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At six year mark, Francis’ pontificate struggles with crisis as stakes increase

The scandal of the crisis did not so much re-emerge as explode in Pope Francis’ face, when he disastrously mishandled the Barros Affair last year, shortly before the fifth anniversary of his election.

A sunset after a day of rain illuminates the cobblestones near the Vatican in Rome March 5, 2018. Pope Francis' sixth anniversary as pope is March 13. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Sixth anniversaries aren’t really a thing. Nobody thinks they are — not really — except insofar as it is a news hook on which to hang editorial copy, like that, which came on the occasion from the pen of the Vatican media factory’s Editorial Director, Andrea Tornielli.

“The sixth anniversary of the election sees Pope Francis engaged in a year filled with important international journeys, marked at the beginning and the end by two ‘synodal’ events,” Tornielli wrote in an editorial published on the eve of the recurrence, “the meeting for the protection of minors, which took place last February with the participation of the presidents of the episcopal Conferences of the whole world; and the special Synod on the Amazon, which will be celebrated – also at the Vatican – this coming October.”

The Editorial Director of the Dicastery for Communication went on to discuss salient events in the year that was for Pope Francis and the whole Church, citing first “the re-emergence of the abuse scandal.” The choice of terms in which Tornielli couches the thing is interesting, and perhaps telling.

While it may be true that the scandal re-emerged, the crisis has been with us the whole time.

That the Vatican continues to speak of a scandal instead of a crisis, or at least to use the terms interchangeably, suggests an unwillingness to come to grips with reality: to admit that there is persistent moral failure — at times criminal — protracted over generations within the clerical and hierarchical leadership and diffuse throughout the local and national Churches, reaching all the way to Rome and through the Curia — its precise extent and depth there is not yet fathomed — and all the way to the Apostolic Palace.

It also bears mention that the scandal of the crisis did not so much re-emerge as explode in Francis’ face, when he disastrously mishandled the Barros Affair last year, shortly before the fifth anniversary of his election. When that anniversary rolled around, the business was already in full swing — though no one could have imagined even then, what waited for the Church in the balance of the intervening year.

Tornielli also made note of, “[T]he internal divisions,” which, he wrote, “led the ex-nuncio Carlo Maria Viganò to publicly call for the resignation of the Pope for the handling of the McCarrick case, precisely at the moment Pope Francis was celebrating the Eucharist with thousands of families in Dublin, proposing anew the beauty and value of Christian matrimony.”

This framing of the Viganò matter only sets in relief the Vatican’s determination — from top to bottom — on treating the former nuncio’s allegations as an impertinent distraction. It also highlights their studied, deliberate refusal to address the merits of the Archbishop’s brief, which any candid mind will — without respect to questions of motive — consider largely vindicated and therefore devastating.

“Confronted with these situations,” Tornielli went on to write, “the Bishop of Rome asked all the faithful throughout the world to pray the Rosary every day, throughout the following Marian month of October, in order to unite themselves ‘in communion and penance, as the people of God, in asking the Holy Mother of God and Saint Michael the Archangel to protect the Church from the devil, who always seeks to divide us from God and to cause divisions among ourselves’.”

Pope Francis was certainly right to call the faithful to prayer. The association of this call with the “divisions” to which Archbishop Viganò contributed, hence to the Devil — the Great Divider, or in Francis preferred nomenclature for that creature, the Great Accuser — continue an insinuation Pope Francis began in the late Summer of last year: that the long-suffering faithful, grown impatient with the hierarchy’s craven cowardice and disregard and now clamoring for an account, are “deceived by the powerful,” and in their state of exercise resembling the crowds who called for Christ’s innocent blood.

“With his words and the appeal to the people of God that they pray to maintain unity in the Church,” Tornielli opined, “Pope Francis has made clear the gravity of the situation, and at the same time has expressed the Christian understanding that human remedies alone are not able to ensure a way forward.”

Francis has certainly made clear what is his estimation of the situation’s gravity. How closely that estimation comports with reality is another matter.

Tornielli is right about another thing. “The Church,” he wrote, “cannot redeem herself alone from the evils that afflict her.” Tornielli went on to write:

Even from the horrible abyss of sexual abuse committed by clerics and religious, one does not escape by means of the processes of self-purification, let alone by relying on those who have been charged with the role of purifier. More and more effective norms, responsibility and transparency are necessary, indeed indispensable, but they will never be enough. Because the Church, as Pope Francis reminds us today, is not self-sufficient precisely because she too recognizes herself as a beggar asking for healing, in need of mercy and forgiveness from her Lord and she bears witness to the Gospel to many wounded men and women of our time. Perhaps never before as in the troubled year just gone by, the sixth of his pontificate, has the Pope who presents himself as “a forgiven sinner”, testified to this essential and most relevant fact of the Christian faith, following the teaching of the Fathers of the Church and of his immediate predecessor Benedict XVI.

They still want people to believe the bishops are all right, that the problem is only the abuse, and not the culture of moral rot and dereliction the bishops have fostered for generations in service of their vaunts and vantages. Doubtless, “[M]ore effective norms, responsibility, and transparency,” as Tornielli says, “will never be enough.” They are, however — as he also says — necessary. We have heard more than enough talk of them.

There also needs to be a reckoning. There will be. It has already begun. In that sense, reforms are late, and for that, irrelevant. As John Allen couched Charles Collins’ surmise of the situation: “It doesn’t matter [what Church leaders do], because grand juries and public prosecutors will do it for them.”

