This Pope Does Not “Do” Doctrine

If you are puzzled, even disoriented by the Holy Father’s conduct of his pontificate (and I stress at the outset that what follows is not intended as an attack on it) you may be reassured by an article in this month’s National Geographic magazine, which contains some possibly indiscreet remarks by the Pope’s spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi, which indicate that you are not alone. I say “possibly” indiscreet, since as he is the Pope’s director of communications, maybe what he says is something the Holy Father doesn’t mind us knowing.

This is from an account of a conversation between the Pope’s spokesman when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Federico Wals, and Fr Lombardi. “So, Father,” the Argentine asked, “how do you feel about my former boss?” Managing a smile, Fr Lombardi replied: “Confused.” He described the contrast between the way Pope Benedict would give an account of a conversation with some world leader and the way Pope Francis does it.

After meeting with a world leader, the former pope would emerge and rattle off an incisive summation, Lombardi tells me, with palpable wistfulness: “It was incredible. Benedict was so clear. He would say, ‘We have spoken about these things, I agree with these points, I would argue against these other points, the objective of our next meeting will be this’—two minutes and I’m totally clear about what the contents were. With Francis—‘This is a wise man; he has had these interesting experiences.’ Chuckling somewhat helplessly, Lombardi adds, “Diplomacy for Francis is not so much about strategy but instead, ‘I have met this person, we now have a personal relation, let us now do good for the people and for the Church.’”

No one knows all of what he’s doing, according to Fr Lombardi. “His personal secretary doesn’t even know. I have to call around: One person knows one part of his schedule, someone else knows another part.” The previous day, the Pope had hosted a gathering in Casa Santa Marta of 40 Jewish leaders—and the Vatican press office learned about it only after the fact. Fr Lombardi shrugged his shoulders and simply said: “This is the life.”


Traditionally, the pope’s Secretary of State is the man to go to if you want to find out what the pope’s plans are and where he is. What this Pope didn’t want, however, was anyone remotely like Pope Benedict’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, known to many as the “vice-pope,” a man of inordinate ambition allegedly deeply involved in power struggles within the Vatican. Pope Benedict’s response to complaints about Cardinal Bertone had always been a resigned “We are an old pope.”

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Francis’s Secretary of State, is trusted by Pope Francis, according to his Argentinian former spokesman, “because he’s not too ambitious, and the Pope knows that. That’s a fundamental quality for the Pope.” At the same time, Francis has drastically reduced the Secretary of State’s powers. “The problem with this,” according to Fr Lombardi, “is that the structure of the Curia is no longer clear … the Pope has many relations that are directed by him alone, without any mediation.”

In the Vatican, there is widespread confusion over the Pope’s apparent unpredictability. “Totally spontaneous,” Fr Lombardi says of Francis’s much commented-on actions during his recent visit to the Middle East—notably his embrace of an imam, Omar Abboud, a rabbi, and his Argentinian friend Abraham Skorka, after praying with them at the Western Wall. But in fact, Skorka says, “I discussed it with him before we left for the Holy Land—I told him, ‘This is my dream, to embrace beside the wall you and Omar.’”

Maybe his unpredictability is more calculated than we have supposed? Maybe it is part of his campaign to reform the Roman Curia, which had clearly become corrupt and over-powerful. Everyone still remembers his 2014 Christmas rant to the Church’s highest-ranking officials, including a list of 15 “ailments” that he said plagued the Vatican’s bureaucracy. He portrayed a Church hierarchy that had lost its humanity at times, a body consumed by narcissism, where men who are meant to serve God with optimism instead presented a hardened, sterile face to the world. He denounced the “pathology of power,” and the “spiritual Alzheimer’s” that has made leaders of the Catholic church forget they are supposed to be joyful.

Well, they didn’t like it much: the question is, was he right? The “confusion” still felt within the Vatican, and reported by Fr Lombardi, may well be part of a tactic to get on top of the Roman Curia: who knows?

But what about the rest of us? I’m confused too: after the publication of Laudato Si (my views on which, if you’re interested, may be read here) I was angry, as well, at least at first.

It may be, who knows, that I am expecting too much from my Pope. When I became a Catholic, Pope John Paul was the reigning pontiff. Unlike Pope Francis, who leaves doctrine to the CDF (thank God for that at least), Pope John Paul saw doctrine as his greatest priority: given the doctrinal chaos the Church was rent by, he had to.

His greatest achievement, indeed, was that he did more than any pope of the last century to re-establish the authority of the Magisterium, to reassert beyond any doubt the stable and objective character of Catholic teaching. He discredited the “alternative magisterium,” not by suppressing individuals (though Fr Küng, for instance, had his license to teach Catholic doctrine removed) but by clear and unequivocal teaching. As a result, he made it possible once more for hundreds of thousands of non-Catholics like myself to come into full communion with the Holy See. We had been enabled at last to come home, to escape finally from ecclesial communities in which there was no means of coming to a clear mind about anything.

Pope Benedict, with his hermeneutic of continuity, his restoration of the Usus Antiquior to normal use, and so much else besides, continued Pope John Paul’s great project (of which, of course, he had been one of the chief architects).

They were the only popes I had known, as a Catholic. I thought that was what popes were for: defending and articulating the Magisterium. One Sunday morning after Mass, having just written about Laudato Si’ (actually, in some distress: I don’t like criticising the pope: this Pope, any pope) I responded to a priest who asked how I was. “Confused and distressed,” I said. “What by”? “Well, the Pope. Especially by this encyclical.”

“Ah,” he said, smiling. “The encyclical. I haven’t read it, and I don’t suppose I will. We don’t have to, you know. And don’t be upset by the Pope. Popes come and popes go. A great one is a wonderful bonus: we just had two in a row. But it’s the Church we depend on.”

This Pope may well have his particular vocation, too: but we will probably only know what it is many years from now: we may not live to understand it, nor even may he.

So, there I leave it. Confused? Don’t be: there’s so much we can be certain of. That’s what will save us in the end. What else is there to say?

Editor’s note: This column first appeared August 13, 2015 in the Catholic Herald of London and is reprinted with permission. 

Photo caption: Pope Francis greets pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square during the Wednesday general audience on August 27, 2014. (Photo credit: Daniel Ibáñez / CNA.)

Dr. William Oddie


Dr. William Oddie is a leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster. He edited The Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004 and is the author of The Roman Option and Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy.

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