Will the Pope’s project result in real reform—or turn Rome into a Buenos Aires-on-Tiber?

The mainstream media portrait of Francis as a smiling, friendly old grandpa has always been at the very best a gross caricature, and more often a poorly executed grotesque in the service of an incredible narrative of Francis as darling of the mainstream media’s favorite pet causes.

Pope Francis gestures during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Jan. 31. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The first month of 2018 has not been smooth sailing for Pope Francis. Within the space of four weeks, he has brought his record of leadership in the ongoing fight against clerical sexual abuse of minors under intense (and frankly overdue) scrutiny, and drawn the ire of a man universally recognized as a hero of the faith over his China policy. In addition to these major crises, he has faced increasing criticism on a whole host of issues, ranging from the controversy over the proper interpretation and implementation of the post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris laetitia, to the “rethinking” of the teachings articulated in the encyclical letter Humanae vitae, on the regulation of birth. It is not too much to say that Pope Francis’ ability to respond to the major crises will determine in large part his ability to address himself to the work of reform he was elected to undertake and oversee.

All of that followed a dust-up over remarks by the Cardinal Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, that appeared during a broad-ranging interview with Vatican Media at the start of the year – an interview deserving of attention, insofar as it lays out the programmatic vision of a major Vatican official for the work of Pope Francis in 2018.

In particular, Cardinal Parolin drew the attention of critics for his talk of a “new paradigm” in the Church.

The talk of a new paradigm is telling, though probably not in the way that most of the commentary has suggested. To parse the language fairly, the first thing to note is that the Secretary of State deployed it only after laying out the terms controlling its deployment, namely, the shift of emphasis for which Francis is calling in relation to young people. “I believe that the most innovative aspect of this approach,” Parolin said in response to a prompt from interviewer Alessandro Gisotti regarding the expectations of the Church from the youth of the world, “is the search for a new relationship between the Church and young people, based on a paradigm of responsibility exempt from all paternalism.”

It would be easy (too easy) to impugn the language as the “smoking gun” that proves the Pope is a Marxist (he’s not) or dismiss it as boilerplate. The more difficult, and more useful project is to put the best possible construction on it and see what there is to see in it.

Cardinal Parolin went on to quote the famous line from U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Parolin continued, saying, “I believe that this is, at bottom, also the [essence of the] innovative approach: that is, the Church asks young people – the Pope, the Church – both ask young people what they can do for the Church, what contribution they can give to the Gospel, to the spread of the Gospel, today – and I believe that young people will be able to respond to this invitation with their generosity and also with their enthusiasm.”

There really is nothing wrong with that, and just about everything right. The desire for means of diversion completely severed from the responsibility from which we might need to be diverted – in essence, for fully-funded and perpetual adolescence – is a capital feature of our sick and possibly moribund culture. Pope St. John Paul II saw this coming, and started early and often to tell young people to grow up. Pope Benedict followed him, and Francis has been arguably more fervent in his appeals and stark in his warnings than were his predecessors. Listen to him in 2016:

[W]hen we opt for ease and convenience, for confusing happiness with consumption, then we end up paying a high price indeed: we lose our freedom. We are not free to leave a mark. We lose our freedom. This is the high price we pay. There are so many people who do not want the young to be free; there are so many people who do not wish you well, who want you to be drowsy and dull, and never free! No, this must not be so!  We must defend our freedom!

Francis follows with this:

My friends, Jesus is the Lord of risk, he is the Lord of the eternal “more”. Jesus is not the Lord of comfort, security and ease. Following Jesus demands a good dose of courage, a readiness to trade in the sofa for a pair of walking shoes and to set out on new and uncharted paths. To blaze trails that open up new horizons capable of spreading joy, the joy that is born of God’s love and wells up in your hearts with every act of mercy. To take the path of the “craziness” of our God, who teaches us to encounter him in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the friend in trouble, the prisoner, the refugee and the migrant, and our neighbors who feel abandoned. To take the path of our God, who encourages us to be politicians, thinkers, social activists. The God who encourages us to devise an economy marked by greater solidarity than our own. In all the settings in which you find yourselves, God’s love invites you to bring the Good News, making of your own lives a gift to him and to others. This means being courageous, this means being free!

