10 Years On, Pope Francis Faces Challenges From the Right and the Left

ROME — Pope Francis once envisioned serving only a few years as pontiff. On Monday, he commemorated his 10th anniversary as leader of the world’s Roman Catholics, saying it seemed “like yesterday” that he took control of an ideologically divided church that has opposed him from the right for going too far and criticized him from the left for not going far enough.

Throughout the past decade, Francis, now 86, has visited far-flung countries and strode across the international stage as a major figure willing to use his moral capital on the major issues of the day. He has made the College of Cardinals, which will pick his successor, much more global and has opened doors to debate in the church, seeking to make a torn institution more collegial, unified and less centralized in Rome.

But deep into Francis’ longer-than-average papacy, many of the faithful are wondering whether the pope, slowed by a bad knee but perhaps less inhibited after the death of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, will make concrete and transformative change or decide once and for all that such shifts will not happen on his watch.

“He is a pope who has realized many things in 10 years,” Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, dean of the College of Cardinals, said in a brief interview on Monday evening. “Mainly the new ideas, building bridges.”

Francis after being elected at the Vatican in 2013.Credit…Stefano Rellandini/Reuters

But Francis has had less success in bringing bishops along with him, something he views as essential for making lasting change.

“In all these years, we didn’t see a clear majority of reformers among the bishops and priests all over the world,” said Marco Politi, a veteran Vatican analyst and author of “Pope Francis Among the Wolves: The Inside Story of a Revolution.”

While Francis has for a decade faced unrelenting pressure from conservatives — especially in the United States — who oppose his more inclusive style, social justice focus and de-emphasis of the sexual culture wars, the latest pressure has come from Francis’ left flank, on an issue with which he made his mark as a transformative figure.

This weekend, the opposition came from the powerful, wealthy and progressive German Roman Catholic Church, once a bedrock of European Catholicism that produced the last pope but that is now a deeply shaken institution that believes it needs to give laypeople more of a voice after devastating sexual abuse scandals accelerated an exodus of worshipers.

Germany’s Catholic bishops defied the Vatican by overwhelmingly voting this weekend to approve voluntary ceremonies to bless same-sex relationships, as well as those between divorced and remarried Catholics, neither of whom marry in the church. The Germans also voted to urge Francis to reconsider the question of priestly celibacy.

St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Sunday.Credit…Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press

The vote appeared to throw down a gauntlet for Francis, who has made outreach to marginalized gay Catholics a touchstone of his papacy, famously saying, “Who am I to judge?” He has also ministered to transgender Catholics, counseled gay couples on the upbringing of their children, endorsed same-sex civil unions and recently asserted that “being homosexual is not a crime.”

But the church doctrine, which considers homosexuality “intrinsically disordered,” has not changed, and in 2021, the church’s orthodoxy watchdog banned the blessing of gay couples by arguing that God “cannot bless sin” and that it would be “illicit” for a priest to acknowledge same-sex unions.

While blessing such relationships has become increasingly common in Germany in recent years and has even included orchestrated, live-streamed ceremonies, the Vatican sought to prevent the German bishops from officially moving ahead.

A photograph released by the Vatican showing Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis meeting with new cardinals last August.Credit…Vatican Media, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In November, top Vatican officials tried to shut down the German assembly during a meeting in Rome. In January, the Vatican’s top cardinals, with Francis’ explicit approval, said they would accept no overhaul of church governance in Germany that gave laypeople the potential to overrule bishops.

Francis himself suggested he did not recognize the German church’s reform process and warned that it was “very, very ideological” and “made by the elites,” a sign he was worried it did not reflect the church’s base.

The Vatican need not look far to see the divisive power of the issue. The Anglican Church has been split apart by gay rights, with conservative churches, including many in Africa, breaking off relations with Western churches that accept and bless same-sex relationships.

At the meeting of Catholics in Frankfurt over the weekend, Bishop Gregor Maria Franz Hanke of Eichstatt warned during the debate over the proposed blessing that he hoped “this step is not going to tear us apart the way the Anglican Church finds itself.”

Catholics in Africa, like African Anglicans, also largely oppose same-sex relationships. Francis, perhaps fearing a similar splintering between the progressive wings of the church’s past strongholds and the more conservative global south, where the church’s future lies, told the leader of Germany’s Catholic bishops in 2022 that the country already had “a very good Evangelical church” and “we don’t need two.”

But some Vatican officials say that when it comes to the Germans, Francis’ wariness has more to do with how the German church was staking out on its own, rather than with the controversial issues themselves.

Praying during a Mass to celebrate Francis’ 10th anniversary as pontiff in Buenos Aires on Monday.Credit…Agustin Marcarian/Reuters

Francis would clearly prefer that the blessing of same-sex couples be discussed with bishops at a major meeting — a synod — that he is organizing for October and next year.

“The synod will be a beautiful moment,” said Cardinal Re, adding, “The pope has given a direction different from the past — certainly it is a journey that will bear fruit.”

Some analysts have compared the meeting to a miniature Second Vatican Council — the landmark church assembly of bishops in the 1960s that opened up the church to the modern world. Francis has made it clear that he wants many, if not all, of his bishops behind him, and analysts say the German church risks not only raising the pope’s ire, but also exposing how alone it is on the issue of gay blessings in a global church.

The German bishops did appear to bow to some papal pressure, delaying carrying out the blessings for three years, which will give Francis time to run the issues through his major meeting.

“We will see the real situation with the universal synod; we can see the strengths of the different groups,” Mr. Politi said. He added, “Francis has opened doors and windows and new paths which are and which will continue to be important for the Catholic Church. There is no going back.”

But the church’s liberals remain frustrated by what they view as a holdup.

“Today, it seems clear that Pope Francis has a ‘Gorbachev problem’ — enormous acclaim outside the Catholic Church but increasingly brazen opposition from within,” John L. Allen Jr., the editor of Crux, a news site specializing in coverage of the Vatican and the Catholic Church, wrote on Sunday, comparing Francis to Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet president.

“Also like Gorbachev, Francis’ foes come both from a traditionalist right unhappy with his progressive agenda and an impatient left increasingly hungry for actual revolution rather than mere reform.”

Francis has shifted from entertaining talk of resigning to speaking more about the papacy being a lifetime ministry. But after health ailments that have him leaning on a cane or using a wheelchair some wonder how much time for change is left.

“Time flies,” Francis said in a Vatican podcast on Monday. “When you gather up today, it is already tomorrow.”

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