointment of lay people and women as office heads. Of course, some Catholics, including bishops and cardinals, who still firmly reject the efforts at reform that were begun a generation ago at the Second Vatican Council, have greeted his initiatives with open criticism, even defiance.
But on the most pressing challenge facing the Roman Catholic Church, Francis has, alas, been a defender of the dysfunctional status quo, not an advocate of urgently needed reform. Upon his election, Francis was first confronted with the moral self-destruction of a church riven by unending scandals of priests abusing children and bishops protecting predators instead of victims. The corruptions of clericalism — a male-only, celibate priesthood at the service not of the Gospel or of the people, but of the hierarchy’s imperial power — had been laid bare for the world to see. Clericalism, rooted in supernatural claims made for the Catholic priest, setting him apart from and above all others, was the generating source of the sacrilegious clerical transgressions. Power was the issue, and still is. And Francis ultimately dodged the fight.
Nothing else compared with the new pope’s obligation to deal with the lawlessness infecting the priesthood and the hierarchy, and with his 2019 declaration Vos Estis Lux Mundi (“You Are the Light of the World”), he was saluted by the church establishment for doing just that. But the decree’s fatal flaws in its response to the cover-up of priestly abuse of children and others were soon apparent: Its new structures of accountability required no public disclosure, mandated no reporting to civil authorities unless civil law requires it, and failed to require any participation of the laity in the adjudication of the crimes of priests and bishops. The most obvious (and cleric-protecting) of the Vos Estis defects is that it mandates ecclesiastical self-policing: bishops investigating fellow-bishops; reporting of priest-crimes not to civil authorities but to long-complicit church offices; the Vatican alone determining punishments. Who knows how many complicit prelates have been disciplined in any way under this policy? Three years on, with Vos Estis’ trial period having ended on June 1, the Vatican has disclosed nothing about bishops investigated, charged or punished under its procedures. Omerta rules.
Pope Francis has decried clericalism, the igniting malignancy, but he has done nothing to uproot its sources in the sexually repressive all-male priesthood, and in the authoritarian system of ecclesiastical power to which that clerical culture is essential. And Francis has done nothing to reckon with the misogyny that lies at the heart of Catholic teaching on everything from birth control to the biology of reproduction to the purpose of marriage. Inhuman notions of sexuality, originating in misreadings of the Adam and Eve story and reinforced by theologians like St. Augustine, are at the service of female subjugation. Such male supremacy is morally equivalent to white supremacy. Yet, by church officials and most Catholics, it remains unchallenged.
Francis has called the topic of women’s ordination a “closed door,” and has said a resounding “No!” to married priests. When, for example, the bishops of the pan-Amazon region voted overwhelmingly in 2019 to ask him to admit married deacons to the priesthood as a way of overcoming the region’s severe shortage of priests, Francis declined even to answer the request. The bishops of the Amazon, that is, presented him with a golden opportunity to take a step, albeit a small one, toward the dismantling of the toxic culture of clericalism — an opportunity arising from below, addressing a severe pastoral problem, and advancing a diaconate, a subsidiary form of holy orders, that his immediate predecessors had already put forward as an instrument of change. Indeed, this approach could have also opened the way to the admission of women to the ranks of the ordained. But Francis left the all-male, celibate priesthood intact, and with it the soul of clericalism — the pyramid of ecclesiastical power, the structure of abuse.
Here is the tragic irony: What the world most needed from Jorge Mario Bergoglio when he donned the fabled white cassock nine years ago was not his empathetic intervention in secular matters, however urgent, but his firm advancing of reforms within the Catholic Church. Failing in that, he reinforces within Catholicism the very trends and values he most opposes outside it. Francis rails against inequality, yet inequality defines the church’s being. He is the tribune of the poor, but in protecting the second-class status of women, he upholds a worldwide engine of poverty.
In the years since Francis became pope, democracy itself has come under unprecedented siege. Even the United States is proving vulnerable to this peril. The reforms begun by Pope John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council represented a long-in-coming attempt by the Catholic Church to reconcile itself to democratic values. That was powerfully symbolized by changes in the Catholic Mass, now celebrated in everyday languages rather than Latin, and centered not on high altars but tables. Patriarchy began to give way to — yes — democracy. But for that very reason, the movement was thwarted by power-protecting prelates. Their obstruction has continued unabated for half a century.
If Francis had actually revitalized those well-begun church reforms — equality for women and men, an empowered laity, a sacramental ministry of service instead of domination — he would have emerged as what the world most needs right now, a prophet of democratic commonwealth. Think of it: more than a billion Catholics, crossing every boundary on the planet, fully enlisted at last — by virtue of the renewed structures of their own institution — in the struggle for human equality, enshrined in self-government. Rooted less in a modern dream of democratic liberalism than in the spirit of radical solidarity first seen in Jesus Christ, this would be a religious retrieval more than a political revolution. Instead, the Catholic Church, in its die-hard shoring up of clerical power, is stuck on the wrong side of the 21st century’s great moral demand.
That a courageous figure like Pope Francis has so far failed in this large responsibility lays bare the deep dysfunction of clericalism, which is killing the church and betraying Jesus Christ. The pope’s hesitations are signs of the pressure he has been under, not just from his reactionary enemies, but from his own lifetime in the priesthood. He is a prisoner of the clericalism he denounces in principle, but not practice. Given the scale of his willful refusal, one has to wonder: Is this man simply an autocrat at heart?
Those who love Pope Francis should still pray that this complicated figure resolves his ambivalence in favor of change even in his dwindling papacy, however it concludes. But that such transformation was within his grasp at all, across these nine years, offers a kind of hope. After all, Francis will have appointed a significant majority of those cardinals empowered to elect his successor. Though it’s hardly likely, the best of his spirit could live on. That will depend, however, more on the will of the people than on the resolve of the clerics. Inspired by what the pope from Argentina once promised, doggedly faithful Catholics, embracing an anti-clericalism from within, can insist on the fulfillment of that promise yet. The humble, egalitarian and profoundly hopeful elan with which Pope Francis began may still be the church’s guiding light, moving forward.