Last Saturday, Romans awoke to find a provocative image staring out from their neighbourhood newsstands. On the cover of the latest issue of the magazine Millennium, published by the daily Il Fatto Quotidiano, was a traditional depiction of St Sebastian with arrows protruding from his body, but with the head of the Pope, under the title, ‘The Enemies of Pope Francis: Here’s Who Wants to Force Him to Resign’.
This is hardly the first time an Italian publication has offered a run-down of the Pontiff’s supposed enemies, both inside the Vatican and in the hierarchy, but the rhetoric this time was especially breathless.
The title on the inside of the piece was, ‘Too many enemies for a Pope alone: Behold who’s plotting to force Francis to resign,’ while a press release by editor Peter Gomez referred to a “true and real war” being waged against the Pontiff by “powerful cardinals, screaming ex-Masons and politically connected opinion-makers”.
For the most part, the piece was a run-down of already well-documented episodes, such as Francis’ intervention with the Knights of Malta and the ‘Vatileaks 2.0’ affair, with a Machiavellian undertone that they’re all expressions of subterranean opposition to the Pope calculated to make his life so difficult that he eventually decides to walk away.
Perusing press treatments such as this one, or following Catholic discussion on social media, often it would be easy enough to conclude that opinion about Francis is indeed clustered into two opposing camps, each with fairly extreme positions – either a lusty “hosanna” to everything Francis says and does, or an equally emphatic “no” to everything he’s perceived to represent.
As fate would have it, at the same time the editors of Millennium were preparing their cover story, I was in Orlando, Florida, for an event called ‘The Convocation of Catholic Leaders’, bringing together almost 3,500 bishops, clergy, religious, and lay leaders, some of them from national-level Catholic organisations but most drawn from dioceses and parishes around the country.
In other words, this was about as representative a cross-section of mainstream, meat-and-potatoes, Mass-going Catholics as you’re likely to get in the US.
Most of them knew what I do for a living, so at least three dozen times over four days I found myself in conversations about Francis – some very brief, some extended, many somewhere in between. I didn’t set out to do a scientifically valid round-up of opinion, but as far as anecdotal impressions go, it was probably a pretty healthy sample.
By far, the most common opening comment I heard – from bishops, from clergy, from laity, from everybody – was some form of the following: “He’s great,” “he’s fantastic,” “I love him.” As Cardinal Tim Dolan of New York put it in typically colourful fashion: “We’ve got Joe DiMaggio as Pope, and he’s on a 56-game hitting streak.”
Some people were content to leave it at that. In many cases, however, that fundamental enthusiasm came bundled with a “but”.
Some, for instance, told me that Pope Francis talks too much, and they wish he’d show a little more restraint. Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City-Kansas told me he’s heard people say, “he shouldn’t give press conferences above a certain altitude,” a joking reference to the Pontiff’s legendary free-wheeling exchanges with reporters aboard the papal plane after foreign trips.
Others expressed concern about specific doctrinal points – the Pope’s cautious opening to Communion for the divorced and remarried in Amoris Laetitia, for instance, or rumours making the rounds in Rome that Francis may empower a commission to take a new look at Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s 1968 document on artificial contraception.
(The idea that the teaching of Humanae Vitae could be in for a fundamental overhaul seems a bit of a stretch, given that Francis repeatedly has praised Paul VI for having the “strength to defend openness to life”, as he put in the Philippines in 2015. That’s precisely the thing about rumours, however – people don’t know quite what to believe.)
Others told me they think the Pope has a “blind spot” on the sexual abuse scandals, or on women, and others worry that his much-vaunted talk of Vatican reform doesn’t seem to be living up to its billing. Still others said they wished he’d be more careful on immigration, bolder on pro-life issues, and on and on, depending on what topic tended to animate a particular person most and how they evaluate the Pope’s record.
Bottom line, there really wasn’t a whole lot of polarisation among the people to whom I spoke in Orlando. Pretty much everyone agreed that Francis has been quite healthy for the Church, changing its public image, attracting positive interest and creating missionary opportunities, and also inspiring the Church to break out of any temptation of self-referential navel-gazing and to get out into the game.
For sure, no one I met would qualify as an “enemy” who’d be up for joining a plot to run Francis out of Rome on a rail.
At the same time, these aren’t sycophants either. Most Catholics I spoke to thought this Pope, like others they’ve watched come and go, has his flaws, his weaknesses, and areas where he’s out of his depth. In saying that, nobody was wishing him harm or expressing root-and-branch opposition – it was more akin to a healthy recognition that Popes aren’t gods, and that loyalty doesn’t mean pretending to be deaf, dumb and blind when debatable prudential decisions are being made (or not made).
Where I’m going is this: we may well have a mismatch between the public debate about Francis and the reality on the ground.
In public, often it appears to be a zero/sum, all-or-nothing war between supporters and opponents. On the ground, it’s more akin to a back-and-forth among basic supporters (of this Pope and any Pope) who nevertheless realise that even a great leader can have lacunae, and who are smart enough to know that critical loyalty is of more value to the Church, and to the Pope himself, than either fawning unctuousness or blind hostility.
Francis is famous for calling the Church to get “out of the sacristy and into the streets”. In a similar vein, I’d say that if you want to know what most Catholics are actually thinking about Francis, get off Twitter and into the trenches.
John L. Allen Jr is editor of CruxNow.com