Exactly ten years ago this morning to the very hour (given the time difference), I was working on an article about the 2013 conclave for this site in the lobby of the Atlante Star Hotel in Rome. So, I remember the exact moment when the big flat-screen television there showed the white smoke coming from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel – and the hotel staff began shouting, “É l’americano!” They were wrong. It wasn’t – as they expected – NY’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, whose large personality had been making a big impression in Italian media.
People began running to St. Peter’s Square. Me included. I wanted to see with my own eyes a rare event like that before going to the rooftop studio to do my duty as part of the EWTN “Conclave Crew” (precursor to the Papal Posse). St. Peter’s is one of the largest squares in Europe, but it filled up almost instantly. It was raining and noisy and almost impossible to see the loggia of the basilica through the forest of cell phones and iPads people held up as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, stepped out.
The choice of a pope is always a surprise, almost a mystery, but this one was especially so since no one expected it to be him. He immediately set a personal tone. John Paul II had famously proclaimed, “Be not afraid!” Benedict XVI, a less demonstrative man, said plainly, “Dear brothers and sisters, after the great Pope John Paul II, the cardinals have elected me, a simple, humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord.” Francis’s first words were, “Buona sera.” In the moment, a charming casualness. Despite many later reports of a fiery Latin temper, it’s remained clear that Papa Bergoglio has a remarkable ability, when he wants, to turn on the charm.
People began to speak of “the Francis Effect,” the hope that a less “judgmental” and more welcoming Church would attract outsiders and reignite evangelical fervor. I myself, before the conclave even started, was thinking that maybe we needed a pastoral not a teaching pope who would implement the great intellectual and social legacies of JPII and Benedict everywhere in the Church, all the way down to the parish level. And for a brief moment, it seemed that was what we got.
At least, that was the image that Francis maintained in the media over those first days. But it was precisely among the media, thousands of whom he invited to a special gathering a few days after his election, that other traits began to appear. He praised the journalists present for recognizing that the election was a spiritual, not merely a political, process. At EWTN, we recognized that, but almost all the other “journalists” were only interested in abortion, gays, women priests. Still, a clever opening gambit that, for the moment, charmed a group in large part hostile to the Church.
Then, things took an ominous turn. Explaining – in Spanish now at the journalists’ gathering – that he knew that many in the crowd were not believers, he said he would not give his apostolic blessing outwardly, but would only say it silently. He inclined his head for a few moments then walked off the stage.
I wanted to think at the time that this might be a shrewd evangelizing strategy that might produce good effects. But after a grace period of several months, during which it became increasingly difficult to figure out exactly what Francis was up to, it became clear that the press – and the world – took his gestures another way: as a sign that this new pontiff would be a non-combatant in the “culture war.”
Indeed, he early on rebuked – no missing the hostility – those Catholics he categorized as “insisting” and “obsessing” about abortion, gays, and all the other usual points of conflict, as posing a threat to the Church. He emphasized the need for mercy not only as a theological but a practical matter: “Otherwise even the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards.”
This odd judgment did not go down well, to say the least, with fervent Catholics who had sacrificed to defend children in the womb and marriage – and who have succeeded on several fronts over the past decade, without noticeable harm to the Church.
And ever since, a confusing ambiguity has been the modus operandi. For example, Francis has said multiple times that abortion is “like hiring a hitman to solve a problem.” He has excommunicated actual hit men in Southern Italy, but when it’s a matter of the worldwide slaughter of the innocents – more than 60 million year after year – he has done little.
The same with LGBT questions. Just three days ago, in an interview with the Argentinian publication La Nación, he rightly said: “Gender ideology, today, is one of the most dangerous ideological colonizations. . . .Why is it dangerous? Because it blurs differences and the value of men and women.”
Quite so, and if we have ideological hit men and ideological gender colonizers running loose in large numbers, primarily in the developed world, and seeking to extend their dominance everywhere via international institutions, “mercy” – if it’s to be effective in protecting the innocent, and not mere talk – ought to be driving the Church to do something concrete to stop them. Maybe even obsessing a little.
One of the sour fruits of the excessive emphasis on mercy is quite evident in the way “Synodality” is developing in the Church. There’s a definite connection between a desire to be merciful – to favored sinners – and, say, the German bishops’ Synodale Weg, which is ready to celebrate several things that the Church has always declared sins. And the German synod is only the most open instance of what is very likely to happen with the worldwide Synods this October and October 2024.
Mercy was also quite present in the papacies of John Paul II (see his Dives in Misericordia i.e., “Rich in Mercy”) and of Benedict XVI (“Mercy is in reality the core of the Gospel message; it is the name of God Himself, the face with which He reveals Himself in the Old Testament and fully in Jesus Christ, the Incarnation of creative and redemptive love.’). But in the past ten years, it has morphed into something else: “inclusion” and “openness,” in the current secular not their authentic Christian meanings – contrary to historic Christianity.
So, after ten years, what has been “the Francis effect”? In the plus column, there’s been a modest reform of Vatican finances, but also a financial crisis that may reflect continuing lay worries about where money is going. And there are some improvements in dealing with sexual abuse, though the special treatment given the pope’s friends – even the Satanic Marko Rupnik – has made the effort seem somewhat short of serious.
It’s painful for a Catholic to have to say it, but needs saying out of fidelity to the truth: the Francis Effect has resulted in a Church that has not, as hoped, attracted people from outside and has left those within even more confused and divided.
*Photo: Nacho Arteaga/Unsplash [via University of Birmingham]
You may also enjoy:
Fr. Gerald E. Murray’s Pope Francis Oversteps the Papal Office
Brad Miner’s Francis Fatigue