Recently, I read an opinion piece about Pope Francis on the sixth anniversary of his election. The author is a well-known commentator whom I know and very much respect, and I agreed with most of the piece. (You can see the commentary here).
The only sentence that struck me as a bit off about Francis was the following: “He understands the importance of changing the culture of the church, but does not understand the importance of reforming church structures.”
I cannot understand how one could reach this conclusion. I am not here to defend every word or action of Francis, especially concerning women. But I do not believe he is a naïf when it comes to institutions and how they run, nor when it comes to administering them. He understands the challenges before him very well, but has been set up against a fiercely defiant, cynical, and corrupt phalanx of opposition—old men determined to defeat him. And they have deep-pocketed, monied allies in the banks, opposition groups, reactionary movements, and old societies with tentacles world-wide. It is not for nothing that he has railed against the hypocrisy of modern-day Pharisees, and condemned their hardened hearts. It will take some time to turn around more than 500 years of a deeply corrupt clerical institution (the Curia), one that is self-fortified against change.
As for structural reform, he has been trying to set the stage for a whole new way of being church, which is summarized under the rubric of “synodality.” This is an ancient approach to understanding the nature and governance of the church, an approach that was forgotten as things became more centralized, structured and “Roman.” If fully realized, it would spell dramatic changes in how we imagine the church, with much more autonomy given to the regional churches of the world. It would also change our understanding of how the papcy functions. Francis cannot accomplish this in five or six years; it will take a couple of decades, with any luck. He is planting the seeds of something that could have been closer to reality if two previous popes had not acted to reverse the momentum set by the Second Vatican Council. Perhaps the most important thing Francis has been doing, gradually, is to appoint cardinal electors who do not come from the power centers, bypassing the ambitious men who thought they had it coming to them.
In short, I think he deserves more credit for institutional savvy than some people, even his fans, give him credit for.