Canon Lawyer: Five Years On: The Paradox of Francis’s Papacy

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Photo:  Pope Francis waves to pilgrims during his first Angelus address on March 17, 2013 (Getty)

The Pope tried to bypass Vatican norms in pursuit of reform. How far has he succeeded?

By Ed Condon, Catholic Herald, 

This week marks the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’s election. His appearance on the loggia above St Peter’s was a shock to almost everyone. He was not the Pope we were expecting. The world scrambled to catch up, and it took a few hours. In Washington DC, where I was at the time, the initial description of Jorge Mario Bergolio given by the ultra-liberal National Public Radio was that he was a hyper-conservative authoritarian who probably had far-right sympathies in Argentina.

But it did not take long for everyone to realise we had a new Pope with a different style. Right from his famous “good evening” from the loggia, the first days of his pontificate refreshed the image of the papacy as he settled his hotel bill in person and announced he would remain at the Domus Sanctae Marthae guest house instead of moving into the Apostolic Palace.

This somewhat demonstrative humility charmed the world’s press. They hailed him as the simple priest from the far side of the world who would blow through the stale Vatican corridors like a cleansing wind. It was a hope many shared.

It is easy to forget just what a cloud Pope Benedict XVI resigned under. After two instalments of the Vatileaks scandals and the constant background noise of financial corruption and mafia-esque cliques in the curia, Pope Benedict commissioned an enquiry into Vatican governance. The final report, which was for meant his eyes only, supposedly confirmed him in his intention to resign and hand the Herculean task of reform over to a new pope.

The initial signs suggested that Francis was the man for the job. The world expected the new outsider Pope to focus on curial reform, and he seemed ready to think and act on a grand scale. A slew of new committees and departments were created, all of them expressly directed towards wholesale reform.

Francis formed the Council of Cardinals (C9) with the aim of reviewing and renewing not just curial operations but also the Vatican’s entire governing constitution. He created a new Council and Prefecture for the Economy, as well as the Office of the Auditor General, and gave Cardinal George Pell, himself a determined reformer, a mandate to clean up the finances.

Benedict XVI had brought the Church through the worst of the sexual abuse crisis and, thanks to his unflinching willingness to confront past failings and force others to do so, he had seen through significant changes to canon law to prevent any repetition. Conscious of the need to bring about cultural change to accompany legal reform, Francis established the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and placed the unimpeachable Cardinal Séan O’Malley of Boston at its head.

Just before the family synod in 2015, Francis issued the apostolic letter Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus, which reformed the process for handling cases of marriage nullity, offering a simpler and faster process for couples with clear-cut cases, and reaffirming that couples in irregular situations needed to be guided to marriage tribunals to have the truth of their situation examined.

Throughout, Francis made good on his intention to remain outside the grasp of handlers and schedulers. He eschewed not only the apartments of the Apostolic Palace, but also the office routine that went along with them. Rather than rely on regular formal meetings with department heads, the Pope preferred informal, even spontaneous encounters in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, and otherwise kept himself to a small circle of advisers both inside and outside the official curia.

As his media image and reach arguably surpassed that of any of his predecessors, he seemed to wear his celebrity lightly, admitting that he had not watched television since 1990, did not use the internet and only read one newspaper a day. He took to holding impromptu press conferences on the papal plane before and after foreign trips, and seemed ready to speak off the cuff in a way no previous pope ever had. It was a style well suited to his message of openness and engagement: this was a pope who wanted to see the Church reach out.

If we could stop here, we might conclude that Francis was the towering reformer we were promised, delivering on every hope we had for him. But, of course, this is not where the story ends. For all the fanfare surrounding new Vatican departments and commissions aimed at cleaning up the curia, the corruption seems, if anything, worse than ever.

From the beginning, Cardinal Pell found himself fighting against vested interests, both personal and structural. While the cardinal had to return to Australia last year, in reality his authority to effect real reform was lost in 2016, when the independent audit of the Vatican finances by PwC was cancelled by the Vatican Secretariat of State. The decision was taken without reference to the Prefecture for the Economy – behind Pell’s back. Yet in all the Prefecture’s work, including the audit, Pell was responsible directly to the Holy Father and not answerable to the Secretariat of State. But before he could respond, the act had been taken to the Pope, who had retroactively approved it.

This was the first example of a disturbing tactic which, under Pope Francis, has become almost routine. A Vatican official who finds himself in a corner, overreaching himself or flat-out in the wrong, can avoid being held to account by getting the Pope to sign off and place the matter beyond appeal. This is a manoeuvre that’s been deployed more than once by the Secretariat of State, most flagrantly in the putsch it backed against the leadership of the Knights of Malta, which breached both canon and international law. Other departments have followed suit.


Even as Pope Francis insists on the ongoing need for sweeping reform, as he did again in his address to the Curia last December, the rule of law is breaking down around his ears. Yet, as was also made clear in that address, he does not seem to be aware of it.

