Pope Francis’s divisive papacy, explained in 5 moments


This week marks the five-year anniversary of the papacy of Pope Francis. During that time, Francis has juggled two identities: balancing his role as the leader of a Catholic Church in a period of particular turmoil with his identity as “Twitter’s pope”: a highly visible global celebrity whose words, and influence, extend far beyond his Catholic flock.

Francis has been lauded by some Catholics as a refreshing change from the conservatism of his predecessors, excoriated by others as a danger to the continuity of Catholic tradition, and slammed by some progressives as offering merely cosmetic changes to the church’s stance on controversial social issues like divorce and LGBTQ rights, as well as having failed woefully to contend with the seriousness of the church’s decades-long sex abuse scandal.

His papacy is one whose defense of the marginalized — particularly those left behind by global capitalism — has rendered him a political as well as pastoral figure, albeit one willing to critique elements of modern liberalism embraced by the political left and political right alike.

These five defining incidents of Francis’s papacy best reflect how these dynamics have informed his time in the Holy See, for better and for worse.

1) Francis chooses his name

One of the most defining acts of Francis’s papacy was among its first: when the former Archbishop Jorge Maria Bergoglio chose the papal name Francis I. Historically, popes used their choice of name to signal, to an extent, the defining values of their papacy. Francis is a nod to St. Francis of Assisi, the traveling 12th-century friar ordinarily remembered for his love of nature and concern for the poor. In an audience with journalists shortly after his ascension, Francis clarified the association, explaining how, once he was elected pope, another cardinal embraced him and said, “Don’t forget the poor”:

That struck me … the poor. … Immediately I thought of St Francis of Assisi. Francis was a man of peace, a man of poverty, a man who loved and protected creation. … How I would love a Church that is poor and for the poor.

Indeed, throughout the past five years, Francis has made a point of critiquing income inequality, global capitalism, and its effects on humankind and the environment. He’s praised labor unions as “prophets” and called unbridled capitalism the “dung of the devil,” a tendency that makes some right-leaning American Catholics worried. (In 2014, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan felt the need to write a Wall Street Journal op-ed reassuring Catholics that the pope wasn’t actually a socialist.) Francis has also spoken up in favor of refugee-friendly policies.

In keeping with his namesake, Francis has also made concern for the environment another linchpin of his papacy. His 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, called for a greater ethos of care for the environment and was enormously influential in raising awareness of environmental issues worldwide.

2) Francis asks, “Who am I to judge?” gay people

It was the remark heard around the world. Speaking to reporters on a flight from Brazil in July 2013, Pope Francis made an off-the-cuff remark that attracted widespread media attention: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

NBC wondered if “five little words … [could] change the course of the Catholic Church?” The LGBTQ magazine the Advocate named Francis its 2013 Person of the Year.

But the nature and form of the remarks was as striking, if not more so, than their content. The first pope of the social media age, Francis was able to use an offhand remark (rather than, say, an encyclical or the proceedings of the synod) to galvanize international media attention: prompting a conversation about Catholic attitudes toward LGBTQ individuals while sidestepping the bureaucratic and doctrinal challenges inherent in any actual dogmatic reform (challenges that, as we will see, would become more apparent later in his papacy).

Francis has never suggested that he advocates for doctrinal change, or a change in the church’s formal antipathy toward LGBTQ sexuality. Rather, his focus has always been on welcoming all would-be worshippers into the fold, focusing less on whether they are “sinners” (after all, according to Catholic doctrine, we’re all sinners in some form or another) and more on whether they have access to the community of worshippers, and attendant sacraments, necessary for a Christian life. For Francis, focusing on an individual element of a person — whether their sexuality or another perceived sin — is a mistake and detracts from the dignity of the whole person.

In a 2016 interview with Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli, Francis clarified his 2013 remarks, saying, “I am glad that we are talking about ‘homosexual people’ because before all else comes the individual person, in his wholeness and dignity.” He continued, “And people should not be defined only by their sexual tendencies: let us not forget that God loves all his creatures and we are destined to receive his infinite love.”

“I prefer that homosexuals come to confession, that they stay close to the Lord, and that we pray all together,” says Francis. “You can advise them to pray, show goodwill, show them the way, and accompany them along it.”

The idea that love involves looking at the “whole person,” rather than focusing on individual sexual identity, has been criticized by some progressives as insufficiently revolutionary. After all, Francis still seems to be upholding the Catholic doctrinal line that homosexuality is, in fact, a sin. But his focus on creating a welcoming church, combined with his knack for communicating with the media, has made many LGBTQ Catholics feel more welcome in their church communities.

3) Francis condemns “closed hearts” at the 2015 synod on the family

Francis has had more trouble when it comes to unifying, let alone reforming, an increasingly ideologically diverse church: one peopled by hardline conservatives as well as progressives. These tensions came to a head during the 2014 and 2015 synods known collectively as the “synod on the family.” These synods — formal gatherings of senior Vatican officials to discuss doctrine and make official policy recommendations — doubled as a lightning rod for divisions over ideas of sexuality, gender, and marriage in the church.

