Great for PR, but Pope Francis Is Still Singing From the Same Catholic Hymn Sheet

Looking back on his first year as pope, it's clear that Francis’ personal charisma has masked a typically conservative approach.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Early in the morning of March 14, exactly a year ago, the owner of a small café in Rome, situated a few streets from the Vatican City, opened the doors and dragged in the package of newspapers. All the front pages carried the picture of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who eight hours earlier had been chosen by his colleagues to be the next pope. “Who is that?” the man asked. As opposed to other candidates, Bergoglio was not a familiar figure in Rome. “Is that the new pope? Great, he has a good face,” he said with satisfaction.

For hundreds of millions of Catholics worldwide, it’s enough to hang up the picture of the sweet, grandfatherly face of Pope Francis (the name the 77-year-old Bergoglio adopted at his inauguration) on the wall in their homes. The religious decisions and internal politics of the Vatican are far less important to them. Francis’ success in bringing the Catholic Church close to the people has given them a warm feeling of belonging that they lost nine years ago with the demise of John Paul II. The German Pope Benedict, who was portrayed by the international media as a stern and complaining old man did not offer them that, and his difficulty in communicating with the outside world rendered him helpless in dealing with the series of scandals that befell the leadership of the Catholic Church during his tenure.

Bergoglio, who will be visiting Israel this May, succeeded in a very short time in changing the attitude toward the Church, in a manner nobody could have imagined. The modest priest who insists on carrying his briefcase himself, travels in a simple Ford Focus instead of a limousine, rubs shoulders with tourists in St. Peter’s Square and joins them for “selfies,” became a superstar within a few weeks. Meanwhile, he also managed to be named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year as well as appearing on the cover of music magazine Rolling Stone and becoming an icon not only for practising Catholics but for secular people and members of all the religions of the world, who apparently yearn for a wise and merciful grandfather figure.

But even a very superficial survey of his activity in the past year reveals that Francis has changed very little, if anything. In the area of theology, there has been no movement on subjects such as divorce, same-sex relations, women in the priesthood and approval for priests to marry. Instead, the pope uses pleasant and moderate language, saying, “Who are we human beings to judge anyone?” and promises to accept any person into the Church, even if it’s necessary – as he promised a single mother – to baptize their children with his own hands.

Regarding the scandals at the Institute for Religious Works (the Vatican bank, as it’s informally known); the venomous whisper campaign against senior members of the Curia (Catholic officialdom); and, above all, the continuing revelations about hundreds of children and young boys who were sexually exploited by priests, and the silencing of those stories – there has been no change in policy. And aside from a few job changes, nothing that approaches the cleansing campaign that some of the cardinals thought should take place.

In effect, Francis continues the reforms that were already introduced by his conservative predecessor, who, toward the end of his tenure, secretly managed to remove hundreds of priests who had been accused of abuse. But Benedict received only condemnation, while Francis can do no wrong.

In an interview he gave two weeks ago to the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, the pope tried to downplay the “mythology” that has been created around him. “They say that I leave the Vatican at night in order to feed the homeless. I never thought of that,” he laughed. In the interview, he once again avoided a firm statement about “values that cannot be given up” and instead preferred to talk about the need to discuss every subject in depth and to find the ways to help people in distress. Concerning sexual abuse, he actually said the Church did a great deal to handle the issue, “perhaps more than all the others.”

Had his predecessor spoken that way, he would probably have encountered a barrage of insults from the Italian and international media about his arrogance, and the fact that he was cut off from reality. But people are willing to hear from Francis that the Church – which for decades silenced the abuse stories, allowed abusive priests to continue to work with children and even protected them from the legal authorities – acted properly. His personal charisma has covered him with a mantle of immunity.

Rabbi David Rosen, who is in charge of interfaith relations on behalf of the American Jewish Committee and often visits the Vatican, relates that, “A friend of mine, a priest in Rome, told me a year ago that he was afraid of being attacked in the street. Today, everyone wants to embrace him because he is close to Francis.”

If we can learn any lesson from the past decade in Church history, it’s that good public relations and a good image can cover up everything. The rot that has spread in the Vatican began during the tenure of John Paul II, who was called the “Rock Star Pope.” His tremendous popularity and the image of the Polish religious leader who confronted the Nazis and the communists during his lifetime covered up everything. Even in his final years, when he suffered from Parkinson’s disease, the stardust continued to cover everything.

His successor, Benedict, was forced to absorb the shrapnel from the mines that had been planted under the watch of John Paul II. That is apparently what led to his decision to be the first pope in 600 years to abdicate during his lifetime.

Bergoglio, who received the second highest number of votes from the cardinals after Benedict in the 2005 conclave, was elected a year ago by his colleagues for precisely that purpose. The cardinals are well aware that there's no chance in the present generation to solve all the theological problems that the Church faces, and that it will take years until the reverberations of the sexual and financial scandals die down. They chose Bergoglio this time not because he is a revolutionary – they don’t want a pope like that. They crowned him to serve as their flak jacket; as Francis, the user-friendly face of a church that is still unable to adapt itself to modern times.

Pope Francis waves to the crowd as he arrives for his general audience in St. Peter's square at the Vatican, September 18, 2013. Credit: AFP