Along with many other observers, I believe that Pope Francis neither condones nor is even properly informed of the scandalous behaviour at the Vatican – at least, until it is too late. By isolating himself from the ordinary mechanisms of governance in favour of a “free-range” style of pontificate, Francis has made it far easier than perhaps he realises for people to operate in his blind spots.

As a result of his insulation from both the traditional mechanisms of keeping the pope informed and from the wider media, the Pope’s inner circle have an effective monopoly over what Francis sees and hears. This is something of which they are well aware.

It has become a more or less open secret that, if you have the right friends, the way to get something done in the Vatican is to just get on and do it, then ask for the Pope’s forgiveness, rather than his permission.

The inner circle’s monopoly is strengthened by Francis’s impatience with long formal meetings. He much prefers brief personal chats and informal briefings, cutting out the formerly regular official updates the pope would receive.

But this aversion to the formal way of doing things is personal as much as structural: five years into his reign, Pope Francis is still suspicious of – and reportedly even downright hostile towards – many of the curial rank and file whom he suspects of not being supportive of him. There is no shortage of stories of relatively minor officials getting a phone call from the Pope, or being hauled before their superiors, for a hint of disloyalty.

This style of governance has consequences. When he was still head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Cardinal Gerhard Müller was ordered point blank by the Pope to sack three of his best officials. There was no explanation given, or any indication that the Pope even knew what jobs the men had; they simply had to go. Müller protested that they were some of the most capable staff he had and were crucial to clearing the still mountainous backlog of abuse cases handled by the CDF. But it didn’t matter.

If continued financial corruption and curial dysfunction are bad, the re-emergence of sexual abuse scandals has been devastating. Cases like that of Mauro Inzoli, a paedophile who at one point appealed successfully to Francis not to be laicised, underscored how the Pope’s good intentions are abused by those around him, who seem to have sought clemency for friends in the same way they secure approval for questionable acts of governance.

For all the good will behind it, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors has had a frustrating time. Two of its highest profile members, themselves survivors of sexual abuse, left the commission. One of them, Peter Saunders, did so expressing his frustration at the failure of Church authorities to pay due attention to emerging problems in South America. This very issue came back with a vengeance in the ongoing row over the Chilean Bishop Juan Barros, whom the Pope initially seemed to back to the hilt.


The opening towards Communion for the remarried has been the source of the fiercest contention during the last five years. Ever since the family synod in 2014, those who want to see a crack forced in the Church’s perennial teaching on marriage, sexuality and the natural law have been dreaming of a clear moment of victory which has never quite arrived.

First, it was going to be inserted into the the synod’s final report, but that was scuppered by the synod fathers. Then it was definitely going to be laid out clearly in the Pope’s post-synodal exhortation, but Amoris Laetitia went no further than a tortured footnote which could be read any number of ways. Then Francis was going to clarify it himself. But when he was asked directly if fully incorporating the divorced and remarried into the life of the parish meant they could take Communion, he said: “Being integrated into the Church does not mean ‘taking Communion’.”

Advocates have had to make do with attempts by various bishops’ conferences to “interpret” Amoris and get the Pope to publicly smile on these. It is a sly campaign of creeping change in practice, if never explicitly in theory. The problem for them is that, absent any actual change in Church teaching, the whole thing rests on the Pope’s tacit support, and therefore his personal credibility. Consequently, there is a whole section of the liberal Catholic establishment and media who cannot be made to notice any scandal, financial or sexual, which might suggest serious problems in Rome.


Despite Pope Francis’s clear desire for change, and for all the grand, structurally reforming moves of the last five years, it is hard to point to any measurable progress. In fact, things look worse, not better, in many cases. How is this possible?

The key to understanding Francis is his paradoxical style of governance. He wants to think big, give clear direction and leave it to others to carry through the minutiae. Yet he has kept himself apart, and even at odds with, the very structures and mechanisms which would allow him to work like this.

The small circle on which he has become dependent are far from the loyal friends he needs. Many are now enmeshed in scandals of their own, well past the age of retirement, freelancing their own agendas, or jockeying outright for position at the next conclave.

A zealous reformer and a conscientious, maybe even saintly, priest Francis may be, but as the head of a functioning government, he cuts an increasingly isolated figure. Cardinal Parolin recently spoke of curial reforms as “not so much a matter of structural reforms, with the promulgation of new laws, new norms, personnel appointments and so on. It’s more about the spirit.” That’s hardly the root and branch renewal we had hoped for.

If, as Francis has said, curial reform is “like cleaning the Egyptian sphinxes with a toothbrush”, he can be forgiven for the frustrating lack of progress in the last five years. But unless he dramatically changes the tools he is using for the job, there is little hope that the next five years will be any different.


Ed Condon is a canon lawyer and contributing editor of the Catholic Herald

This article first appeared in the March 9 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here