Monday, March 23, 2015

"What kind of reformer is Francis?"

That's the question they are asking over at National Catholic Reporter. Well, not really. What they have done is written a piece intended to mollify those who are getting discouraged because Francis has been pope for two years now and so far has only made stylistic changes.

The key line in the NCR piece is this one:
Reform of the Curia, however, remains at a homiletic level.
That's a deliberately obscure way of saying that Francis has talked a lot but he hasn't actually done much. And that theme runs through the article: it discusses changes of style and not of substance. In fact, the only concrete reforms that the article can point to are the establishment of "meaningful checks and balances" for Vatican finances and the creation of committees. It pains me to have to say this, but those are the classic moves of a bureaucrat seeking to create the illusion of doing something.

And now he is preparing some sort of pastoral communication on the environment. You know, if I was a corrupt member of the Curia desperately trying to protect my entrenched privileges, I'd be strenuously advising him to busy himself about the environment.

Meanwhile, there is the job the cardinals elected him to do.
Francis was also selected by his peers to accomplish reforms closer to home, particularly of a Curia and a clerical culture that had become so distorted that leaders brazenly betrayed the community and the Gospel in crises ranging from the horrors of sexual abuse of children to more prosaic financial scandals.
Make no mistake: that is the only standard by which this papacy will be judged. There are two aspects here. The first is an internal concern: the cardinals are more and more embarrassed by the bureaucratic juggernaut that keeps undermining the church. They want the problem fixed and, please note this, the only meaningful way to begin such a task would be to make the bureaucracy a whole lot smaller than it currently is and make it a  whole lot easier  to actually fire people who mess up. The implementation of "meaningful checks and balances" is just style, firing people is substance. And not just in Rome: the church is overly bureaucratized right down to the diocesan level. The second is the thing that has us ordinary people in the pews exercised. We fully understand that there will always be bad people in the church. What we don't want to see is a church hierarchy that is more interested in protecting these bad people than it is in protecting children and earning the trust of the people who put their hard-earned dollars in the collection basket.

On both those fronts, Pope Francis has done nothing significant. Yet.

Yet! Nothing would please me more than to have to write a follow up post someday in which I have to eat these words and admit that I'd completely underestimated Pope Francis.

(I'd note in passing that the second issue of restoring the trust lost through sex abuse and financial scandals is tied to the vocation crisis. Yes, there was an existing clericalism and culture of secrecy that made the scandals possible but the fear of losing yet more priests from a rapidly declining base also played a part. The lack of vocations also helped create the bureaucratic juggernaut: when leaders can't depend on front-line decision makers, their own priests in this instance, they will expand the bureaucracy because that is the only thing they can do. )

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