It is natural to judge a man by the car he drives, or is driven in, especially when the man happens to be the Pope. On the evening of March 13, 2013, a short time after the College of Cardinals elected him the two hundred sixty-fifth successor to St. Peter and leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, Jorge Mario Bergoglio surprised Church authorities and the international press corps by eschewing the papal limousine provided for his use and instead riding back to his hotel by bus. Since then, he has swapped out the armored Mercedes SUV that ferried his predecessor to events in favor of a far less fancy make and model. Pope Francis’s Pope-mobile is sometimes a Ford Focus.
The gestures have continued. The Pope who took his papal name from Saint Francis of Assisi, an apostle to the downtrodden, has urged admirers from his native Argentina to donate money to the poor instead of spending it on a trip to pay their tributes in Rome. He has chosen to reside in the Vatican’s modest guesthouse rather than the comparatively lavish Apostolic Palace and makes it clear that he prefers to carry his own bags. On Holy Thursday, Pope Francis washed the feet of two women in juvenile detention, one of whom was a Muslim, breaking from the tradition that restricts the ritual to men and mostly to priests in the Vatican entourage.
Such expressions of modesty and humility have come as a shock to many observers. From October 1978, when Karol Józef Wojtyła became Pope John Paul II, until this past February, when his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, renounced the throne, the world became accustomed to a very different style of Vatican leadership. The last two Popes appeared to rejoice in elevating themselves above the laity with theatrical displays of pontifical pomp. Both permitted clericalism to flourish, sometimes (as in the case of child sexual abuse by priests and its cover-up by higher-ranking officials) with horrifying consequences. Both appeared to delight in upbraiding the Western world for its (mostly sexual) sins.
Progressive Catholics—demoralized and marginalized in their Church for much of the past 34 years—have responded enthusiastically to Francis’s change in tone. And their excitement only intensified after a freewheeling press conference during his plane ride back from the World Youth Day festivities in Rio de Janeiro at the end of July. Responding to a question about gay priests, Francis spoke about homosexuality in language far less condemnatory (“Who am I to judge?”) than John Paul or Benedict would have chosen.
In a blog post titled “This Extraordinary Pope,” Andrew Sullivan, an outspoken gay Catholic, expressed the sentiments of many like-minded Church members: “What’s so striking to me is not what he said, but how he said it: the gentleness, the humor, the transparency. I find myself with tears in my eyes as I watch him. I’ve lived a long time to hear a pope speak like that,” Sullivan wrote. “Everything he is saying and doing is an obvious, implicit rejection of what came before.” This conviction—that the Pope is in the process of making a radical break with the past—has fast become conventional wisdom. Even an analyst normally as sober and sensible as John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter has gone so far as to conclude that nothing less than a Vatican “revolution” is underway.
It isn’t. Francis’s renewed emphasis on the poor is certainly welcome and valuable, and there are circumscribed areas in which the Pope may achieve real reforms. But when progressive Catholics pine for change, they mostly mean that they want to see the Church brought into conformity with the egalitarian ethos of modern liberalism, including its embrace of gay rights, sexual freedom, and gender equality. And that simply isn’t going to happen. To hope or expect otherwise is to misread this Pope, misinterpret the legacy of his predecessors, and misunderstand the calcified structure of the Church itself.
Any pope who wanted to dramatically change the Catholic Church would have to do so through the processes and procedures of the institution—and it is an institution seemingly designed to thwart such ambition. Consider as a counterexample the U.S. political system. Commentators often rightly note how it is designed to stymie the will of would-be reformers: with numerous veto points; representatives in different branches drawing their support from different, frequently clashing constituencies; and so forth. Yet it is also true that when an American president takes charge of the executive branch, he has considerable power to almost instantly shape its many departments and their priorities. Yes, each bureaucracy is staffed by career civil servants who stay on from administration to administration. But the chief executive gets to appoint the top positions, drawing freely from his party and allied individuals in the private sector.
