Pope Francis is 80 on Saturday – the age at which cardinals must retire from the electoral college, which will choose the next leader of the world’s 1.2bn Roman Catholics. Will Francis also go at 80? In the past, popes ignored the watershed. They went on until they died. But Benedict XVI changed things when he became the first leader of the Catholic church to resign in more than 500 years. Francis has indicated that he might retire too. It is vital, not just for the church but the world, that he does not.
The two popes before Francis were conservatives. Between them, John Paul II and his successor, Benedict, set the public tone of Catholicism for more than three decades. In just three years, Francis has gone some way to hauling the church back towards the centre. But the ideological right is increasingly fighting back. Their private criticism of the first pope from the global south is turning to public dissent. Now is not the time for Francis to have innovative thoughts about institutionalising papal retirement by stepping down.
Francis is not the liberal the secular media sometimes paint him. He takes the traditional Catholic line on abortion, contraception, gay marriage and women priests. And yet his positions can be more nuanced than the right can tolerate. Gay people have felt welcomed by his famous “who am I to judge?” remark. He has invited transgender people into the Vatican and physically embraced them. He has opened the path to fuller inclusion of divorced and remarried Catholics with the church. He has set up a commission to investigate the possibility of women deacons, which many see as the first step to female priests. And, at the recent 500th anniversary of the Reformation, he acknowledged that Martin Luther had a point about spiritual corruption within the Catholic church.
All this – together with his sweeping reforms of Vatican finances, his work to remodel the bureaucracy known as the Curia, and his moves to empower the wider church and rid the papacy of its monarchical status – have gone down badly with traditionalists.
Some of the men who became bishops during the previous 35-year conservative ascendancy have reacted with sullen silence, in what one Vatican veteran described as “passive-aggressive non-compliance”. But others have been publicly hostile or disdainful – and some are now openly resisting him. Just a month ago, four ultra-traditionalist cardinals issued a public challenge to the pope. They said that his ruling that, in certain circumstances, remarried Catholics might take communion could require a “formal act of correction” from the College of Cardinals. They published five dubia – doubts – virtually accusing the sitting pope of heresy: something without precedent in recent Catholic history. Those who rely on the internet for their information might be forgiven for supposing a civil war is raging inside the Catholic church. That is certainly what the “culture warriors” in the US – which is where many of the most ideological hardliners are to be found – want the world to believe.
They paint a picture of a Catholic majority, loyal to the unchanging traditions and teachings of the church, locked in combat with a progressive pope who is diluting doctrine and capitulating to the moral relativism of contemporary secularism.
Such nonsense flies in the teeth of opinion polls, which show that 85% of US Catholics approve of this pope. Talk to Catholics in the pews in the United States and you encounter a less rigid, more generous, more pastoral mood than is evident among some of their bishops. In Europe and the UK, too, the vast majority of Catholics love this pope.
The church has always married aspirational ideals with a pragmatic pastoral compassion. Francis enshrined this subterranean pragmatism in official teaching when he issued his document Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) in April, after a two-year synod process. His critics accuse him of being wilfully vague in the document and deliberately avoiding doctrinal clarity; the pope’s response is that people are more important than dogma.
Mercy is the prime gospel value for Francis. It has been the dominant theme of his time as pope. During his Year of Mercy, which ended last month, Francis made that concrete with a series of private visits to vulnerable and marginalised groups. He ended with an encounter – to the discomfit of traditionalists – with men who left the priesthood to marry, and with their wives and children, too.“We have to meet people where they are,” he has said. This pope is playing a long game. He has refused to reply to the four cardinal critics but has indirectly attacked them for rigidity, legalism, psychological inadequacy and generallybehaving like the Pharisees who tried to trap Jesus with trick questions in the gospels. Publicly, he has declared himself unworried by a vociferous minority. “I’m not losing sleep over it,” he told an interviewer recently, adding that he would continue to follow the path of the second Vatican council, which turned the church away from sacramental introspection towards engagement with the wider world – a reform that many conservatives have spent the past four decades trying to undo.
Instead, the Pope has been quietly moving to restore a more moderate tone to the church. He has just sacked all the conservatives from the body that governs Catholic worship. He bypassed the three leading rightwing US archbishops who expected red hats when he created 19 new cardinals last month. And the head of the Vatican’s main working court this week declared that the four cardinal critics could be stripped of their red hats.
Francis may not go that far but he is steadily filling the College of Cardinals with moderate pastors rather than doctrinal ideologues. For the first time in history, Europeans are outnumbered by the rest of the world in the body that will elect the next pope. Cardinals have been appointed from 11 countries that have never before been represented.Almost half the electors are now from the poor world.
But Francis has named only 44 of those electors, compared with 76 created by previous conservative popes. If he wants to secure his legacy he must not retire yet.
Paul Vallely is author of Pope Francis: Untying the Knots – The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism.