Pope Francis: Will the reforms of the 'reform pope' stick?

Vatican watchers say that the pope's efforts to change the Catholic Church and its institutions are meeting resistance – a sign of how significant the reforms really are.

Osserva­tore Romano/Reuters
Pope Francis shakes hands with Gian Franco Mammi (r.), the new director general of the Vatican Bank today at the Vatican November 24, 2015.

He has earned no shortage of appellations since his election: the slum pope, the people’s pope, even the rock-star pope. He has 22 million followers on Twitter.

Pope Francis’ charisma and humility have charmed the world and re-energized the Roman Catholic Church, wounded by more than a decade of scandals over pedophile priests.

The Jesuit pontiff has endeared himself to millions with his down-to-earth behavior – cracking jokes in homilies about mothers-in-law; insisting on carrying his battered black briefcase on papal trips; and living in a modest Vatican guesthouse rather than the opulent Apostolic Palace apartments favored by his predecessors. He's set to be greeted with adoration again starting tomorrow, as he begins a five-day trip to Africa.

But what has he actually been able to achieve in concrete terms since stepping onto the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica one rainy night in March 2013, after being elected to the Seat of St. Peter?

The answer, say Catholic Church insiders and analysts, is a great deal.

Pope Francis’ papacy is undoubtedly strong on gestures and symbols. But beneath the public relations coups, the pope has been busy enacting a series of far-reaching reforms. And while it's too soon to determine how those reforms will endure after his tenure, the magnitude of resistance within the church hierarchy indicates that the stakes are high.

'Profound change is underway'

Perhaps the most concrete change propelled by the pope is to the Vatican’s murky finances. From the very start, he has enacted far-reaching reforms to the scandal-prone Vatican Bank in an attempt to bring it into line with international norms of transparency and accountability.

The bank has in the past been accused by international regulatory bodies of turning a blind eye to money laundering, tax evasion, hidden sources of income, and other abuses. Those practices besmirched the reputation of what Forbes once called "the most secret bank in the world." It also failed to keep up with the stringent banking checks introduced worldwide after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

To remedy that, the pope has brought in outside auditors, overseen the closing down of some accounts, and appointed a new commission to oversee Vatican finances.

There is “a certain urgency” to these efforts, says Francesco Peloso, a Rome-based expert on the Holy See and the author of “The Pope’s Bank – Vatican finances, between scandals and reforms.”

“He’s saying that the problem is very serious and that there are grave risks that unless it is addressed, it will continue to harm the image and credibility of the Holy See and the church," says Mr. Peloso. "Is the reform process finished? No. Will other scandals emerge? Yes, probably. [But] profound change is underway. A re-dimensioning of power is going on.”

Pope Francis has also ordered procedural changes to how the church operates, including in September, when he decreed that the church should make it easier and quicker for Catholics to secure marriage annulments.

Though the pope made clear that the Vatican was not promoting or encouraging divorce, he said the procedure should be free, overturning the practice of Catholics having to pay the church hefty legal fees to have their unions annulled.

Monsignor Pio Vito Pinto, the head of the Vatican appeals court that rules on annulments, said the new rules were the most significant changes since the papacy of Benedict XIV in the 18th century.

Pope Francis is trying to “recover the credibility of the church” but has found himself up against deeply entrenched interests within the Curia, the byzantine governing body of the Vatican, says Ignazio Ingrao, a broadcaster and Vatican analyst for Panorama, an Italian news weekly.

“He’s finding it more complicated and harder than he expected. He’s changed the heads of most of the main congregations and dicasteries [departments of the Curia], but he’s in difficulty and needs support,” says Mr. Ingrao.

Iacopo Scaramuzzi, an expert on the Vatican and the author of “Vatican Tango – the Church in the Age of Francis,” says the pope has “globalized” the Vatican by dismissing or demoting many Italian officials and replacing them with prelates from other nationalities.

“He has changed almost all the top brass, from the president of the Vatican Bank to the Secretariat of the Economy. Nowadays there are Maltese, Germans, and Australians, rather than Italians. The Italian cardinals are in shock. The era in which the Vatican was a very Italian, even Roman, institution is over,” says Mr. Scaramuzzi.

Magnitude of resistance

The fact that opposition to the pope’s reform agenda has emerged is testament to the fact that his changes are having an impact within the fortress-like walls of the tiny city-state.

Walter Kasper, a reform-minded cardinal from Germany who has publicly clashed with conservative opponents, recently criticized what he called “a certain fundamentalism” among traditionalists.

“There is a serious counter-offensive against the openings of Pope Francis,” said Marco Politi, a veteran Vatican analyst and the author of “Pope Francis Among the Wolves – The Inside Story of a Revolution,” a new book on the papacy.

That counter-offensive was evident during the recent synod in October, a gathering of around 270 bishops and cardinals from around the world. During the three-week meeting, they discussed acutely sensitive issues such as abortion, celibacy for priests, and the church’s attitude toward homosexuals.

While opposition to the pope has been expressed openly by conservative cardinals, there have also seem to have been covert attempts to undermine him as well, in the form of post-synod rumors about his poor health or mental acuity. The deliberate leaking of documents by Vatican insiders – which form the basis of two new books – is also being seen as a sign of the resistance that the pope is facing from a disgruntled old guard, which stands to lose power and influence under his ambitious reforms.

Reaching a point of no return

There remains much to do and – according to Pope Francis – little time in which to do it. On several occasions he has said that he expects his to be a short papacy.

"I have the feeling that my pontificate will be brief: four or five years, even two or three. Two have already passed,” he said in an interview earlier this year. “It is a somewhat strange sensation.”

That is a signal of the urgency of his reforms, says Scaramuzzi. “When he says he thinks his papacy will be a short one, it’s a message to his supporters to say, ‘Look, if we want to change the church, we don’t have much time in which to do it.’ ”

Pope Francis is determined to “carry the reforms to a point of no return,” the Vatican analyst says. Some of them are already “radical and irreversible.” Though exactly where the pope will lead the church in the months and years ahead is hard to predict.

“There’s an old joke in the Catholic Church,” says Scaramuzzi with a smile. “Not even God knows what a Jesuit will do next.”

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