Whatever else one may say about Pope Francis, no candid observer can deny that he understands the ecclesiastical, political, and cultural – let us call them civilizational – stakes are as high as they can be, that the window for effective action to correct the civilizational course is rapidly closing, and that the Church needs to lead the effort of renewal if she is going to be a credible witness to the saving Gospel of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.

We ought therefore to construe the language of the “new paradigm” to refer to the shift in emphasis toward greater responsibility on the part of the faithful and an abandonment of paternalism on the part of the Church’s pastoral and hierarchical leadership. We ought further to construe Cardinal Parolin’s remarks as expressive of the Holy Father’s desire to see that shift in emphasis applied to the whole Church. We may also understand the use of the language as Cardinal Parolin’s more-or-less conscious and deliberate borrowing of a play from the boss’s Jesuit playbook. St. Ignatius famously counseled early Jesuit missionaries:

Whenever we wish to win someone over and engage him in the greater service of God our Lord, we should use the same strategy for good that the enemy employs to draw a good soul to evil. The enemy enters through the other’s door and comes out his own. He enters with the other, not by opposing his ways but by praising them. He acts familiarly with the soul, suggesting good and holy thoughts that bring peace to the good soul. Then, little by little, he tries to come out his own door, always portraying some error or illusion under the appearance of something good, but which will always be evil. So, we may lead others to good by praying or agreeing with them on a certain good point, leaving aside whatever else may be wrong. Thus, after gaining his confidence, we shall meet with better success. In this sense we enter his door with him, but we come out our own.

Francis, in other words, may well be perfectly happy to use the institutional language of the people he sees as the “hip and with it” modern crowd, who don’t believe in things like dogma, or hell, or the devil, who maybe want to “sing a new Church into being,” and so get in through their door, only to lead them out by “his” door (the path through which he constantly tells us is Divine judgment – which will be perfectly merciful if we ask for it, but must be judgment nonetheless – on the wrong side of which hell does await). As far as his pastoral approach is concerned, this seems to be the long and the short of it. I continue to find it personally challenging and in the main highly effective.

In any case, most of the hay that got made out of Cardinal Parolin’s remarks, got made over the appearance of his turn-of-phrase in connection with Amoris laetitia. A few commenters, whose clarity of vision I generally admire, have seen the phrase as a red flag. It is as though Francis, the heretofore cagey Modernist, is now showing his true colors. That is, to say the least, highly unlikely. For one thing, he keeps at it, even though he is so far “in the door” with the NuChurch and Social Justice crowds by now, that they have tried to put his name on it.

(Just so we are abundantly clear on this point: The Pope’s clarion calls for tireless practice of the works of mercy is a great strength of his Papacy. God is just, and He shall judge us on the basis of what we did for the least of His children. We ought to tremble when we reflect on this, and dedicate ourselves with increased devotion to the works He prescribes for our salvation.)

The mainstream media portrait of Francis as a smiling, friendly old grandpa has always been at the very best a gross caricature, and more often a poorly executed grotesque in the service of an incredible narrative of Francis as darling of the mainstream media’s favorite pet causes. The cantankerous old man who steadfastly refuses to prepare his fervorini for the 7am Mass in Santa Marta is far closer to the genuine article.

For another, his aforementioned willingness to cajole and harangue – especially in his extemporaneous remarks – is not recently discovered, nor is it the stuff of which successful cons are made. In fact, he seems as often as not to be preaching to himself when he goes on his grumpy avuncular jags. Therein lies the risk. Francis tells us he likes frankness and forthrightness, a free spirit in counsel. He is also confessedly headstrong and more than a little prickly, with tendencies toward micromanagement that have proven persistent.

He is right to warn us, as he often does, against legalism and especially against Pharisaism, by which he means the use of the law to bind and to trap and to lord it over the small and the weak. The opposite extreme is a sort of antinomian libertinism, the effect of which at least as deleterious as that of Pharisaism, and arguably more corrosive.

