The Pope's first year: Have we created a Fantasy Francis for ourselves?

Peter Stanford warns that, despite the hope for change invested in him, this Pope is a conservative at heart

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The Independent Online

Catholicism has long been fond of lists and calibration: the 10 commandments, the seven deadly sins, the four sins crying out to heaven for vengeance, the three persons in one God. And so, as Pope Francis nears the first anniversary of his election as the leader of this global church of 1.2 billion souls, it feels natural enough to attempt to quantify what he has achieved so far, and what he has only promised.

The instinct to make such a measurement is all the stronger because of the almost hysterical hymn of praise with which the secular world has lauded the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio since he surprisingly emerged on 13 March, 2013 as the church's first Latin American pope, and the first Jesuit to sit on Saint Peter's throne.

Presidents and prime ministers have flocked to meet the new superstar incumbent in the Vatican. His every pronouncement is greeted with uncritical applause. People love him. The "Francis effect" has pushed up sales of papal souvenirs by a reported 200 per cent. Liberal commenters outdo each other to garland him with hallelujahs – Jonathan Freedland labelling him "the obvious new hero of the left" and suggesting his benign face will soon be decorating student bedsits. Rolling Stone magazine has featured "Papa Francesco" on its cover, Esquire has (bizarrely, since he only has one outfit) made him its best-dressed figure of the year, and, symbolic of the current climate, Time named him its person of the year, saying he "is poised to transform a place that measures change by the century".

But is he, really? Or is this wishful thinking, or worse, ignorance?


Those who know the workings of the Catholic Church fear the latter. Luke Coppen, the long-serving editor of The Catholic Herald, recently wrote of the creation of a "fantasy Francis – the figure conjured up by liberal imagination". He cites the example of the Vatican official spokesman having to issue a statement to deny a much-quoted report in La Repubblica, the Italian newspaper, by a respected columnist, that Francis was about to abolish sin altogether. And no, it wasn't an April Fool.

And within the ranks of British Catholicism, Francis has, undeniably, been both a breath of fresh air and a blessed relief. Until his arrival, many of us had grown used to a pretty hostile reaction when we revealed our faith allegiance. This was due to a toxic cocktail made up of the unfolding scandal of sex abuse by clerics, the keynote Catholic teachings on matters such as the role of women, homosexuality, and divorce that make us sound like heartless dinosaurs, and the incontrovertible evidence of corruption and cronyism inside the Vatican itself.

Many had despaired of change ever coming. You have to go back to the 1960s and the Second Vatican Council for the last time Catholicism attempted reform, what it then called "aggiornamento", bringing things up to date.

Arguably, it has spent the next half century trying to reverse what some senior clerics clearly regarded as a moment of madness. But now, with Francis, hope is reborn.

Remarkably, he has generated this new attitude – within and outside the church – mainly by sheer force of personality. There's that smile that tells you, immediately, that here is a good and humble man. Then he preaches "a poor church, for the poor" – and who can disagree that is what the gospels intended – and, better still, Francis lives out his own words. So, he has eschewed the fancy papal apartment in favour of a pilgrim's hostel, he has left the papal limos in the garage and told his bishops to do likewise, and he has sold off the expensive gifts he was given by admirers and has spent the money on the alleviation of poverty.

Pope Francis greets the crowds earlier this month

His words, too, have been as manna from Heaven. When challenged over the role of gay Catholics, he replied with a question: "If a person is gay and seeks God, who am I to judge him?" He might have added: "as has every one of my predecessors for centuries". There have also been his remarks on the role of women. Pope John Paul II, in 1994, decreed that women's ordination would not only never happen, but that Catholics shouldn't even speak about it. "The challenge today," Pope Francis said last September, in an interview with Italian Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica, "is to think about the specific place of women in those places where the authority of the church is exercised".

Such remarks will, as he intends, begin to soften and reform attitudes but, in more straightforward practical terms, what tangible change has been achieved, beyond words, in this first year?

Well, in the plus column, Francis has established a commission of eight cardinals, drawn from around the globe, and all but one of them with no connection to the discredited Vatican Curia (papal court), to effect a root-and-branch reform of a clerical bureaucracy that is the biggest obstacle to reform in the church. And it has already taken drastic action to overhaul the scandal-ridden Vatican Bank, jettisoning from its governing board a whole host of high-ranking favourites of the previous pope.

Francis has also taken the extraordinary – for Catholicism – step of sending out a questionnaire (or "Lineamenta") to bishops around the world to find out what the laity feels, in preparation for a synod on the family in October.

We're just not used to being asked, but this document touches, albeit indirectly, on some of the most controversial Catholic doctrines around sexuality, contraception, gender and abortion.

The Catholic bishops of England and Wales have lamentably decided not to publish the results, but their German and Swiss counterparts have been more open – and what they have reported should make plain to even the most fervent Francis groupie the sheer scale of the task facing their man if he is to translate words, goodwill and gestures into something more meaningful that can heal the hitherto unspoken schism between pews and pulpit in the church.

