'The Vatican Diaries' author John Thavis looks at the Catholic Church under the leadership of Pope Francis
John Thavis released The Vatican Diaries' in 2013 and added a section about Pope Francis for the paperback edition. 'It has struck me how the level of enthusiasm around the world for this new Pope is definitely a notch or two above that inside the Vatican,' the author said.
It may be the best of times for the worldwide Catholic church, which is enjoying a remarkable wave of affection for Pope Francis. But these are no glory days for many of those who toil within the immense bureaucracy of the Vatican.
Pope Francis, the surprise choice of last year's papal conclave, continues his efforts to reform the church by pushing it away from unforgiving edicts, complex theology, and the Vatican itself.
Will the bureaucrats fight back? For perspective, I called author John Thavis, who divides his time between Minnesota and Rome. A former Rome bureau chief with the Catholic News Service, he wrote the bestselling 2013 book "The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church."
"The Vatican Diaries" is now out in paperback with a new section about Pope Francis.
In our interview, Thavis talked about dissent within the Vatican, the Pope's focus on the mother of Jesus and the devil, and the prospects for a long-lasting legacy.
Q: Is there an internal old guard that's working against the Pope in the Vatican bureaucracy known as the Curia?
A: There is an old guard at the Vatican which encompasses much of the Curia, and they've lost control of the papacy.
I've been back to Rome quite often over the past year, and every time it has struck me how the level of enthusiasm around the world for this new Pope is definitely a notch or two above that inside the Vatican.
You hear this when you talk to people who have made their careers there. They're disoriented by this new Pope and apprehensive when they say things how the church needs to decentralize, how it's not some kind of royal court.
He's also made some pointed remarks about the culture inside the Vatican, and they're not very flattering to people. And they're concerned that his first step was to name eight cardinals, almost all of whom live outside of Rome. He's not turning to the usual suspects and asking them to reform themselves.
Q: Can the old guard resist the Pope's reforms?
A: They're uncomfortable, but I don't think they're in a position to resist this. The Pope is the Pope. He's made it clear he wants change, and he has a mandate from the conclave.
Also, the Vatican culture is still largely driven by the Pope. If you're a Curia agency, you don't embark on some major new project without his blessing. Few new projects have begun because he's essentially ignoring them.
That's about the worst thing that can happen to the bureaucracy. They tend to justify their own existence by creating documents and holding conferences, and I've seen a big drop-off in that kind of activity over the past year.
This reflects his agenda. He believes the church has spoken enough about its theology and should be less focused on the bureaucratic and theoretical aspects of the Catholic faith.
Q: Apart from his increased focus on tolerance, what other messages is Pope Francis sending to the world?
A: He's not an erudite theologian. Instead, he reflects a lot of the grassroots experience of Catholicism in Latin America. He believes in prayer, in the gospel, in the daily mass.
He wants to spread the message that you have been saved by Jesus: Come meet us, we are a joyful community.
Q: What about his focus on uniquely Catholic issues, like the intense focus on Mary?
A: His devotion to Mary, mother of God, is very deep. One of his first acts as pope was to go to a Roman church and pray before a statue of Mary.
Pope Francis does not approach Mary from a theological point of view. He approaches her as a mother and as a sacrificial figure, and that's probably different than how Pope Benedict would have written or spoken about Mary.
This resonates with a lot of Catholics around the world, especially in Latin America, where devotion to Mary is quite common.
Q: What does the Pope focus on when it comes to the concept of evil?
A: He emphasizes the devil. We don't talk much about the devil in Western society, but this pope talks about the devil quite frequently.
If you asked him if the devil is real, he'd say yes. If you asked theologians teaching in Western universities, their answers would be much more nuanced.
One of his first talks mentioned the strength of the devil. He recently said that you don't try to dialogue or argue with the devil, you don't try to compromise.
Q: What's coming up on his agenda?
A: In terms of his reforms, I think structural reforms are going to go forward quickly. I expect he'll have a project to overhaul and streamline the Roman Curia within the next year, which is very fast in Vatican time.
At the same time, he's already laid out a strategy for talking about some very tough pastoral issues.
They'll surface in October when he meets with bishops. He expects to hear their voices about problems like the situation with divorced and remarried Catholics who cannot accept communion. He wants the bishops to come up with some pastoral creativity here.
I expect they'll also discuss birth control. The Pope has said the Catholic teachings are fine, but he said we need to find a way to reach the Catholic couples who find it impossible to accept them.
He's willing to raise these issues, throw them out there and say, "We need to have a dialogue here." He realizes there are elephants in the room, and the church can't keep ignoring them.
Q: What's next for his presence on the world stage?
A: He's traveling to the Holy Land and to Asia, going to Korea in August. He knows that Asia represents the biggest potential growth area for the church in the coming 10 or 20 years, with or without China.
Q: What are the limits of his push for reform?
A: Gay marriage, women's ordination – he's not going to touch those teachings, nor the actual teaching on birth control.
There are other limits, too. From a US point of view, one is the Catholic sex abuse scandal.
This is not a burning issue on his agenda. He believes the church has turned the corner on this, that they've put in safeguards and don't need to talk about it all the time. That's struck some Catholics in this country as a kind of gap.
A big question is whether he brings women – and laypeople in general – into decision-making positions in the Vatican. There will be some disappointment if he streamlines the bureaucracy but keeps cardinals, priests and bishops running the show.
Q: How might he change things in the long term for the Catholic church?
A: If he enjoys a number of productive years on the throne, this could be a pontificate that transforms the Catholic church in many, many ways.
It depends on whether he gets the rest of the church's hierarchy on board and whether the things he says start to be heard at local parishes on Sundays.
It also depends on how many years he has to bring in his own people. Over the next five years, he will have a chance to name half of the cardinals who will vote in the next conclave. He'll also have had a chance to name one third or half the bishops around the world.
The more time he has to appoint people, the more his impact will be.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.