Laws can be changed (except when they cannot be changed). Occasionally, they need to be changed. Everyone knows that those responsible for upholding the law injure society especially gravely when they break the law. They do greater injury to society, however, when, being unable or unwilling to change the law, they wink at it. A thing of great worth may be cracked by mishandling, or smashed to smithereens in a moment of frustration. Then the precious thing may be repaired or recast. We wink at trifles, and pass them by without another thought. Pope Francis, in luffing the sails of Pharisaism, has let wind into those of antinomianism. Whether he has the strength to keep the barque right, with the antinomian sails in full trim, is an open question and a legitimate concern.

The controversy over Amoris laetitia, which is a chapter in a greater controversy over the right response of the Church to the crisis in society over marriage – a crisis that does not touch only the decadent West – has poisoned our counsels.

We are all – on every side of the issue – increasingly unable to see and unwilling to look for the good in the other(s). The two great camps, let us call them Amoris enthusiasts and Amoris skeptics for short, cannot hear one another, and have stopped trying to hear one another, if ever they did. There are serious problems with the document itself, and more serious ones with its “implementation” by local Ordinaries and conferences around the world. Seeking a good faith discussion of those problems is not dissent, but parrhesia. By the same token, recognizing that contemporary society – its membership, ourselves included – is broken in ways that were only dimly discernible in 1980, and that we need serious, profound, pastorally informed and sensitive theological reflection on how to use the gifts of grace Our Lord has given us for healing, restoration, and renewal, is also true.

Law ought to follow theology. It ought also to be controlled by immutable Divine law, which is at once the bridge between theology and the Church’s legal apparatus, and the Church’s tether to the truth. Pope Francis has encouraged theological reflection, and invited the voices of all the faithful to participate in a Church-wide effort of discernment in these regards. Certain bishops have seen fit to skip the process of discernment, and/or arrogate it to themselves. Their behavior is premature and irresponsible. Saying so does not make one disloyal, and noting the confusion caused by the Pope’s at least tacit (though not always merely tacit) approval of those bishops’ behavior is not dissent.

The in-flight wedding at which Pope Francis officiated is a case-in-point.

Was it a great gesture of pro-active pastoral premura for a couple in irregular circumstances, or was it an ill-considered publicity stunt? It could be both. What is certain is that Mr. and Mrs. Ciuffardi were in a canonically irregular situation, and now they are not. They asked the Church for marriage, and the Church responded. To anyone concerned over the validity of the marriage as performed, I would say that the Pope has universal, supreme, and immediate jurisdiction over all the Churches and all the faithful. To those with concerns over the prudence of the Pope’s action, I would point out that there is no sed – no “but” – after the maxim, Salus animarum suprema lex. The words Pope Francis is reported to have said to the couple are also telling. “This – the Sacrament of Marriage – is the Sacrament that is missing in the world,” Ciuffardi reports the Holy Father as saying.” The Pope reportedly added, “I hope this motivates couples around the world to marry.” I hope so, too.

It was a teachable moment in many ways. While having the Vicar of Christ on Earth receive your consent will compensate for a lack of flowers, dresses, friends and family (not to mention sacred space), the episode does show quite clearly what the essence of the thing really is.

There is no Sacrament of Matrimony that exists apart from a valid marriage contract. Marriage, said simply, is a contract. Marriage is the law. Marriage is also the natural state: it requires no special maturity beyond that, which is strictly necessary in order that the contracting parties – when they attempt marriage – understand what it is they are attempting, i.e. marriage. When two baptized Christians validly contract marriage, or when two people with a valid marriage contract are both baptized, they have the Sacrament. That’s it, and, that’s all of it.

Nor do marriage tribunals conduct theological investigations into the question whether there are the prerequisites for some phantom category called “sacramentality”. They rather conduct legal investigations apt to determine whether a legal contract was validly executed. If it was, then the couple joined by it have the Sacrament. Once the union thus made is consummated, it binds them until death do them part. If not, not.

