Five years ago, the name of the Pope was announced from the balcony of St Peter’s and I was given less than an hour by the Daily Telegraph to write an article about a man I knew virtually nothing about. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the Jesuit archbishop of Buenos Aires, had been fairly low down on the list of candidates acceptable to liberals – i.e. someone not in the mould of Benedict XVI. Sure enough, the new Pope Francis appeared wearing a plain white mozzetta or shoulder-cape; the BBC reported that he’d refused to put on the ermine-trimmed red velvet number sported by his predecessors, declaring that ‘the carnival is over’.
Actually, the carnival was just beginning: we were treated to one gesture after another of high-profile humility. Francis insisted on going back to his hotel to pay his bill in person; he spurned the majestic papal apartments in favour of a communal residence for priests next to St Peter’s; it was announced that he would drive around the Vatican in an ancient second-hand Renault. The media went into ecstasies over ‘Francis the Humble’, a perpetually smiling Bishop of Rome who was determined to live as simply as he had in Buenos Aires. Other than that, we learned little about his career in Argentina, though there were rumours of nasty clashes with fellow Jesuits. Oddly, photographs of a scowling Cardinal Bergoglio suggested that his smile was a very recent trademark. (If you don’t believe me, check Google images.)
The fifth anniversary of Francis’s election this week has passed quietly; any celebrations have been muted – especially in his home country, which he has not visited on any of his four trips to Latin America. The snub is unmistakeable but also hard to explain. And it adds to the impression that the real Jorge Bergoglio is a more inscrutable and less attractive figure than the ever-so-humble Francis we thought we knew.
The problem isn’t shortage of information; it’s that so much of it doesn’t add up. The Pope’s cheerleaders in the media have shrunk to a hard core of enthusiasts whose chief concern seems to be to suppress stories that reflect badly on him.
The response of Francis’s enemies has been to try to redress the balance by circulating those stories, often relying on hearsay. They claim they have little alternative: this is a secretive pontiff, they say, who not only contradicts himself but also stretches and conceals the truth.
All of which leaves the rest of us wondering how to make sense of these disorientating times. Perhaps we never shall. Then again, various fast-developing scandals may provide us with further pieces of the Bergoglian jigsaw. In the meantime, here are five points worth bearing in mind:
• Francis has a deep and passionate religious faith. That ought to go without saying, but some of the Pope’s critics are convinced that his urgent and irascible appeals to biblical authority are mere window-dressing. That is unfair. Francis pays close attention to the Gospels, even if his conclusions worry orthodox Catholics. He is also devoted to the Blessed Virgin. Just this month he announced a new feast day recognising Mary as ‘Mother of the Church’. As he puts it, ‘where Mary is, the Devil does not enter’ – a telling choice of words, reminding us that Francis advocates spiritual warfare with Satan. You might expect conservative Catholics to applaud; but they don’t, since the Pope keeps implying that they are doing the Devil’s work by imposing their ‘rigid’ standards on sinners.
• He has helped to detoxify the Catholic brand. A superficial achievement, arguably, since much of this impression is based on lazy news reports. Even so, merely being a Catholic is no longer the indictable offence that it was a decade ago – at least in Western liberal circles. Francis was well served by the global adulation he attracted in his first couple of years. He’s a climate change alarmist, he looks favourably on divorcees, and when asked about a gay priest he once replied: ‘Who am I to judge’? The media chuckled approvingly and moved on to more pressing subjects, such as the wickedness of Donald Trump (whom the Pope also despises – more brownie points). Only recently have secular journalists looked into Francis’s record on tackling clerical sex abuse; their reaction has been one of cognitive dissonance rather than outrage.
• He encourages liberal Catholics without giving them what they want. Francis has moved leftwards, politically and theologically, since the days when he ran the Argentinian Jesuits in a distinctly ‘rigid’ manner. But although his direction of travel is clear, he never seems to arrive anywhere. He flatters veteran liberal theologians but fails to put their ideas into practice. For example, although he favours allowing some divorced-and-remarried Catholics to receive communion, he refuses to be pinned down on details. He is less interested in doctrine than any pope for centuries; it is by no means clear that he has read, let alone written, all the teaching documents issued in his name. As a result, he has created a small-scale civil war inside the Church in which both sides increasingly blame the Pope for letting them down. As for homosexual Catholics, Francis may go down in history as the first pontiff to use the word ‘gay’, but that’s about it. He is sympathetic to the victims of broken marriages (who include his divorced sister) and even to remarried Catholics technically committing adultery. In contrast, same-sex couples do not interest him and he regards gay marriage as ‘diabolical’. Some commentators think he is relying on a future pope, a proper liberal, to remodel the Church along progressive lines. But that is just guesswork – and, in any case, who says that the next conclave will elect a liberal?
• He is a natural authoritarian with a taste for settling scores. When Jorge Bergoglio became pope, some Argentinian clergy said, sotto voce: be careful, he’s a bad enemy to make. Those cardinals and bishops who didn’t listen have paid the price. Francis’s subordinates have discovered that he values personal loyalty above piety or the desire to root out corruption. That doesn’t mean he can be dismissed as an ecclesiastical politician for whom the papacy is the ultimate ego-trip; rather, he conflates obedience to his every whim with the message of the Gospel. He has a hair-trigger temper and, in private, expresses himself in robustly demotic language. One troubling consequence of this mindset is that he extends ‘mercy’ to clerics who do his bidding, no matter how badly they have behaved. Which brings us to the final point.
• He is losing his grip as his allies are dragged into scandals. Some of the Pope’s lieutenants stand accused of financial and/or sexual wrongdoing. These scandals are at least as serious as those that apparently persuaded Benedict XVI to abdicate. The liberal clergy and journalists known as ‘Team Francis’ are working overtime to keep the details out of the media. Now they are beginning to panic. Almost every week brings fresh suggestions that the Pope has turned a deaf ear to alleged victims of sexual abuse or financial malpractice. Damaging information is coming to light with suspicious regularity, which makes one wonder who, precisely, has most to gain from a crisis that vacates the chair of Peter. Who are the Pope’s real enemies? Traditionalists who fear that the Church is on the verge of repudiating its teachings? Or the same power-hungry Vatican officials who outmanoeuvred Benedict? Francis trusts so few people that he has no way of finding out.