For this year, summer vacation ended early for the 200 cardinals of the Catholic Churchsummoned to a summit in the New Hall of the Synodat the Vatican, last week.
The mission: to deepen the reform of the curia, a central task of the pontificate that the Argentine Jorge Mario Bergogliobetter known as the Pope Franciscobegan in 2013, with impetus for change as befitted the first pontiff to come from the third world.
In the preliminaries of the meeting, the European press speculated about a possible resignation of Francis. His health problems and his displacement in a wheelchair, but also the visit he made, hours before the start of the summit to Aquila, in the center of the Italian peninsula, triggered the rumors.
In Aquila is buried Celestine Vfamous for give up to the papacy in 1294. His tomb was visited in 2009 by Benedict XVI, who took off his pallium – a symbol of papal power – and dropped it on the tomb, in a premonitory gesture of his own resignation four years later. Francisco also visited her.
The Pope’s words soon dispelled any doubts. As Jean-Marie Guénois, chronicler and Vaticanologist for the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro, points out, instead of resigning, the pontiff spoke of “reborn and rebuilt.” The deliberations of the cardinals were behind closed doors, but during the mass on the eve of the start of the summit, Francis used a tone of action and future to demand of the clergy “a personal and collective rebirth” and “an ecclesiastical reconstruction”.
The reform, promulgated in March by the Pope, is barely advancing. A few weeks ago, in a virtual debate organized by the Religion Digital website, Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Madariaga, Archbishop of Tegucigalpa and coordinator of the Council of Cardinals, put his finger on the problem: “There is a latent strike in the Curia against the reform”, he declared, before accusing a sector of his colleagues of postponing the implementation of the decisions to “the Greek kalends” (undefined dates).
In search of majority
Aware of the above, Francisco seems to bet on a long-term battle beyond his papacy. Connoisseurs of Vatican They assure that Francisco has already built a majority close to his ideas in the body of cardinals, with his sights set on the election of his successor.
Of the 132 cardinals with the right to vote (under 80 years of age) who make up the College of Cardinals, 83 were appointed by Francis, 20 of them in recent times. There are only 11 appointed by John Paul II and 38 by Benedict XVI.
Time will tell if the Argentine Pope’s bet is a winner. For now, the image of Francis is not exactly that of an effective pontiff. He lacks achievements comparable to the reformist leap of John XXIII in the 1960s, or the effectiveness of John Paul II, the Polish pope who brought down the iron curtain and mortally wounded the communist regimes of Eastern Europe.
Francisco is convinced of the need for reforms, but he has few results to show: nothing has changed in terms of the role of women who continue to be banned from the priesthood, nor in terms of celibacy, to talk about the thick issues of the curia that the reform does not touch. There have been, yes, some more concrete actions than in the past regarding pedophile priests and the bishops who protected them. Little more.
Prudence or omission?
The Argentine projects the image of a prudent Pope in the face of the war in Ukraine, in the face of the repression unleashed by the dictator Daniel Ortega against the Nicaraguan Catholic Church or in the face of the imprisonment of opponents in Cuba, to mention just a few of the planet’s conflicts over which the Pope has clearly avoided compromising his word.
The Pope’s silence in the face of persecution
to the Church in Nicaragua is inadmissible
What happened in Nicaragua is inexplicable. This year, the Ortega regime has shut down seven radio stations and two cable television channels linked to the Catholic Church. He keeps the bishop of Matagalpa, Rolando Álvarez, and six priests from his diocese under house arrest, who dared to criticize the repression unleashed by the dictator Ortega and his wife and his vice president, Rosario Murillo.
In mid-August, Óscar Benavídez, a priest from the municipality of Mulukukú, in northern Nicaragua, was arrested by the Police and taken to the dungeons of the dictatorship. A group of foreign missionaries from the order of Mother Teresa of Calcutta was taken out of the country. And even the Apostolic Nuncio, Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, the Polish bishop who acted as diplomatic representative of the Vatican, was expelled from Nicaragua by order of Ortega. According to journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, the attacks on the Catholic Church seek to end “the last space that civil society has left.”