The Romans have an expression: Le parole del Santo Padre vanno misurate con contagocce, i.e. “The words of the Holy Father are to be measured with a medicine dropper.”

If his recent predecessors occasionally honored this pearl of wisdom in the breach, Pope Francis has not only rejected it out of hand, but extended his rejection to his conduct in office. Almost from Day One, Pope Francis has insisted he will not change his attitude, his habit(s), or his behavior to suit his new office and environs. That is, as they say, “his business,” but it is also ours.

“The Pope goes as the pastor of the universal Church, to meet with local Churches,” Cardinal Parolin said in response to the final question in the interview with Vatican Media, regarding the then-imminent trip to Latin America. The thing is, the Church’s universal pastor is also her universal governor. He was elected because he was known to be an independent-minded (fairly headstrong) and deeply committed religious priest, who was an excellent Archbishop of Buenos Aires. As Bishop of Rome, he still is.

2018 is likely to be the year in which Pope Francis will have to decide whether he will use his immense talents, charisma, and strength of personality to harness and direct the energies of the Curia and the Church in a manner consistent with the best angels of her tradition, or whether he will continue to channel his efforts into a project that appears to have as its only overarching vision the remaking of Rome into a sort of Buenos Aires-on-Tiber.

What is certain is that he will need our prayers.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 179 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. Although I normally immensely appreciate the contributions of Chris Altieri, I must register a serious concern about his take on the airborne wedding. The first and most important of which is this: Did papal pressure on the couple invalidate their consent? By their own statements, they have indicated that they had no intention of getting married at that moment, only that they intended to ask for his blessing. By the Pope’s own admission, he repeatedly urged them not to put off for tomorrow what could be done today. Very disturbingly, he went further by noting that this would be the first in-flight wedding done by a Pope (so much for the “marriage catechumenate” that he proposed in “Amoris Laetitia” and elsewhere)! In the present moment in this country, we have heard thousands of women claim that they succumbed to sexual advances only because a person in power pressured them to do so.
    Beyond that, how did he know they were, in fact, free to marry? What about sacramental confession for a couple that had been living in an invalid union for ten years and cohabitating for two years before that? Did they go to Mass on Sundays in that whole period? What about observance of “Humanae Vitae”? I don’t know, but neither did the Pope know. Much after the fact, the Pope asserts that at least one of them went to confession. Where? In the cockpit? In the rest room? And even if that were true, what about the other party?
    In truth, every priest and bishop ought to be outraged by the event as it makes the fulfillment of their responsibilities almost impossible to achieve. Interestingly, the vicar general of a major Anglophone European diocese recently told clergy that had any one of their priests done any of what the Pope pulled off, such a priest would have been suspended “a divinis”!

    • I agree with Father. Not only did the airplane wedding raise all sorts of issues regarding free consent; but it is also another example of how this Pope seems to use people. The poor, the homeless, prisoners, children, this couple seem to be used as props to push an agenda or image. Also, notice how quickly people are tossed aside under this pontificate when the become inconvenient? I truly feel shepherdless.

    • Yup, well said.
      A complete loss of sense of place and respect for the sacrament of Holy Matrimony.
      For all the world to see, of course.

    • I agree with Fr Peter on this. As canonist Ed Peters said, the Pope has universal jurisdiction over the law, but not over the essence of the sacrament ( I don’t recall his exact words but he made a distinction to that effect).

  2. “2018 is likely to be the year in which Pope Francis will have to decide whether he will use his immense talents, charisma, and strength of personality to harness and direct the energies of the Curia and the Church in a manner consistent with the best angels of her tradition”

    Why would he have to decide? In his head he probably thinks everything is going A-OK. I expect nothing to change in his behavior.

  3. I am sad to say that the Pope’s antics (and those of his allies) at the last synod were so manipulative and cynical that he has destroyed the bond of trust that should predicate not only a synod but also our relationship with the Pope. I see the upcoming synod with youth as a smoke screen for the further pushing of an agenda determined long in advance.

