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Pope Francis at ten years

A decade into Pope Francis’s reign, what matters isn’t what one thinks of the man so much as it is a frank and clear-eyed view of where the collective “we” in the Church find ourselves, of where the Church is, of how we got here.

Pope Francis appears for the first time on the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican March 13, 2013. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) (March 13, 2013)

If a decade under Francis has taught us anything, it is that there is exactly nothing new under the sun and precisely nothing new in the broad survey of the state of the Church at the end of the first quarter of the 21st century. It’s a mess. Repeat after me: This is not news.

On closer inspection, however, there appears plenty we have not seen for a while.

We have a pope who makes laws – supposedly dictates of reason for the regulation of conduct, supposed to be generally applicable – in order to deal with specific problems.

Here, the glaring example is Come una madre amorevole, the 2016 law touted as a cornerstone of major reform in the fight against abuse and coverup in the Church, which gave the pope the legal wherewithal to remove a bishop for negligence even when there was no evident criminal wrongdoing. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve asked senior Roman officials when or how often it may have been used, and I’ve never got an answer.

In 2019, either during the run-up to the big dog-and-pony show that was the Meeting on the Protection of Minors or the roll-out of what was supposed to be Francis’s signature abuse-and-coverup reform law, Vos estis lux mundi, I asked Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta – the Church’s leading expert on sex crimes, an experienced investigator, and the chief ecclesiastical architect of several reforms to Church law dealing with the subject – whether he knew how many times Francis or his men had used CUMA?

He replied with a shrug that was the gesticular equivalent of the Roman “Boh?” That’s an untranslatable expression best rendered as, “[Redacted] if I know,” and frequently though not invariably containing at least a soupçon of “I don’t really care.”

That’s it, world-in-a-nutshell.

Part of the problem with public perception of Francis and public opinion regarding him is that he gave good reason for high hope and delivered well enough for long enough to create a narrative that both his comms people and others sympathetic to his apparent outlook and agenda were more than willing to foster.

I remember musing – this was in 2017, before Barros and Chile, while I still worked for the man – that it was tough for editors in newsrooms around the globe to figure out how much prominence to give the inevitably spectacular resignation of Marie Collins from the pope’s Commission for the Protection of Minors, because they needed to find a way to give the story its due and also keep the pope as the poster boy for their pet social causes.

For the record, the AP, CNN, the WSJ, the WaPo, the New York Times, and a bunch of other top-flight operations in the secular mainstream had excellent coverage of that story and several others through the years, from first-rate journalists on the beat. Big secular outfits have more resources to investigate stories and break news than do Catholic outfits. The big guys don’t have nearly enough – more on that later – but they have more than Catholic outfits.

The Catholic press should be able to frame stories properly, to analyze thoroughly and fairly, to point the bigger guys in the right direction, and to provide the “story follow” when the big guys break a big story. That has happened, but not as often as it should have.

We’ve had too much of Team Francis vs. Team Viganò and similarly disheartening squabbles – if less glaringly psychotic – that continue to produce heat but very little light.

In fairness, it is hard – indeed galling – for many Catholics to accept that they had been sold a bill of goods with Francis. The desire to believe the best of people is a mark of sanity. Even when it is impossible to believe the best, we should all cultivate the ability to believe all the good we can. That cannot come without equal effort to become practiced in accepting that things are very bad.

Look, I’m a scribbler. I’m going to miss Francis when he’s gone, because he’s good copy – and easy – and anyone in this line of work who tells you different is a fool or a liar. The hard and needful thing is to confront horrible doings without stint and to seek truth ruthlessly, while refusing to conclude the worst until one has all the evidence necessary to support the conclusion.

Ten years into Francis’s reign, what matters isn’t what one thinks of the man so much as it is a frank and clear-eyed view of where the collective “we” in the Church find ourselves, of where the Church is, of how we got here. We know where we’re going. It’s how we’re going to get there that’s the trouble.

That’s one takeaway from the tenth anniversary of Francis’s election, which shades perceptibly into another regarding our approach not only – nor even primarily – to the papacy, to doings in and around Rome, to who’s up and who’s down and who’s in and who’s out, but to the Church herself as an institution of which we are part and a body of which we are members.

“By instinct and habit,” wrote the legendary executive editor of The Washington Post, Ben Bradlee, in A Good Life (his 1995 memoir), “I was more interested in the whatness of the [Vietnam] war rather than in the rightness or wrongness.” I can’t recall if I read the memoir right when it came out, but I know that line has been with me for a very long time.

I came across it again recently, in a 2014 postscript of Bradlee’s life by The New Yorker’s editor – another legend – David Remnick. This time, something crystallized for me. It was the idea that the Church needs its own ProPublica.