Around that same time, 17 opposition organizations asked the Pope to speak: “We pray for the good offices and the voice of denunciation and condemnation of His Holiness Pope Francis (…) in the face of the serious repression that Nicaragua is experiencing today.”
Tamara Taraciuk, of Human Rights Watch, assured in a dialogue with Andrés Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald that “Pope Francis’ silence on the persecution suffered by the Catholic Church (in Nicaragua) is inadmissible.”
But nothing in this wave of repression seems to move the Pope, who limited himself a few days ago to calling for an “open and sincere” dialogue, without criticizing the repressive actions of the dictatorship or differentiating victims from perpetrators. As a spokesperson for Amnesty International said a few months ago, “in Nicaragua there are not two sides, there is a monopoly of violence exercised by the Ortega government.”
Does his historical closeness to sectors of the left weigh on Francisco’s attitude? What he said recently about the repression in Cuba does not help to dispel these doubts.
Questioned by the Univisión network about the brutal wave of repression by the government of Miguel Díaz-Canel against protesters, opponents and human rights leaders, the pontiff went over the issue and spoke of the Cuban regime in almost complimentary terms: “I had good relations with people Cuban. And also, I confess, I have a human relationship with Raúl Castro (…) Cuba is a symbol, Cuba has a great history.”
More than prudence, his critics see here a serious sin of omission. In his Miami Herald column, Andrés Oppenheimer suggested that the Pope could go down in history as an “accomplice” of the Cuban dictatorship.
The impossible mediation
A separate chapter deserves the case of Ukraine. Since the aggression of the Russian Federation, patented by the invasion of the eastern and southern regions of the country by the army of Vladimir Putin, the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy has asked on numerous occasions that, as dozens of Western leaders, the Pope visits kyiv and thereby sends a sign of solidarity to the Ukrainian people.
Although a few weeks ago he told reporters that a visit to kyiv was on the table, Francis still hasn’t set foot in Ukraine.
And that the requests have multiplied since the first days of the Russian aggression, when the hashtag “But what does the Pope do?” It went viral in Europe and marked a moment of harsh criticism from Catholics and non-Catholics against Francis. The Pope has limited himself to praising the heroism of the Ukrainian people, but has not condemned Putin and, as for Cyril, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church who has given his blessing to Putin and his army, the Pope – who has spent years cultivating his friendship with Cirilo – he hardly dared to tell him that “we are not state clerics, but pastors of the people”.
But nothing has produced more lightning bolts against the pontiff than his statement to the effect that the conflict (which he has never called “aggression”) could be “provoked or not avoided”, ambiguous words that come in handy for Putin and its allies, who argue that the European Union and the United States are to blame for inviting Ukraine and other Russian neighbors to join NATO. And it is true that Washington once wanted Ukraine to join NATO, but it is also true that France and Germany then vetoed that possibility.
The justification for papal timidity in the face of the most serious war on European soil since 1945 has been that if the Pope sides with Ukraine, he will lose his ability to mediate. “Has the Pope ever been asked to go to Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Ethiopia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Iraq or Chechnya, in recent decades?” asks Constance Colonna-Cesari, an expert on Vatican diplomacy and a collaborator of the prestigious French magazine Politique Internationale.
The British Austen Ivereigh, co-author with the Pope of the best-seller Let’s dream together and one of the closest analysts to Francis, maintains that “the Pope wants to avoid falling into the logic of war of thinking about aggressors and victims, good and bad and stay there.”
In any case, if the Pope has remained silent waiting for an opportunity to mediate, the reality is that this opportunity has eluded him, although as Constance Colonna-Cesari says, it is still early to speak of “failure or resignation”.
Waiting for a saving opportunity to become a mediator for Ukraine, the Pope has worn down his credibility and lost respect in Western public opinion. Afflicted by health problems, without having been able to advance solidly in his reform program and by opting for excessive prudence in the face of serious humanitarian crises in the world, the 85-year-old pontiff is experiencing the twilight of his papacy and is left with little what to show for the story.
MAURICIO VARGAS LINARES