The Swiss bishops, in their preamble, highlighted the "alarming alienation" that the survey trumpets between official church teaching and the way devout, mass-going Catholics live their lives.

Six out of 10 Swiss Catholics, for example, approved of the church blessing same-sex partnerships. Pope Benedict had previously labelled civil partnerships "the legitimisation of evil". In Germany, nine out of 10 Catholics getting married in church, their responses show, have lived together first. And just 3 per cent of German Catholics who filled in the questionnaire agreed with church teaching, which bans condoms, coils and pills. They found it "incomprehensible".

None of this will come as a surprise to either lay Catholics, or to our bishops. But the tacit agreement to sweep such matters under the carpet has now been broken by Pope Francis. He cannot simply ignore the findings unless he wants to lose all credibility. How quickly those approval ratings will fall if he starts reasserting traditional teaching and traditional deafness within the Vatican.

And yet those who have known him for longest, warn that he is, at heart, a conservative. His instinct, they say, is to tackle the human misery caused to those who fall foul of the church's ideals, rather than rewrite the rules.

It may just come down to another of those time-honoured Catholic formulations: "hate the sin and love the sinner". The flaw in all of this, though, is that it relies on those who are divorced and remarried, or gay, to accept that their lives are sinful. And, even as they go along to mass every Sunday, most simply don't.

Peter Stanford is a former editor of 'The Catholic Herald'

Mark Dowd, former Dominican friar and homosexual Christian, outside the Church of Our Lady Of The Assumption and St Gregory in London,

Keeping faith: On the fringe

Mark Dowd, writer and broadcaster, is chair of the pastoral council of LGBT Catholics, Westminster

"Reactions among gay Catholics to Pope Francis have been mixed. Some say that, while it is good that he has said nice things about us, such as his 'who am I to judge?' remark, nothing has changed in the teaching, and so we remain outsiders in Catholicism, not accepted as equals because of our sexual orientation.

"That cynical attitude is, perhaps, more prevalent among an older generation, who have lived for decades in a church that uses the language of 'disorder' to describe them. Understandably they remain angry and hurt at the suffering such treatment has caused. But among younger gay Catholics, in their forties and below, Francis is a cause of optimism.

"It's the simple things. He's used the word 'gay' four or five times, the same word we use about ourselves, and that shows that, potentially, he looks at the world the same way that we look at it.

"There is, undoubtedly, a realisation about how change comes in Catholicism. So, if Francis is changing what you might call the mood music, then he is creating a more relaxed atmosphere where gay Catholics might risk becoming openly part of a parish community. That is what has happened with our group since, together, we started participating in Sunday evening Mass twice a month at Farm Street Church in central London. Other parishioners experience us as people, not as those LGBT Catholics 'out there'."

Myra Poole is a Notre Dame de Namur nun, a retired headteacher, and a member of the central co-ordinating group at Catholic Women's Ordination (CWO) which campaigns for female priests

"We want to work with Pope Francis. We regard Pope Francis as good news for the Catholic Church, but we are very aware that there is a long way to go as far as the place of women in the church is concerned. The most positive thing he has said about women, so far, is the need to develop a more positive theology on women. We, in CWO, know that the inherited negative theology on women is the big faultline that runs right through the teaching and language of our church.

"On the negative side, Francis has also said that on the question of women's ordination 'the door is closed'. Still, we're determined to be positive. Even if a door is closed, it has hinges, knockers and above all a keyhole to unlock it. There have been positive signs. In this country, for the first time, CWO is soon going to be allowed to hold one of its meetings in a Catholic church. Small steps, we know, but things are moving."

Mike Fryer is a spokesperson for the Association of Separated and Divorced Catholics

"This past year has shown the world that Pope Francis is an exceptional man. Among separated and divorced Catholics there is a strong sense that, because he has got such an instinctive feeling for the realities of the lives of ordinary people, he will be a pope who finally understands the pain we have been through when our marriages end.

"The Catholic Church hasn't always been that welcoming to us. There was a time when we were seen as pariahs and our organisation would put up notices about our meetings in church porches only to see them taken down. But attitudes have been slowly changing for a number of years. There are still, though, many Catholics unable to go to the sacraments because they have divorced and remarried without waiting for an annulment of their first marriage from the church. That was once my situation, though finally my annulment did come through.

"Will Pope Francis change the Church's rules about remarriage? There has been a lot of debate about the need for reform in the past year, especially among German bishops, but I don't expect any great pronouncements about church teaching on marriage and divorce from Francis. He's not a revolutionary. He is warm, though, and we separated and divorced Catholics respond well to that warmth. It will be, I think, a question of him taking a softer line, with more sympathy for the situation in which many Catholics find themselves. And that's important because I can remember the pain of not being able to go to Holy Communion because I'd remarried."