We need seasoned investigative reporters, supremely competent, utterly fearless, well-funded and transparently organized, enjoying the esteem of professional colleagues and welcoming exposure to the caustic process of critical review, ultimately answerable only to the public they serve.

Ten years into the pontificate of Francis, the need for such an arm is éclatant.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 196 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. By his fruits do we know him.

    (See also, “German Synodal Way approves same-sex blessings, lay preaching, and reexamination of priestly celibacy“.)

  2. The author’s upshot appears to be that Catholic journalists aren’t doing their jobs correctly. Perhaps the headline editor didn’t read the article, but I took the headline at face value and thought I was going to read the author’s take on this papacy. In that sort of column I would have expected to see how this papacy threw faithful Chinese Catholics under the bus with nary a word of thanks and admiration. Instead it gave authority to their Communist atheist persecutors to vet episcopal appointments. I expected to read how the pope would grant one interview after another to an Italian atheist journalist (who, according to Vatican PR folks, “mis-spoke”, then never corrected the record) and refused to talk with the four dubia cardinals, and Cardinal Zen. Or how, without a word of thanks to Catholics who remained faithful to their marriage vows even after civil divorces, instead called them and others who support them “pharisees” and “legalists.” The list of ruinous behavior is endless.

    Perhaps my disappointment should be directed at the headline editor, who lured me into an article that is mostly about “inside the beltway” Church stuff, rather than how this papacy is deconstructing Catholicism around the globe.

        • An AMERICA article of 4/8/21< "Communion for the divorced and remarried, papal critics and family life: Pope Francis' 'Amoris Laetitia' at 5 years" says:

          "Despite such resistance, “Amoris Laetitia” has had a third, ongoing effect of furthering the implementation of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, including synodality, the primacy of conscience and the universal call to holiness that Pope Francis has made a goal of his pontificate to actualize. With a year of study and reflection on “Amoris Laetitia” already underway and a “synod on synodality” planned for next year, it is clear that Pope Francis does not see the work of “Amoris Laetitia” as complete."

          A new stress on the primacy of an individual’s conscience in making decisions continues an emphasis of “Dignitatis Humanae,” the “Declaration on Religious Freedom” promulgated at Vatican II. That document affirmed the notion of the “primacy of conscience” (present in Catholic teaching since St. Thomas Aquinas), saying: “In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God,…"

          More ink follows Amoris taking VCII's Dignitatus humanae toward its teaching.
          Francis and Amoris simply follow VCII.

          Conclusion: Those not on board Francis' train are legalists, backwardists, pharisees, or worse, and they ought not be allowed to worship in a Catholic Church.

    • Well said. Just a small portion of a long list of heavy errors from this Pope that have hurting continue to hurt so many of us. If not for the Body of Christ I would have taken refuge from this Pope with the Orthodox.

  3. Have you never heard of Michael Matt Mr Altieri. He does a pretty good job putting PF on s proper perspective.
    And it is mystifying that CWR would print your little piece of wallpaper.

  4. A decade of undoing the “reform of the reform.” Thank God, a Pope who now takes back Vatican II reforms on the right track.

  5. These past ten years Pope Francis turned the Catholic world around and made a lot of conservative Catholics “cafeteria Catholics,” giving them doses of their own medicine that they used to throw and tag at progressive Catholics during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

    • Actually, it’s the Pope who seems to be the “cafeteria” Catholic, not those who have remained steady in adhering to the Church’s teachings – for them, he exhibits a great deal of contempt and scorn.

    • Go ahead and use the “cafeteria Catholics” slur. You’re happy with this pope because he is CHANGING Catholic teaching. For those of us who cannot keep up with the ever-caving-in to the culture will remain faithful, whatever slurs or giddiness we hear from those who want to re-make the Catholic Church into a cheerleader for progressive fads and fanaticism. Just remember, Mr. Miller, those on the outside of the Church who are cheering you on want nothing less than its utter annihilation, and they won’t spare you either. Trust me. When the time comes, either you will become one of them, or they will destroy you. I pray you choose to remain faithful, no matter the cost.

  6. The Catholic Faith is in REGRESSION under this Pope as he seeks to suppress the Traditional Latin Mass and the thriving communities that attend it. For his part, he completely understands that the agenda of modernism, globalist communism in the current age depends FIRST and FOREMOST on negating the presence of a tradition that condemns him with every new “progressive” agenda item he seeks to promote. The gospel reading today is rather telling, taken from Luke 11:14-28, of particular interest is the passage indicating that “He who is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not WITH Me scattereth” (emphasis mine). What has the modern, post V2 church succeeded most in doing? Scattering God’s sheep. An estimated 31,000,000 Catholics have abandoned the faith since the modernists started tinkering with it to “accommodate” the men of the current age. The Post V2 church is in clear auto-destruct mode. I, for my part, want as much insulation from it as I can while remaining under the outermost edges of the umbrella it resembles. We have yet to see what kinds of further damage the synod will do to the Novus Ordo Church; but, rest assured, so long as he is comfortably assuming that whatever further suppression of the Latin Mass he can impose will be dutifully carried out by his ordinate “appointees” and “lemmings” under the guise of acting in the name of St. Peter (Peter is rolling in his grave), he has little if anything to worry about. Jesus, please rescue your church from the men of this dark and depraved age.