A new Pope, by contrast, has comparatively little freedom to remake the ideological cast of the Roman Curia, as the Vatican’s administrative apparatus is known. Although the cardinals and archbishops who head the various congregations, tribunals, councils, commissions, academies, and other bureaucracies that make up the Curia do typically resign upon the death of a pontiff, his replacement must choose new appointees solely from the existing ranks of cardinals and archbishops, all of whom will have been promoted to their positions by his predecessors. Coming into the job following John Paul II’s and Benedict XVI’s solid 34-year run of forceful theological and doctrinal conservatism, Francis has inherited a Church staffed at the highest levels with men who would oppose any dramatic change in course. Imagine a newly elected Democratic president attempting to move the country in a more progressive direction while being required to pick his Cabinet and advisers entirely from the ranks of the Republican Party, and you start to get a sense of the constraints under which he is operating.
But let’s say Francis decided to pursue a progressive agenda anyway, and started by attempting<smallcaps_roman> to lift the ban on married priests. In an interview he gave in 2012, then-Cardinal Bergoglio indicated a willingness to consider a reform of the celibacy requirement. “It can change,” he said, since it’s a “matter of discipline, not of faith.” What he meant is that the rule is neither a dogma nor a doctrine of the Church. And though he made clear that he was in favor of maintaining current Church practice “for the moment,” he did so in a statement full of conditional language, acknowledging that celibacy has many “pros and cons” and speaking “hypothetically” about a future process of reform.
Jumping off those remarks, it is possible to sketch out how Francis might seek to guide the Church toward permitting priests to marry. The first step would be for him to set up a pontifical commission to study the celibacy rule, its impact on the lives and work of the clergy, and above all its role in the alarming collapse in priestly ordinations throughout the Western world. (In the United States, the population of priests has decreased from 59,000 in 1975 to around 39,000 as of last year, with many of that number nearing or past retirement age.) Presumably the commission would also attempt to build on the fact that the Church permits married Anglican clergy to become priests when they convert to Catholicism, a practice that has already produced many married priests in countries around the world. Most important, it could identify historical grounds for reform. Clerical celibacy wasn’t uniformly enforced in the Western Church until more than a thousand years after the ministry of Jesus Christ, and it never took root in Eastern Orthodoxy at all.
Those rationales, or something very close to them, would have to emerge from the commission and then be stated clearly and authoritatively by Francis himself as he and the relevant Curial offices defend the change. (What neither the Pope nor the commission would say in public is that permitting priests to marry would also make the priesthood a less attractive hiding place for sexually conflicted men who wind up molesting children.) The Pope would also probably try to co-opt a handful of prominent conservative pragmatists—such as Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York; John Onaiyekan, the archbishop of Abuja in Nigeria; or Odilo Scherer, the archbishop of São Paulo—and get them on board.
And still, many Church officials would refuse to accept married priests. Not so much because conservative Catholics are particularly wedded to clerical celibacy, but because of their generalized suspicion of any change at all. One of the legacies of the Second Vatican Council is a widespread consensus within the Church’s hierarchy that a proposed break with tradition can’t even be entertained unless it can be framed as supporting a deeper continuity. First laid out by John Henry Newman in 1845, the concept is known as “development of doctrine,” and it holds that any shift must reaffirm the underlying changelessness of the Church. Appropriated by conservatives amid the upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s, it has served as a remarkably effective brake on innovation or reform.
But even on issues that don’t rise to the level of doctrine—like allowing priests to marry—there is an inchoate presumption among many members of the hierarchy that change as such should be resisted. Vatican II convinced these conservatives that doctrinally justifiable reforms merely inspire calls for evermore audacious ones. These same conservatives view the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI as having reimposed crucially important authority on a Church that came perilously close to collapsing into chaos during the late ’60s and ’70s. They are loath to support any change bold enough to risk a return to those tumultuous times.
If allowing priests to marry is unlikely, other progressive reforms are close to inconceivable. To many of members of the faith in the Western world, eliminating the ban on the use of artificial birth control among married couples seems like common sense; so few American Catholics in their twenties and thirties follow the rule that the percentage who do falls within the margin of error in pollsters’ surveys. But the laity elsewhere (including in Africa and in the Pope’s own Latin America, where, unlike in the United States and Europe, the Church is growing) is more on board with Church teaching on this issue, strengthening the conservatives’ hand. What’s more, in the view of conservatives—many of whom have been influenced by John Paul II’s mystagogical “theology of the body”—every sexual teaching of the Church is as essential as every other; pull on one thread, and the whole tapestry will unravel. (This very much includes the teaching about homosexual acts, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church notoriously defines as “intrinsically disordered” and “contrary to natural law.”) Finally, there’s welcoming women to the priesthood—an even bigger long shot, because it directly challenges long-standing doctrine that posits that the powers of ordination are bequeathed to the Church by God himself.
