This year Francis must make one of the hardest choices any pope has faced for decades. Whatever he decides, there is likely to be great upheaval in the Church


A new year, in the Church as elsewhere, is a time to take stock of past progress and evaluate future prospects. In the Vatican, as the Christmas festivities recede and the activities of the Curia resume their normal pace, all eyes are on Pope Francis at the start of what promises to be a decisive 12 months of his pontificate.

In less than three months Francis will begin the fourth year of a reign which has been in many ways dramatic and unpredictable. The outgoing year has seen the nature of his theological and pastoral outlook become clearer and his vision and priorities for the governance of the Church have undoubtedly come into sharper focus.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, little known outside Argentina until March 13, 2013, at first baffled many papal commentators. Careful observation of his decisions and public statements, combined with testimonies from those who knew him of old, has by now enabled them to put together a reasonably coherent narrative without diminishing his capacity to surprise. In 2016, Francis faces decisions which will be crucial in giving to that narrative what may well become its definitive shape.

One thing clear from the start was that Francis was elected in part to satisfy a growing consensus among the cardinals that the Roman Curia needed deep and thorough reform. The declining years of St John Paul II had allowed the machinery of government in the Vatican – a complex body notoriously prone to allowing the intrigues of some to hinder its mission of service to the Pope and the wider Church – to become ever more resistant to reform.

Benedict XVI, always more of an intellectual than an administrator despite his long service at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had clearly not succeeded in his desire to reform the Curia by taking power out of the hands of the diplomats, who had previously been dominant, and favouring men of doctrine whom he knew and trusted. The resulting resentments only allowed factional infighting to burgeon, and led to accusations of incompetence and corruption in which it was all but impossible to disentangle the truth from self-serving slander.

Faced with the gigantic task of reform, Francis has chosen to go slowly. Some have voiced frustration at the apparent lack of progress so far. In the autumn the Pope announced the creation of a new “super-dicastery” whose remit is to cover family, laity and life issues, replacing the pontifical councils presently dealing with these question. This signalled that reform has moved beyond the stage of consulting and assessing and towards the concrete application of a reforming strategy based on rationalisation and streamlining.

The next step will probably be the announcement of a second new congregation dealing with matters of justice, peace and charity. Given that the first new Congregation is still awaiting the nomination of a Prefect and the establishment of its governing statutes, nobody should expect things to proceed at an accelerated pace.

The overweening influence of the Secretariat of State, whose dominant position has been unchallenged since the 1960s despite criticism of its methods and priorities, is unlikely now to be challenged. Indications are that plans to break up the Secretariat into separate congregations with responsibility for external affairs and internal management have now been definitively shelved. All the signs are that its power base within the Curia will be secured and consolidated in 2016.

Pope Francis clearly believes that reforming structures will be useless until there is a corresponding reshaping of mentalities. He ended 2014 with a swingeing attack on the spiritual “maladies” which allegedly infest the Curia. This seems to have been counter-productive, producing resentment rather than motivating Vatican staff to take on the Pope’s visions and priorities. By the middle of last year the press office had to deny reports that the Pope was isolated within the Curia, and such reporting has continued. In his address to the Curia before Christmas Francis was careful to include a laudatory reference to the hard work and dedication of many officials. But the overriding message was once more a challenging call to conversion.

It is well known that Francis’s governing style involves surrounding himself with a few trusted individuals and bypassing the usual structures. If this continues, the revived dominance of the Secretary of State over the machinery of Church government will be to some extent an irrelevance, since Francis will continue to promote his own agenda, rooted in the ecclesiastical “peripheries” aimed at outreach to the world.

The inward workings of the Vatican may in this way be circumvented by a kind of parallel structure surrounding a Pope whose impatience with the ponderous institutions of Church power has been evident from the outset. But this situation is not without its dangers; the institution’s failures can still damage the Pope’s desire to refashion the Church by imbuing it with a more missionary spirit.

That became clear last year with the renewed “VatiLeaks” scandal surrounding Francesca Chaouqui, a former external consultant on financial reform, and her connections with the Spanish priest Mgr Lucio Ángel Vallejo Balda. Vatican prosecutors have charged the pair with leaking confidential documents to journalists. The trial is ongoing and Chaouqui strenuously denies the charges against her.

One way in which this could damage Francis’s papacy is by calling into question the honesty and motivations of some of the Pope’s collaborators, and consequently the soundness of his judgment of character.

Returning from Africa, he admitted that “a mistake was made” in hiring the glamorous young woman on the recommendations of the now discredited monsignor. But the Pope’s use of the passive voice did not silence claims that he had personally insisted on hiring Chaouqui despite multiple warnings from the Secretary of State and other sources.

