ROME—It has been five years since white smoke billowed from the Sistine Chapel chimney to herald the election of a pope like no other.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the first pontiff from the Americas and a maverick among the more stoic men of the church, set the tone for his reign with the two simple words he uttered from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. “Buona sera,” or “good evening,” he said, quite simply, rather than greeting the gathered crowds with a theological tidbit of Godly wisdom. It seemed, at the time, endearing and innocuous.
But now, that refreshing innocence is turning into something else. Visibly weary and often irritable, the pope sometimes seems like a cranky, aging naif, increasingly tone deaf when it comes to core issues that continue to trouble Catholics. And what’s hard to determine is whether, like an aging grandfather, he just doesn’t get it, or if he just can’t be bothered and chooses to ignore those issues that need his attention most.
For some, especially liberals who applaud a more relaxed approach to the papacy, the years have flown by. He has softened the church’s tone on homosexuality, paved the way for divorced and remarried Catholics to come back to the pews, and generally put a positive shine on the global face of the once crusty institution.
But for others, especially conservatives who fear he is sowing the seeds for a schism, women who dream of inclusivity, and victims of clerical sexual abuse, the years have been long. So long, that many are counting the days until this papacy ends.
A recent study by Pew Research Center points to an enviable approval rating for a global leader with 84 percent of American Catholics saying they have a favorable opinion of Francis, down just 1 percent from the last survey in 2014, when few even knew what to expect. But nearly a quarter of those same Catholics who loved what they saw when he was first elected now see him as increasingly naive, according to the Pew study. That’s 10 percent more than those who viewed him as such in 2014.
Blatant mishandling of the clerical sex abuse scandal is the top issue Catholics believe he just doesn’t get. This blind spot became blazingly apparent in January when, on an apostolic visit to Chile, Francis actually defended Bishop Juan Barros, a prelate accused of bearing witness to atrocious acts of sexual abuse in the Chilean church.
Francis instead accused those who spoke out against Barros of calumny, despite reams of written testimony that Barros was involved in the cover-up. So ill-advised were Francis’ actions that American Cardinal Sean O’Malley publicly rebuked the pope, calling his words a “source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy or any other perpetrator.”
“Words that convey the message ‘if you cannot prove your claims, then you will not be believed’ abandon those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate survivors to discredited exile,” O’Malley said in a statement. A few days after O’Malley’s wakeup call, the Vatican sent an entourage to Chile to investigate claims against Barros.
A few weeks after O’Malley’s public condemnation, Francis reinstated him as the head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors after having let its mandate lapse for nearly two months. But rather than letting those who had been working toward solutions that include vetting and training priests stay on the commission to ensure continuity, he appointed new members who now have to start from scratch.
Former member of the council Marie Collins, an Irish survivor who was raped by her parish priest as a young girl, condemned Francis’ leadership. Collins resigned from the commission last year. “His lapse confirms what I’ve always known,” she told The Daily Beast. “Senior church figures are short-sighted. They don’t feel the same sense of responsibility to abuse survivors and are instead concerned only with control and power.”
Francis is equally disappointing to many women who would like to see opportunities for greater collaboration with church hierarchy. He has used sexist, derogatory language, including likening the European Union to a “grandmother, no longer fertile or vibrant” and referring to female theologians as the “strawberries on the cake” at a scholarly conference.
Last week, as women all over the world celebrated International Women’s Day, Francis instead announced that Pope Paul VI will be made a saint. For those who may not recall, Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae affirmed the church’s ban on artificial contraception at a time when women all over the world were finally making progress toward equality. The tome proved a turning point against the church for many Catholic women who didn’t want to just be seen as baby-making factories. Whether the canonization announcement was just bad timing or meant as a message about the church’s archaic view toward women’s reproductive rights, it proved to many just how tone deaf this pope has become.
Marie McAleese, the former president of Ireland, was in Rome last week to speak at the Voices of Faith conference that was held inside the Vatican last year, but which the pope refused to attend or even bless this year because he apparently did not agree with the roster of speakers, which included lesbians, divorced women. and Catholic women like McAleese. “The Catholic Church is one of the last great bastions of misogyny,” McAleese said the day before the conference, just as Francis announced Paul VI’s canonization. “It’s an empire of misogyny.”
The pope’s blind spots may do more than tarnish his legacy. They may end up defining it.