From the beginning, the synods were characterized by extreme tension between progressive camps (many of whom wanted to see the church become more inclusive of LGBTQ individuals and divorced couples) and conservatives suspicious of changing Catholic doctrine to suit contemporary social mores. At the 2014 synod, the inclusion, then deletion, of a line about “welcoming homosexual persons” in an interim report sent shock waves throughout the Vatican.

After a year of debate and vicious disagreement, the synod’s conclusion left both camps feeling shortchanged. While a final document produced by the gathering suggested a greater tone of inclusion for divorced and remarried couples, and rejected language calling homosexuality “objectively disordered,” it stopped short of calling for any formal or structural alteration to church doctrine. A number of hardline conservatives felt Francis had “rigged” the synods in favor of reformers, even as progressive and LGBTQ Catholic groups felt the synods had not gone far enough.

In October 2015, Pope Francis gave a blistering speech at the close of his synod on the family. In it, he attacked those church leaders who act with “closed hearts, which bare the closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families.”

His speech is important not just because of its content but because of its context. Francis’s frustration with the “closed hearts” of his conservative brethren was also frustration with a system he had, over the past year, failed to altogether successfully negotiate: The bitter debate during the synod had managed to alienate a good chunk of senior church officials, leading to divisions and animosity at the highest level of the church. When a religious institution relies as much on bureaucracy and machination as does the Catholic Church, this kind of division threatens to make a would-be reformist leader particularly ineffective.

Francis’s speech at the synod wasn’t the first or the last time he criticized his conservative or traditionalist brethren, but it revealed the downside of his often unorthodox methods. Francis could appeal to the secular media with his forthright remarks (like his famous “who am I to judge?”), but creating lasting structural change in the church — the kind that would outlast his papacy — would be more difficult. Francis’s methods, furthermore, had contributed in part to an enormous fracture between progressive and conservative camps within the Catholic Church: one in which both sides felt aggrieved.

4) Francis rocks the Catholic world with a footnote about divorce and communion

The entire world may have heard Francis’s offhand “who am I to judge?” But one of the most controversial sentences in his papacy wasn’t uttered out loud but hidden away in a footnote. In a footnote in chapter eight of his 2016 encyclical Amoris Laetitia, Francis suggested that the church should grant communion to divorced-and-remarried couples, despite the fact that the Catholic Church believes in the indissolubility of marriage.

”It is possible that in an objective situation of sin … a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end,” wrote Francis, implying that, for example, a divorced-and-remarried couple might be welcomed into the church despite the fact that they’re believed to be, as remarried Catholics, in a “situation of sin.”

That mercy, he wrote in a footnote, “can include the help of the sacraments” — including the Eucharist (i.e., Holy Communion), vital to most Catholics’ faith practice. Hence, he goes on, “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy. I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.’”

Once again, Francis had his detractors, many of whom felt that he was acting unilaterally to advocate for reforms far outside the boundaries of Catholic doctrine. A group of cardinals, among them the archconservative American Raymond Burke, sent a list of formal dubia, or doubts, to the pope asking for clarification on the Amoris Laetitia footnote in 2016. Thus far, he has refused to publicly answer them.

5) Francis goes on the defensive when it comes to sex abuse scandals

Few of Pope Francis’s decisions have attracted as uniformly negative scrutiny as his refusal to contend with the aftermath of the Catholic sex abuse scandal in Chile earlier this year.

Sex abuse scandals have dogged the church worldwide for years, and Francis has consistently failed to satisfy victims’ demands for accountability. But his response to the latest was particularly tone-deaf.

For years, Chile has been dealing with the aftermath of the case of Father Fernando Karadima, a priest sentenced by the Vatican to a “lifetime of penance and prayer” for decades of child sexual abuse (the case had passed the secular statute of limitations in Chile). Particularly contentious is the role of another bishop, Juan Barros, accused of perpetuating the cover-up. During a trip to Chile in January, Francis took a defensive posture when asked about Barros: “The day they bring me proof against the bishop,” he told journalists, “then I will speak. There is not a single proof against him. This is calumny! Is that clear?”

The remarks were particularly striking given that Francis’s trip to Chile was intended as a kind of apology tour: repairing trust in the church that had been lost as a result of the scandals. Francis later partially apologized for his remarks, accepting that he realized his words would come across as a “slap in the face” to Karadima’s victims, even as he maintained that “I’m also convinced that he’s innocent.”

Francis’s seeming myopia on this one issue stands in stark contrast to his willingness to challenge church hierarchy and tradition on other issues.

Thus far, Francis has been an imperfect pope. His handling of the sex abuse scandal has been shamefully poor, and his skill at sharing his message with the secular media is far greater than his ability to maneuver the Vatican Curia into more lasting structural change. But ultimately, Francis is among the world’s most powerful — and necessary — advocates for the world’s marginalized.

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