The trial of Chaouqui and Vallejo Balda, as well as of the two journalists who received and published the leaked documents, is expected to resume early this year. It is likely to generate further damaging revelations and the Vatican public relations operation, which Francis has beefed up, will have its resourcefulness tested. Expect the next few months to be rocky. Damage control will be complicated because the alleged leakers are likely to argue that they were protecting the Pope from
his enemies.

Meanwhile, some in the Vatican appear to have Cardinal George Pell, the financial tsar appointed by Pope Francis, in their sights. They may or may not be acting in collusion with individuals who have an interest in damaging the Pope’s Australian watchdog in order to disrupt his efforts at reform. This year some new light may be shed on the culture of deceit and profiteering that Francis has to take on. It is unlikely, however, that his task will be made any easier.

The Pope’s choice of collaborators will be of crucial importance in the coming year. It is not only in the Curia that nominations can be of huge import for the Church’s future. Francis is unusually interventionist in naming diocesan bishops he knows and likes, often to the point of overriding canonical processes to an extent previous popes never dared.

As for the Sacred College, currently it is only a few short of the de facto limit of 120 cardinals of voting age. This means that the consistory widely expected to take place in February is unlikely to see a new distribution of red hats. By the end of the year, however, there should be a dozen or more vacancies and one would expect the creation of new cardinals before 2016 is out. Given that about a third of those currently able to vote have been named by the present Pontiff, much will be at stake regarding the Church’s future orientation. Francis’s unprecedented ignoring of the traditional criteria for choosing cardinals suggests that the result of the next conclave will become more unpredictable with every new batch.

The one issue on which the gaze of the whole Church is turned expectantly towards Francis, and the one that may well define his papacy more than any other in the judgment of history, will be settled when he produces the apostolic exhortation which will be his definitive response to the synodal proceedings of the last two years on the Church and the family. There is one topic that will attract most attention both inside and outside the Church, and which will probably push all others into the shade.

The question of Communion for the divorced and remarried represents an onerous responsibility for the Pope. The synod last October left the issue essentially unsettled, choosing an ambiguous formula in its final document which only just received the two-thirds majority required to approve it. This reveals the divisive nature of the question which Francis must now resolve.

Francis now has four options, as the Vatican observer John Allen has pointed out.

First, he can postpone the decision, saying that there needs to be more reflection and study on the matter.

Second, he can give a clear yes. All the signs are that this would be the option he personally favours. Yet this course is fraught with difficulties, being potentially the last straw for conservative critics whose resentment is already simmering dangerously and whose open rebellion he must want to avoid. It would, moreover, be an unprecedented break with former teaching which would essentially redefine the nature of the papal Magisterium by making it clear that what has in the past been presented as binding and irreformable teaching is in reality no more than a potentially shifting policy choice.

A clear no, the third possibility, would disappoint and perhaps alienate many, such as Cardinal Walter Kasper, whom Francis has encouraged and whose support in return is important to him.

The fourth and final option is to leave the ambiguity unresolved and, in effect, leave it to local bishops to choose the interpretation which suits them. The huge implications of such regional variation for the unity of the Church hardly need underlining.

Francis has from the start talked of the need for the Church to become more diverse and “synodal”, and he has let it be understood that he has little patience with those who put doctrine before “mercy”. For these reasons, I firmly expect him, in this year that he has wished to consecrate to mercy, to choose the fourth option. Indeed, there are clear indications that this choice has been prepared for some time. For the reasons outlined above, it is a momentous moment in the history of the Church.

Beyond the issues in themselves there lies the enigmatic personality of Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Behind his huge popularity – and the trips planned for the summer to Mexico and South America will give fresh demonstration of his attraction for the crowds – we can glimpse a paradoxical aloofness. The Pope is essentially a man who, after listening to others, decides alone.

In this, Francis’s Jesuit training reinforces an underlying character trait. He has expressed regret for the authoritarian nature of his rule as Jesuit provincial, which made him enemies in the past. Yet he is still capable of acting on personal conviction in a way that breaks in an unprecedented manner from the restraints which have imposed themselves on previous pontiffs, not least the weight of tradition.

The Pope has listened, but the time for a resolution has come and it is he who will decide. The nature of his response might change the Church for ever. It is an enormous decision which he will confront before God and his own conscience. Ultimately, and unenviably, he faces it alone.

Fr Mark Drew is priest in charge of the parish of Hornsea in Middlesbrough diocese

This article first appeared in the January 8 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here

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