Last year, on the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ election, the stakes were as high as they had been at the beginning of 2018. Then, the question was whether Francis would decide to use his gifts to set his reform project on track, or continue trying to remake Rome into “Buenos Aires-on-Tiber”. Now, the stakes are even higher.

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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. Any foreign trip by our Holy Father would only serve as a distraction from the fact that his moral authority and credibility have been almost completely destroyed by his failure to address the sexual abuse crisis, and his continued protection of morally and sexual corrupt clerics.

    I will continue to pray for him because as a Catholic I am obligated to respect the Petrine office. However I have lost all respect for him as a man.

  2. “Weinandy’s letter comes at a time marked by widespread doctrinal confusion in the Church to a degree heretofore unknown in living memory” (Dr M Sirilla 11.5.17 NCR). Please add A degree heretofore unknown in living history. Yes never, not since Christ’s institution of the Church on Petrus the Rock has its doctrinal foundations suffered seismic rupture from the very Rock instituted for its stability. Before Christ the People of God, we thought suffered worse self affliction immolating their own “sons and daughters” to demons. Mass infanticide called medical care seems to have replaced immolation in spades. At least the fire was quicker than being meticulously torn apart to save body parts so the wealthy may prosper cosmetically. We have a Metropolitan resistant to applying the canons of the Church [see canon 1329 n. 2 on Accomplices] as written with obvious intent rather than reducing these same canons to innocuousness by a new form of Pharisaical legalism. So moral corruption has invaded once pristine Catholicity [as distinct from the nominal] from top echelon to bottom feeder legalism. Christ is the true Rock that undergirds the Six Year Mark Francis’ Pontificate. What happened? Many fatigued, mentally numbed others grasping for explanations for Altieri’s Buenos Aires-on-Tiber. Sedevacantists Benevacantists Garden Variety Heretics all fault the papacy the Office not the Man. Some raise the moot question of invalidity. Faith assures us Christ remains the Rock. Permissive will [of God] was addressed on this website. God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” for his own ends. We are assured by faith [and reason] God as in Egypt will navigate events to a happy [for some] conclusion purifying and strengthening whatever remains of the faithful far better than States attorneys general.

    • Correction: “rather than reducing these same canons to innocuousness” should read “who would rather reduce these same canons to innocuousness”.

  3. I understand the upset of the church members at lack of speed that Pope Francis is dealing with these issues. However These same people have given JPll and Benedict a complete pass. Why the difference? If anything JPll has greater responsibility.

  4. “It also highlights their studied, deliberate refusal to address the merits of the [Vigano]’s brief, which any candid mind will — without respect to questions of motive — consider largely vindicated and therefore devastating.”

    If you substitute “candid mind” with “blind follower of CWR/EWTN op-eds,” you will have struck upon the truth. Vigano thought he was clever, overplayed his hand, and now immediately faded into obscurity as he found all of his culture-warrior friends who helped him write his ‘testimony’ didn’t actually have his back. He’s now only dredged up on this site to continuously stoke division and anger CWR’s readership into giving more clicks.

  5. Eradicating the terrible cancer of abuse that is within the church is absolutely possible but it will take a major “spiritual” shakeup and cleansing to do this. God is on the throne and he sees it all. He has already sent the solution to the earth 2000 years ago but how many are hearing the Word, are listening attentively, are trusting, are counting on, are depending on, are looking into the truth about the absolute solution to this raging problem of sin? Religion will not address this issue because it cannot.

    God says in his word, “My people perish for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I will reject you as my priests; because you have ignored the law of your God, I also will ignore your children. The more the priests increased, the more they sinned against me. They exchanged their Glory for something disgraceful. They feed on the sins of my people and relish their wickedness. And it will be: like people, like priests. I will punish both of them for their ways, and pay them for their deeds. They will eat but not have enough, they will engage in prostitution but not increase, because they have deserted the Lord to give themselves to prostitution. to old wine and new, which take away the understanding of my people…… A spirit of prostitution leads them away, they are unfaithful to their God.”
    Hosea 4: 6-12

    God says sin must be called out as it is: SIN. Because it has been such an horrific public offense to so many innocent children, because it hurt and destroyed so many for so long, because this sin has impacted the faith of so many of the church faithful, it must be openly and publicly addressed. This problem will not go away until it is addressed. For maximum impact and for local accountability, I believe that each local parish must openly address this situation individually. Those actually involved in the abuse and/or in the cover-up must be willing to truly repent publicly to the local church body. For real healing and for trust to happen , as well as for the salvaging of the balance of the remaining faithful attendees in the parish, all abusers identified must be removed from the priesthood.. Then, as Jesus would have it, any and all of those who are among the truly repentant abusers should be shown the love of God, allowing them to be restored, not as priests but as forgiven members of the local parish. All following lawsuits and trials should take place so that justice be done to those convicted. Those who were victims could possibly have all their counseling costs covered by the local church. Ideally, all abusers should humble themselves and try to contact as many of their victims as possible and repent before them and beg for their forgiveness and mercy even knowing that they might face cursing and wrath from these victims.
    I believe that by overcoming existing pride and by addressing the abuse problem honestly and sincerely, hearts can be changed, mercy can be extended, Christ’s forgiveness can be given to one church, one individual at a time. “Blessed are the Merciful, for they shall obtain Mercy.” Allow the faithful a chance to be merciful.

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