  4. A long, roundabout column that is long on support for the current papacy. But to downplay the immense problem of AL serves no one.

    With an upcoming synod and a ‘new look’ at Humanae Vitae plus Francis’s announcements on Capital Punishment…how is this ark not starting to take on water?

  5. There are several good points in this article but it misses the mark in the main. Where faithful Catholics who attend Novus Ordo parishes have found themselves suddenly running in the same circles as traditionalists–be they people attending FSSP, ICX or SSPX–are on issues that are beyond just Amoris.
    -Purportdly interrupting Cdl Muller whilst he was in the midst of consecrating the Eucharist at Mass;
    -Sacking Cdl Muller and three others at the CDF with no reason given
    -The dismissal of Cdl Burke from Curial positions and the stifling of Vatican Bank reform
    -The drug fueled, homosexual….party….that when on inside the Vatican and led to nothing but a retreat for the guilty priest, who Cardianl Coccopalmeiro wished to be given a red hat
    -The Maradiaga issues which is incredibly troubling
    -His cavorting with rabid, extreme abortionists and gender ideologues (Ploumen and the one from Italy whose name escapes me but whom he called “one of Italy’s greats”….who has performed 1000s of abortions)
    -His public humiliation of Cardinal Sarah
    -The reorganization of the JPII Insitute which now hosts enthusiastic assisted suicide proponents and baby murderers as well as priests agitating for an end to birth control restrictions

    One could go on for quite a while about this. It suffices to say, however, that attempts to paint this pontificate in a good light are failing miserably as people who are conservative but not at all “trads” no less “rad trads” are all over this stuff. Father Gerald Murray, Robert Royal, Edward Pentin, Phil Lawler, Raymond Arroyo, et al.

    We could go on and on. But it suffic

  6. I certainly do NOT believe that Pope Francis believes in immutable divine laws.

    I do not believe he or anyone in what Austin Ivereigh calls “Team Bergoglio” believe in immutable divine laws.

    I believe they disbelieve in what their leader Cardinal Walter Kasper DISBELIEVES in, to wit:

    “The God who sits enthroned over the world and history as a changeless being is an offense to man.” (Kasper, God in History, 1969)

    Their disbelief = There are no immutable divine laws.

    There is only one law – and it is them.

    If you are a Catholic who believes in tradition you will be arrested (FFI) and sacked and humiliated (Mueller and Sarah).

    If you are friendly with Pope Francis you will be rewarded – even if you promote murdering the unborn and gender ideology (Ms. Ploumen).

    If you are a sex abuse coverup artist like Cardinal Danneels and you help run F’s election for Pope, you will stand on the balcony with him and run his homo-erotic “family synod.”

    If you are a Cardinal friend of Francis – even if you make the disgusting and horrific gesture of blaming the sex abuse scandal on the “Jewish Press,” and you embezzle millions of dollars, you will be in F’s inner circle.

    There is only one law – Francis is it.

  7. From the article:
    There is no Sacrament of Matrimony that exists apart from a valid marriage contract. Marriage, said simply, is a contract. Marriage is the law.
    The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony is not a contract. It is a covenant.

    1601 “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.”
    Covenants are used to establish kinship bonds.

  8. Francis has said some Christian sounding statements, but then goes on to do just the opposite. For instance, he makes an occasional pro-life statement, but then gives awards to two of the most pro-abortion women in the world, one an abortionist and the other woman responsible for raising huge funds for abortion. (Their lives are complete testimonies to anti-Catholicism and the culture of death and perversion!) I’m sure there’s some spin from the Vatican spin doctors, but when one sees this garbage repeated over and over, one is no longer fooled. The fruits are rotten!
    Heaven help the youth and the Catholic Church.

    • Francis is a hegelian. Everybody must have that in mind. And I am not saying the he have read the works of Hegel, its just in the modern mind. He can put two contradictions along and make them both valid. Then he makes a synthesis in a mastercraftmanship of confusion.
      Like Doublethink in Orwell. Don´t try to understand him.

