Awaiting the Spring

Taking stock of Pope Francis’ 10 years

Eight months following his election in November 2013, Pope Francis published the first of his major documents, which I believe is the best of all the texts written or signed by him: the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. It was like a programmatic proclamation. Like a spring proclamation. It evoked those words that Luke’s Gospel account puts into the mouth of Jesus in the opening scene of his prophetic mission in the synagogue of Nazareth: The spirit of Life sends me to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, to proclaim the year of grace, the Jubilee of justice and peace over all the earth (Lk. 4,18-19).

“Evangelii Gaudium: that is all, and that is why I am here,” said the Argentinian pope, both Jesuit and Franciscan: only inseparably personal and political goodness can bring the joy of life to this earth, in the long run only shared joy can sustain the struggle for peace and universal justice. Evangelii Gaudium does not denounce today’s culture, but the murderous financial economy. He affirms that “the great danger in the world (and of Christians) is desolation (n. 2), and the remedy does not lie in believing dogmas, but in carrying out the “revolution of tenderness” (n. 88). It was a prophetic, spring-like proclamation with its feet on the ground and its spirit in the Good News of Jesus.

The Good News of Jesus was and remains politically and religiously subversive, and it is possible that no document of any previous pope has expressed it with the force, freedom and courage with which Pope Francis did so in his programmatic Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. This is the first thing I would like to state in my personal assessment of his 10-year pontificate.

And I would like to highlight in particular the extraordinary contribution of this pope to the great global political causes of our time: his demand for justice as a condition for peace, his denunciation of the financialised economy, his analysis of the ecological emergency, his demand for the equality of women’s rights (with the serious inconsistency that I will be referring to below…). Suffice it to mention a few assertions from Evangelii Gaudium itself. He unhesitatingly denounces “an economy of exclusion and inequality”, “that economy which kills” (n. 53); and states categorically that “until exclusion and inequality within society and between different peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eradicate violence” (n. 59); that “there is one sign which we should never lack: the option for those who are least, those whom society discards” (n. 195), and that “as long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills” (n. 202).

These and many other similar statements that Pope Francis has uninterruptedly shouted from the rooftops across the five continents throughout these 10 years –“Take your hands off Africa”, and “The poison of greed has stained its diamonds with blood”, he said a month ago in the Democratic Republic of Congo– have made him the most important political prophet of this decade, and it is not me who is saying this, but political analysts of international prestige of the left, such as Boaventura de Sousa Santos, and Podemos political party leaders, such as Juan Carlos Monedero, Pablo Iglesias and Yolanda Díaz. That is, in my view, Pope Francis’ best contribution.

The socio-political contribution, even if it is the first condition, does not of course allow us to speak of an ecclesial spring. That requires a profound transformation of the ecclesial institution in the fields of theology, morality and the organisation of power. Would that be possible? To the great surprise of all and sundry, the spirit and the letter of Evangelii Gaudium suggested a profound ecclesial transformation. Pope Francis bluntly denounced people of the church who “feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyses and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying” (n. 94). He stressed that men and women today need to find in the Church “a spirituality which can offer healing and liberation, and fill them with life and peace, while at the same time summoning them to fraternal communion” (n. 89); that “the Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel” (n. 114); that “small yet strong in the love of God, like Saint Francis of Assisi, all of us, as Christians, are called to watch over and protect the fragile world in which we live” (n. 216); that “even people who can be considered dubious on account of their errors have something to offer which must not be overlooked” (n. 236); that “Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others” (n. 270). And he asserted that “we cannot demand that peoples of every continent, expressing their Christian faith, imitate modes of expression which European nations developed at a particular moment of their history, because the faith cannot be constricted to the limits of understanding and expression of any one culture”(n. 118); that, moreover, “we should not think, however, that the Gospel message must always be communicated by fixed formulations learned by heart or by specific words which express an absolutely invariable content” (n.129). And, before all this, he affirmed: “Nor do I believe that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question” (n.16).

