Don Robinson: How far will a radical Pope’s reforms go?

Last modified: Wednesday, January 22, 2014

ASHFIELD — After almost a year in office, Pope Francis rides a virtually universal wave of gratitude and appreciation. Not everyone in the Catholic Church is happy, and many who are not Catholics wonder how long the euphoria can last. But there is no doubting that the pope has won the hearts of many people.

How did it happen? How did 117 elderly cardinals, each of them appointed by John Paul II or Benedict XIV, elect the first non-European since the eighth century and the first Jesuit ever to be pope? It seems almost miraculous.

Where did he come from? Much was made when he was chosen of his apparent connivance with Argentina’s brutal dictatorship during the so-called Dirty War of the 1970s. He allegedly stood by while the junta jailed and tortured two young priests for the sin of living in the slums and organizing the poor. Reflecting on that period, Francis confessed to an interviewer that he was a “sinner.” And that, he said, was “not a figure of speech.” More recently, he incurred the wrath of Argentina’s president by opposing her programs on homosexual marriage and abortion. She called him “medieval.” But since his election as pope, his style has been distinctly different. He may not be a liberal, but judging by his first year as pope, he may be a radical. On Maundy Thursday, popes have traditionally washed the feet of 12 priests representing the disciples whose feet Jesus washed at the Last Supper. This rite is normally enacted at a magnificent church in Rome. Instead Francis went to a prison and washed the feet of 12 young inmates, including two women, one of whom was a Serbian Muslim. Imagine how this looked to Vatican traditionalists. It is one thing to drive an inexpensive car and dress modestly, but quite another to invite jailed persons to stand for Christ’s holy apostles.

At first some observers marveled at the tone — kindly, avuncular — that Francis brought to the process of reform. He always emphasizes the positive: how we could better reflect God’s compassion and merciful love. Lately, however, he has begun to speak and act more bluntly. He demoted people whose stock in trade had been intimacy with the Italian political establishment, and he told bishops and priests to avoid vulgar careerism, not to be “smarmy.” Where will Francis take the church? Will he attempt to reform the institutional church, the Vatican and the church hierarchy? Will he make changes in doctrine?

On the first question, from the beginning there seems to have been consensus that he was chosen in major part to clean up the mess in the Vatican. It is clear he intends to do that if he can. He has reconstituted important commissions, replacing reactionaries. Recently he appointed a new group, consisting mainly of non-Europeans, to consider “collegiality” in church governance, namely, how to take account of the views of the faithful from the Third World.

On Jan. 12 Francis named 19 new cardinals. Three were elderly, too old to have a vote in the selection of the next pope. The younger ones were from Africa, Asia or Latin America, including one Haitian and one from Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in Africa.

What about questions of doctrine? Can we expect this pope to depart from theological and ecclesiastical conservatism? Does the church ever switch course this way?

Yes, it does. James Carroll, in The New Yorker in December, tells how Pope John XXIII led a fundamental revision of doctrine about the Jews. Two millennia of slanderous teaching about Jews as “Christ-killers,” beginning with biblical accounts of the Crucifixion, was reversed almost overnight by calls to repent for participation by too many Christians in the murderous persecution of Jews.

Francis has already lent his voice to the campaign begun by his revolutionary predecessor. This is not as easy for Christians as it may seem. It is certainly a calumny to accuse Jews of killing Christ, but in expressing profound respect to Jews for adhering to faith in God through centuries of persecution, John XXIII and Francis are honoring people who reject the defining claim, for Christians, that Jesus was God incarnate. This assertion must be made, and it comes at a time when the nation of Israel is facing an existential crisis. But people should not underestimate the significance of what is happening. Catholic doctrine can change.

Another issue of importance to many Americans, Catholics and others, is the role of women in the church. Francis has not called off a punitive investigation initiated by Benedict to call American nuns to account for acting in social and political matters (in supporting the Affordable Care Act, for example) in ways that deviate from church teachings.

Sister Mary C. Boys, a nun who is dean of academic affairs at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, notes that people do not understand how much Catholic women have been wounded by such harassment. Francis risks further alienating these religious women if he ignores their pain.

Is this papacy an important shift, or just another swing in the pendulum? Can Francis make fundamental, lasting changes? Mary McAleese, former president of Ireland whose name has been mentioned as a possible cardinal, was asked this question. “He can do it,” she replied. “He’s the Pope!” An American cannot hear these words without calling to mind President Obama’s slogan: “We can do it!” One hears that mantra less often these days. Of course no one ever said presidents were infallible. Authoritarian leaders can sometimes act in ways not possible for those in constitutional systems.

Don Robinson, a retired professor of government at Smith College, writes a regular column for the Gazette which appears on the fourth Thursday of the month. He can be emailed at


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