  9. “He was elected because he was known to be an independent-minded (fairly headstrong) and deeply committed religious priest, who was an excellent Archbishop of Buenos Aires.”
    This is the most implausible appreciation of the former bishop of Buenos Aires I have seen since long. The analyses of “The Dictator Pope” are far more credible.

    • “He was elected because he was known to be an independent-minded (fairly headstrong) and deeply committed religious priest, who was an excellent Archbishop of Buenos Aires.” That is wrong. We suffered him in Argentina as a disgrace and when he was elected Pope was a Dia Horribilis for us here.

  10. Pope Francis did not draw the “ire” of Cardinal Zen.

    Cdl. Zen humbly waiting in line to see Francis to plead for his tortured and murdered underground Church under the foot of the Communist regime.

    Francis’s Vatican reported that the Pope rejected the plea and sided with Cardinal Parolin in handing over the Chinese Catholics to the murderous regime.

    As Cdl. Zen said:

    “Today would our diplomats advise Joseph to go and humbly beg for dialogue with Herod.”

    Read Catholic Thing editor Robert Royal’s article on the “brazen… manipulative liars… regime that we can be sure will not respect the freedom of the Church since it doesn’t respect the freedom and dignity of its own people.” (Catholic Thing, “The China Syndrome,” January 29, 2017)

    Pray for the suffering Chinese Catholics.

  11. The bottom line is that we are dealing with an appallingly irresponsible, self-absorbed individual. The is the most neutral estimation that can be offered. Doubtlessly this goes far deeper, both in his character, in those in whom he finds support and in the ideological props employed to maintain the disorientation.
    We need to pray for Jorge Mario Bergoglio — particularly that during his retirement he finds a moment of conversion.

  12. Weren’t the actions of Pope Francis in Cuba a sellout of the Cuban dissidents? From what I’ve read so far, it seems like the underground Church in China is being given the same treatment as the Cuban dissidents.

  13. I’m sure you won’t post this comment. That said, I cannot under any circumstance believe that Christ would make such an agreement with any government, much less the Chinese government, to remove a priest faithful to his Church with priests faithful to the government. It’s an abomination.

  14. I used to feel very good about the term “Mother Church.” Now we have a Pope that appears to want to teach the gospel but also keep the Church out of other people’s business. So he doesn’t like paternalism (or maternalism in my example). Where does that leave the teaching authority of the Church. There’s never been a time in history when people have needed guidance on how to live a just life and to cope with the corrupt secularism that surrounds us. I submit that means we need a stronger voice from the Church, a stronger call for an alternative type of life and a willingness to publicly put distance between the Church and secularism. Social roadkill of the West’s brave new world grows in quantity every day – make it absolutely clear that there is another way, a better way. But I don’t see how this can be done using the language and images that characterize the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of 21st century secularism. And, yes, I don’t like the idea of Beunos Aires on the Tiber. Argentina is not the worst country in the secular West. It may be the least effective. This is the land of Juan Person – the place that has stayed poor when it should be rich. And Francis is the man to lead a revival of the Church’s fortunes among the young? The man who has separated the Church from the pro-life movement – the one effort identified with the Church that has genuine traction among the young? The man who has a tin-ear on matters concerning sexual abuse? The man who finds his closet personal allies marked with scandal? The man who has won the heart of the German Catholic Church – in many ways the most corrupt on earth – and the one hundred or so Europeans who consider themselves practicing Lutherans? No. The Pope may well be a good man. He seems to have a deep faith. But his judgment is terrible. He is leading our Church down the road already followed by mainline Protestant denominations that race for irrelevance. We must be respectful, but we must oppose the direction Francis is taking – but I fear no one can influence him. Pray for the Church.

  15. The author of the article makes a valiant attempt to read Pope Francis in the most charitable way possible. While I applaud his charity, in the end I can only shake my head. After all that has happened in the last 5 years, the truth about Pope Francis is painfully obvious to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. A future pope will need to clear away the confusion of AL and undo other disastrous policies of Francis.

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