It is a text brimming with encouragement and freshness. But not everything was fresh and new: he continues to refer repeatedly to the old theology of the sacrificial, expiatory death of Jesus who “shed his blood for us” (n. 178; cf. 128, 229, 274). (For whom can that be good news today, be a reason to rejoice?). He calls for a greater presence of women in the Church, but at the same time affirms that “the reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion” (n. 104). (Will a clerical Church be able to communicate the joy of the Gospel to the women and men of today?). He speaks of the defence of “unborn children”, without making any distinction between the one-day-old zygote and the four-month-old foetus (nn. 213-214). (That contradicts the scientific data: Can the Church in this way alleviate the anguish of many mothers and fathers?). In short: the political message of Evangelii Gaudium, both in its denunciation and in its proclamation, speaks the language of today, while the more specifically religious, ecclesial message is still tied to beliefs and categories of the past that are incapable of inspiring the vast majority of our society.

Nevertheless, Evangelii Gaudium as a whole did strike a chord with me. It all sounded like the pure Gospel of encouragement and renewal, freedom and liberation. Like countless other Christians, I read it as a beautiful, lusty hymn to ecclesial spring. However, I did not entirely believe it for two main reasons. Firstly, because I saw no clear signs of a new theological language. Secondly, because in 2013 I no longer harboured any illusions that this pontificate was going to make up for the secular delay accumulated by the ecclesiastical institution over the previous 500 years (many more, in fact), to reverse the traditionalist inertia of the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and to close the growing gap between modern-postmodern culture and the ecclesiastical system as a whole. It was far too late for the entire ecclesial institution to allow itself to be transformed by the spirit of Jesus, by the breath of life.

And what about today, 10 years later? I will say it openly, and not without some regret: I still see no signs of that spring that was announced. Nevertheless, I note with profound surprise that many intelligent, critical men and women are celebrating “the spring of Pope Francis” as already having arrived, or at least as having begun and become irreversible. However slowly time passes on the Vatican clocks and despite the fact that its days are like centuries, in these times of accelerated change, 10 years waiting for spring is a long time, too long to be forever waiting for it. In these 10 years the world has changed so much and the Church so little or not at all, that its delay has doubled, the gap between society and the Church has continued to grow, not because society has moved away, but because the Church is still stuck in the past. 10 years is two legislatures in most parliaments and governments. That is enough to make clear what a government intends to do and what it does not, or what it can do and what it cannot even if the intention is there. A decade is also sufficient time for a plenipotentiary pope to give unequivocal signs of what he wants and what he does not want, of what he can and cannot do, however plenipotentiary he may be (a congenital contradiction of the papacy).

In the meantime, the song thrush has returned to sing its ever new, varied melodies every year and the almond tree has blossomed every year in advance of the general spring. Life is constantly being renewed and its incessant rebirth is irreversible in spite of everything, even in spite of this humanity that is adrift. But, 10 years later, I still do not see any signs of an ecclesial spring. Because he wants to and cannot, because he can and does not want to, or because he neither wants to nor is able, spring has not arrived and I do not expect it. And why do I put it like that, so bluntly? Here are 6 of the main reasons:

  1. A theology that has become incomprehensible. Pope Francis’ words still cling to the same old theology; the same image of God as a Supreme, yet merciful, Being who intervenes in the world; the same old “devil”; the same idea of the human being as the centre and culmination of creation; the same sin and the same idea of the Cross atoning for “our sins”; the same presentation of heaven and hell in the afterlife. The same dogmas and the same Canon Law with two or three irrelevant tweaks. And I think that, as long as the theology does not change, there will be no spring in the Church. Why Christianity Must Change or Die is the title of a book published by the Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong in 1999. By all accounts, at least 50 years have elapsed since the Catholic Church chose to die rather than renew and revive itself.
  2. An untenable view of homosexuality: “If a person is gay and seeks God and shows willingness, who am I to judge him?” he said on the plane on his return from Brazil in 2013, and many people saw in those words a break with the past that I still do not see; it is the same as when someone claims that they “cannot judge” a certain person when he/she engages in behaviour regarded in itself as reprehensible (“Who am I to judge a murderer?”). In keeping with the general theological tradition, the pope has always asserted that “homosexual orientation is not sinful, but homosexual acts are”, although in a recent interview he did get a little mixed up when he said that “homosexuality is not a crime, but it is a sin”. Be that as it may, he has repeated numerous times that “the sacrament of marriage is between a man and a woman, and the Church cannot change that”. Well, there will be no ecclesial spring as long as this homophobia persists.
  3. A totally misplaced gender perspective. During these 10 years, until today, Pope Francis has repeatedly referred to “gender theory” as “an ideological colonisation”, “that evil that today is done in the indoctrination of gender theory”, branded as “diabolical” and as an “outrage against Creation”, which “hollows out the anthropological foundation of the family”. What spring can there be as long as such falsehoods and offences continue to be hurled against LGTBIQ+ people and against the sensitivity, which is essential, of a growing social majority?
  4. The sublimated, marginalised woman. Throughout this decade, the Pope has expressed multiple stances on the need for equal rights for women in all areas of civil society… but not within the ecclesiastical community where women are barred “by divine will” from all positions of responsibility and power. The possible ordination of “deaconesses” has been timidly mentioned, and very recently even the possibility of a woman presiding over a Vatican dicastery, but in both cases these would be subordinate functions, always detached from the so-called ordained “sacramental priesthood”. The arguments put forward –entirely anachronistic and devoid of any historical and theological foundation– remain the same as ever: the absolute difference between the “common priesthood” and the “sacramental priesthood”, the election by Jesus of 12 male apostles, the distinction between the administrative function and the “sacramental power” deriving from the “sacrament of Holy Orders”, the latter being indispensable for the celebration of the Eucharist and the “sacramental absolution of sins”. Nothing new under the domes of the Vatican. In December 2022, Pope Francis even endorsed the theory of the double principle, Marian and Petrine, that governs the Church, a theory proposed and defended by Hans Urs von Balthasar –one of the leading theologians of the 20th century and a reference for the most conservative theology– in his book The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church (1974): Mary symbolises love, and that is the essential thing in the Church, but she lacks power; Peter and his “successors” –with or without love– exclusively possess the power to represent the male Jesus, who as a male represents God the Father… Spring will not blossom in the Church, as long as this patriarchal system is not broken.
  5. The synod impasse. “Synod” means “shared path”, even though in Canon Law it means above all “the assembly of the pope with the bishops”. With Pope Francis, we have had three General Synods and the fourth is ongoing, and they have not served to move forward but to skirt around the starting point, and I foresee that the same thing will happen with the fourth that is underway. The first was the Synod on Young People (2018), in which young people were conspicuous by their absence. Then The Amazon Synod (2018-2019) was convened, the final document of which proposed that some “suitable, recognised” married males who are permanent deacons could be ordained priests in “some remote areas of the Amazon region” (n. 111), but on 3 September 2020 Pope Francis rejected that paragraph. Thirdly, there was the Synod on the Family (2021-2022), which was expected to say that remarried divorcees could receive communion, but everything was left up in the air, and everyone does as they see fit, as before the Synod. Finally, in 2021, the fourth General Synod began, the Synod on Synodality; a recent decision was made to extend it until 2024, whether to save time or to waste it, I don’t know. But I cannot but think that it will end where it began: in fact, its Preparatory Document states that “by the will of Christ some are made teachers, pastors and dispensers of mysteries on behalf of others,” (n. 12), that those “who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth” (n. 13), that pastors are the “authentic guardians, interpreters and witnesses of the faith of the whole Church” (n. 14), and that the Church is defined as “the heart of a hierarchically structured community” (n. 14), a contradiction in terms. If, after a good two years, it does not and will not overcome this approach, it will not have been an authentic Synod, a “common path”, but a clerical dead end.

Look at what is happening, what has already happened, to the “Synodal Path” of the German Catholic Church, launched at the end of 2019. By a very large majority of laity and clergy, including bishops, they have demanded, among other things, the ordination of women to the priesthood and the recognition of the union of homosexuals as a sacrament of matrimony, but along the way they have come up time and again against the Vatican’s absolute veto of these and other proposals. At the insistence of the German Catholic Church, Cardinal Kasper, once a renowned, open theologian, then a bishop and now Pope Francis’ chief theological advisor, declared at the end of 2021 that “the German Synodal Way has become a sham synod”. “Maria 2.0”, the Roman Catholic women’s movement in Germany, has just warned that the Synodal Way is in danger of being “fatally derailed”.

