Cardinal Farrell: Pope Francis’ critics are wrong. He’s no autocrat.
The 10th anniversary of Pope Francis’ election earlier this month has received the media attention that any papacy, much less one as popular as this one, would be expected to draw. Many columns in mainstream and Catholic media have been devoted to both what Pope Francis has already done as the Catholic Church’s chief pastor and speculation about where he will lead the church in the future.
These evaluations have ranged from praiseworthy to highly critical to a blend of the two. In the category of the most critical are some essays that demand a response because they make questionable claims about the impact of the Holy Father on the Curia, his official family here in Rome, where I serve as the prefect of the Dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life.
The cardinals who elected Pope Francis did so with the expectation that the reform of the Roman Curia should be at the top of his agenda.
The cardinals who elected Pope Francis did so with the expectation that the reform of the Roman Curia should be at the top of his agenda. Many in church governance had come to the conclusion that only a significant intervention into the governance and functioning of the Curia could redeem what had become a sclerotic, ineffective bureaucracy. Francis was faithful to this conviction from the start, which has led to a revised governing document for the Curia with a renewed vision for the role of the Curia as a whole and its individual offices.
Change in an institution as ancient and complex as the Curia inevitably brings with it both hopes and fears, but to claim,as more than one columnist does, that Pope Francis’s 10th anniversary is being greeted more with sorrow than with joy or that that an atmosphere of fear pervades the Vatican is to be far removed from the experience of those of us who work here day to day.
These critics attempt to contrast the public image of Pope Francis as an apostle of God’s mercy with a contrived image of an internal autocratic style that allows no dissent. Unnamed Vatican officials supposedly fear to speak their true minds and lack trust in each other, with the result that the current condition of the church is not honestly discussed at the highest levels of church governance. Do such pundits really believe Pope Francis is capable of such hypocrisy?
I have spent the last seven years working in the Roman Curia. My experience has been far from that of those who would claim that Pope Francis governs through fear.
In every institution or government, even in democracies, there are persons or bodies that have the final say with which not everyone agrees. Undoubtedly, this can be the case in the Curia as well. The unique reverence in which we Catholics hold the pope, because he holds the authority which Christ bestowed on St. Peter and his successors, can obviously make it daunting to disagree with him. But anyone who sees in Pope Francis’ actions an example of extreme papal autocracy needs a refresher course in church history.
Such a historical refresher would not have to go back much beyond the beginning of the 20th century to prove how far Pope Francis is from this ideologically manufactured image of an out-of-touch autocrat. Those critical of his style of governance might do well to consider how it compares to predecessors who presumed (and were granted) far more sweeping authority than Pope Francis in matters of governance and pastoral application.
The present makeup of the Curia guarantees that there will be a variety of opinions represented within it. While Pope Francis did not begin the process of making the Curia an international body that is more representative of the global church, he has remained faithful to the concept of drawing from all over the world for its personnel. Further, he has expanded that concept by not limiting the Curia to those with the kinds of résumés who, in the past, typically received Curial appointments. This has led to a liveliness and openness in the discussions of this varied group—a liveliness and openness that I have experienced firsthand, and that hardly leaves the impression of people hesitating to speak until they are told what Pope Francis thinks.
I have spent the last seven years working in the Roman Curia. My experience has been far from that of those who would claim that Pope Francis governs through fear. In the service of promoting their own anti-Francis agendas, such pundits do an injustice to a brave pope who has called the church to face the future without fear.