Three years ago this March, Pope Francis made a startling observation during an interview with the Mexican media company Televisa: “I have the sense that my pontificate will be brief: four or five years.” Since two years had already passed since his election on March 13, 2013, Francis’ offhand remark seemed to put an unexpectedly short timeline on his papacy.
We now mark five years of Francis’ pontificate. The editors of America wish him many more. “Hagan lio,” he told a crowd of millions at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro in 2013, “Make some noise,” and there is no question that this pontificate has done just that.
Jorge Bergoglio’s own experiences in Jesuit ministries and as archbishop of Buenos Aires clearly molded him to be an outspoken pope of the poor, the marginalized and the victims of a throwaway culture. He has bluntly rejected the wealth and trappings of his office, and the simple gestures that have accompanied this conviction will be the enduring symbols of his pontificate. Francis has intensified his predecessor Benedict XVI’s strong condemnations of war, an unfettered market and growing economic disparity; he has also offered a blunt but welcome prophetic voice of correction to international leaders, including President Trump.
Jorge Bergoglio’s own experiences in Jesuit ministries and as archbishop of Buenos Aires clearly molded him to be an outspoken pope of the poor, the marginalized and the victims of a throwaway culture.
In five years, Francis has produced three landmark documents. First came his apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” (“Evangelii Gaudium,” 2013), in which he sketched out his vision of a church whose strengths and resources should “be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation” (No. 27). It was followed soon after by “Laudato Si’.” While widely received as a call for environmental protections and a critique of consumerism, the encyclical is also one of the most important social justice encyclicals in history. “Everything is related,” Pope Francis wrote. We cannot affirm the rights of humanity while denying the dignity of our environmental home; we cannot abort or euthanize or marginalize unwanted humans as if they were trash; and we cannot trash the planet in the pursuit of wealth or ease or misbegotten notions of freedom.
More controversial was Francis’ post-synodal exhortation on the family, “The Joy of Love” (“Amoris Laetitia,” 2016). That exhortation, which looked at a broad range of topics related to human love, also opened up the possibility for those who are divorced and remarried to return to the sacraments under certain conditions. That pastoral concession has drawn the loudest cries: affirmations from many living and ministering in difficult pastoral situations and vigorous criticism from those who charge that the pope is contradicting the doctrine of the church.
A quieter but more dramatic shift is the new emphasis in “Amoris Laetitia” on the authority of the local bishop in the pastoral application of universal church law. Critics of this devolution of authority say that it will result in the church teaching in one town what is not taught in another, which is contrary to the universality of the church. But this criticism confuses universality with uniformity, an error against which Francis has been outspoken. Respect for the authority of local structures in the church will help us to regain a sense of the ecclesiology of communion while also respecting cultural differences.
Francis’ post-synodal exhortation on the family opened up the possibility for those who are divorced and remarried to return to the sacraments.
Such hopeful lights make the shadows of this pontificate all the more disappointing. None has been more painful than Francis’ uneven response to sexual abuse in the church, precisely because those who have been abused by clergy are some of the most obvious victims of the throwaway culture Francis condemns. The pope recently appointed new members to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors he created in 2014, including lay representatives, hopefully giving the commission new life after repeated complaints from previous members that some Vatican officials were refusing to cooperate with the commission. Worse is the ongoing crisis of the church in Chile, where Francis defended a bishop accused of failing to report sexual abuse despite substantial evidence of wrongdoing, going so far as to accuse the bishop’s accusers of slander. While Francis has since apologized for his insensitivity and dispatched a high-ranking official to investigate the claims, the damage to already wounded hearts and to the pope’s credibility was great.
Vatican reform has also foundered despite Francis’ appointment in 2013 of a council of cardinals tasked with overhauling the Vatican Curia. Little public progress has been made to cure the Vatican’s sclerotic culture, and much in the Vatican’s operations remains as opaque as ever. Ecclesia semper reformanda est. A church newly open to mission must be a church that listens to voices it has ignored in the past to its great detriment, first and foremost those of women.
On the level of diplomacy and ecclesiology, recent weeks have brought new signs of hope for the Catholic Church in China. Francis has continued the delicate and frustrating work of engagement with the Chinese government to normalize the church’s life in that nation. Controversial but pragmatic moves toward a policy of jointly appointing bishops with the government have raised the possibility of reaching a long-desired goal: a united Catholic Church in China for the first time in 70 years. Matteo Ricci, S.J. would be proud.
This litany of lights and shadows speaks to a larger matter: the personal goal that Francis seems to have set for his papacy. His critics are certainly right about one thing: He does indeed seek “to change the church,” not in its essentials, but in its orientation to the contemporary world. The church is “not a catalog of prohibitions” to be enforced, Pope Benedict XVI reminded us, nor is it an elite club for the saved. We must not forget that the church is her mission. As Pope Francis said before the conclave in which he was elected, the church must go out of itself to proclaim fully the invitation to join in Christ’s mission of salvation and redemption. Five years into this groundbreaking papacy, there is much more noise to be made.