  1. Clericalism is the root of all evil. The Roman Catholic Church is defined as and functions according to a top-down, authoritarian, male, celibate clerical model. It is an entirely obsolete model, with no basis in Jesus and the first Christian generations (although it must be said that this model would not be binding today even in the totally unrealistic event that it had been established by Jesus in person and applied by all Christian communities in unison from the beginning, just as the parchment or papyrus and ink with which they wrote then are no longer binding today).

Pope Francis has time and again sternly warned against the temptation of clericalism, but he has not taken any decisive steps to make it disappear, or even to relativise it. He has rightly declared that “the clericalized laity are a plague in the Church”, but not that this plague is derived from the clerical model of the Church, nor that this model is the main cause of the great systemic evils of this Roman Catholic Church –sexual assaults included– and that it must be abolished in the name of Jesus and of the universal brotherhood and sisterhood to which humanity aspires.

The eradication of the pyramidal, authoritarian, masculine clerical model requires the radical transformation of the entire theological discourse and the dismantling of the very foundations of the current Code of Canon Law. There will be no spring in the Church while this does not happen, just as the synods will not be able to move forward while the pope and the bishops handpicked by him have the last word, and while the pope remains plenipotentiary, elected by the cardinals appointed by the previous pope, and logically obliged to yield real power to curiae that will exercise that power in the greatest opacity and beyond all control, and this in the name of God and the pope, who is barely aware of it and who will be able to do little even if he is aware. And it will not be enough to reform the curial bureaucracy, in other words, basically by redistributing dicasteries and powers and changing protocols.

In view of everything that I have said, the conclusion is thrust upon me: the spring of Pope Francis hangs entirely in the balance. And the existence –however real it may be– of great powers operating against him from outside and, in particular, from within the clerical system itself (for example, cardinals such as Pell, Burke, Brandmüller, Müller, Sarah, Rouco, Erdö, Ouellet, Viganò…) cannot be used as an excuse, because power struggles and interests are a constituent part of the system of the absolutist papacy.

But let me be very clear: I do not in any way reproach the Pope with a Jesuit mind and a Franciscan heart. He is a man like any of us, probably better than me and most of us, but that is beside the point. He has his own mentality, his own theology, his own model of Church, just like any of us. And with the best will in the world he acts according to what he thinks best and what is within his capabilities. I do not reproach him for anything, nor do I demand anything more of him than what he does, at 86 years of age and in poor health. But he represents an obsolete ecclesiastical system. He is hostage to the papacy and its history and its immovable dogmas. And he is the absolute head of an institution in which he finds himself facing an inauspicious alternative: to try and radically reform it (which is unlikely, not to say impossible) or to doggedly try and maintain it with mere operational adjustments, curial reforms and synods included (which amounts to letting it continue to decline little by little, at the rate of approximately one percentage point per year, according to the implacable global socio-religious statistics; the figures are implacable).

Such is the overall assessment I make after 10 years. It may seem too pessimistic. But I also want to be very clear: I am not disappointed by Pope Francis (the reader can corroborate this by reading my short reflection “100 days of papacy” that I wrote shortly after his election). I am not disappointed for two reasons, both of which are decisive: firstly, because 10 years ago I held no expectations of any major ecclesial reform (which 50 years ago was absolutely indispensable and perhaps would have been possible), and where there are no expectations there is no disappointment; secondly, because the fact that this ecclesial institution, which at the Second Vatican Council and in the immediate post-Vatican Council era refused to reform itself thoroughly in order to push forward the yearning for a better world in this world, is crumbling, no longer seems to me either a great misfortune or a cause for despair.

The hope of the world no longer depends on the fortunes of this ecclesial system. With my doubts and contradictions, I will try to live in hope: to continue to nurture in myself and in others the flickering flame that burns in the ecclesial community of Jesus’ disciples, but without waiting for the reform of this already unreformable ecclesiastical institution. Hope is not about waiting, or waiting for something –even the best– to happen, but about living in spirit, in breath, letting oneself be inspired by the transforming Spirit and contributing a small seed of life each day for the more fulfilling shared life to which we aspire.

Aizarna, 28 de febrero de 2023
(Translated by Sarah J. Turtle)