    • The 31,000,000 scattered sheep I reference above is attrition ONLY in the United States since V2. We all know what the changes to the church since V2 have done to Europe and Western Civilization in general: DECIMATED it.

  7. For me, the most remarkable character of the papacy of Pope Francis is probably his teaching and action being centered on mercy and attentiveness to the wounds of the people. His papacy has signaled that the Church is not judgmental but instead welcoming and inclusive of all through dialogue and synodality (=walking together!). But this papal focus on mercy and non-judgmentalism has made a lot of the haughty and proud to be filled with self-righteous indignation that displays the so-called “elder son syndrome” told in the parable of the prodigal father.

    • When has the Church not been “welcoming and inclusive?” Aren’t all of us poor sinners equally welcome at the confessional to unburden ourselves of our sins? Hasn’t that always been the case?

    • The definition of insanity is believing you can exist without making judgments. Thankfully Catholicism, in contrast to invincible silliness, recognizes that judging intrinsically evil behavior for what it is and what is necessary for an authentic mercy for both the victims of sin as well as the welfare of the sinner called to repentance exactly as Jesus demanded of us and demanded that we do for others. You have it backwards. The story of the prodigal son includes the haughtyness of those who mock the necessity of turning away from sin. It’s not as though Francis hasn’t been consistently condemning and merciless towards those who are subjects of his contempt.

  8. As universal pastor, he is (as the subtitle of a book about his pastoral style says) “Pope Francis: A Voice for Mercy, Justice, Love, and Care for the Earth.” His pastoral style has made multitudes worldwide see and come to love a pope that is truly smelling “with the smell of the sheep,” leading them closer to Christ and His Church. The same pastoral smell however has generated a loud minority mostly here in the U.S. who simply have emerged as “enemies” of Pope Francis and are so filled with “4Ds:” disrespect, disloyalty, derision, and disdain for him. In this spirit – highlighting his “enemies” – let me share here a prayer for the Pope on his tenth anniversary (culled from official paraliturgical prayers for the Pope): “O God, Shepherd and Ruler of all the faithful, look down in your mercy upon your servant, Francis, whom you have appointed to preside over your Church. Preserve him, give him a long life, make him blessed upon the earth, and not hand him over to the power of his ENEMIES. Grant, we pray, that by word and example, he may edify all those under his charge so that, with the flock entrusted to him, he may arrive at length unto life everlasting. Amen.”

    • Yawn. Well, now that you mention it, I became a Catholic 26 years ago because the Church hated Mercy, Justice, Love, and Care for the Earth. And then along came Francis.


    • Have you considered discontent might occur towards Francis for his practicing those 4Ds towards those who practice the 4Hs; humility, honorability, honesty, and holiness?

  9. Christopher R. Altieri in this article seems to be saying that covering the news of the Church is the equivlant of covering the news of the NFL or MLB.

  10. Pope Francis is loved and revered in the developing world. People from different cultures, spiritualities, and socio-economic backgrounds admire Francis for his genuine concern for the weak, the sick, the poor, the marginalized, and thee exploited.

    • Sounding like yet another one-eyed cyclops lacking depth perception…where the perennial Church itself is now unwittingly made “the weak, the sick, the poor, the marginalized, and then exploited.”

      The separability of mercy and truth?
      Adding, here, to Meiron (above, March 12, 4:32 p.m.) who reports: “A new stress on the primacy of an individual’s conscience in making decisions…”The primacy of conscience in “making decisions”[!]—an exploiting contradiction to the actual remarks developed by St. John Paul II (cited by “Animal Farm” theologians, for supposed support).

      Instead, the difference between so-called “decisions” and moral “judgments”:
      “A separation [!], or even an opposition [!], is thus established in some cases between the teaching of the precept, which is valid and general, and the norm of the individual conscience, which would in fact make the final DECISION [no longer a ‘MORAL JUDGEMENT’!] about what is good and what is evil. On this basis, an attempt is made to legitimize so-called ‘pastoral’ solutions [!] contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium, and to justify a ‘creative’ hermeneutic according to which the moral conscience is in no way obliged, in every case, by a particular negative precept [thou shalt not!]” (Veritatis Splendor,1993, n. 56).

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