For the Pope to attempt to surmount those obstacles would be to risk sparking a grassroots schism along two fronts, with conservatives pitted against liberals within the West, and the generally more conservative global south arrayed against the far more progressive global north. These are precisely the fissures that have opened up in the Anglican Church in recent years, as it has wrestled with an identical set of issues tied to the culture war. Progressive Catholics can argue about whether such a schism would ultimately prove to be a good or a bad thing for their institution. But no one should expect a Pope to deliberately provoke it.
Of course, all of the above assumes that Francis wants to be such an assertive agent of change. The reality is far murkier than his progressive cheerleaders appear to believe. The fact is that the Vatican has no equivalent to the “Washington outsider.” To climb all the way to the top of the Church hierarchy, especially in an era dominated by Popes as stringent as John Paul and Benedict, a priest needs to exhibit more than a minor tendency toward conformism.
And indeed, this is precisely what Bergoglio’s biography shows. When he was chosen as Pope, critics zeroed in on his alleged accommodation of the military junta that ran Argentina during the “dirty war” that stretched from 1976 to 1983. But the most serious charge against him—that he turned over two priests to Navy torturers—has never been substantiated. What is clear is that he refused to speak out publicly against the regime, even as he reportedly worked behind the scenes to help people flee the dictatorship. Critics such as Nobel Peace Prize–winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel have suggested that, during a dark time in the country’s history, other, less celebrated priests did much more to stand up for human rights.
The portrait that emerges is of a man whose mix of virtues and vices somewhat resembles that of Pope Pius XII, who discreetly saved thousands of Jews during World War II but officially declared the Vatican neutral in the battle against the evils of the Nazis. At critical moments, both were triangulators more than moral leaders, trying to help the victims of tyranny when they felt they could do so with impunity, while also continuing to do business with the authorities and refusing to risk the well-being of themselves and their institutions by undertaking more direct acts of insurrection.
When Bergoglio broached Church policy on sexual and gender issues, his positions did not challenge Catholic orthodoxy—and in some instances he staunchly defended it. In 2007, after the Argentine government issued a waiver to allow a handicapped woman who had been raped to receive an abortion, he denounced the move in inflammatory terms, asserting that, “In Argentina, we have the death penalty: A child conceived by the rape of a mentally ill or retarded woman can be condemned to death.” In 2010, he described a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in the country as “the total rejection of God’s law engraved on our hearts” and prayed for “St. Joseph, Mary, and the Child” to “support, defend, and accompany us in this war of God.” Then, amid the public outcry sparked by his strident opposition, he moderated his stance, suggesting that the Argentine Church might be willing to back compromise legislation that would create civil unions—about which Catholic doctrine is helpfully silent.
Unlike his predecessors, Francis holds an apparently sincere belief in dialogue, bridge-building, conciliation, and the adjudication of differences. It seems important to him to appear cheery, tolerant, cosmopolitan. He has made respectful, open-minded statements about the members and beliefs of other Christian churches, as well as about Jews, Muslims, and even atheists. But in every case where Francis has reached out to those who disagree with him, he has done so while indicating that his own beliefs grow out of Catholic bedrock. In the same airborne news conference during which he made headlines for seeming to counsel against damning gay priests, he responded dismissively to a question about women’s ordination, stating bluntly, “That door is closed.”
The one area where Francis may end up fulfilling reformers’ hopes is in his willingness to clean up unsavory elements of the Vatican bureaucracy—precisely because it has nothing at all to do with a drive to overturn the elements of Catholic doctrine that progressives find so gallingly out of touch with modern liberalism. The Roman Curia draws its long-term, mid- level members mostly from Italy, and as a body, it has come to mirror the corruption and inefficiencies of Italian political culture. Regardless of their ideological disposition, the Church’s cardinals and archbishops (who are drawn from around the world) are able to get behind a push to purge those pathologies.
That’s why the politically savvy new Pope has moved more aggressively on this front than any other—demanding accountability on the part of Vatican bureaucrats, appointing large numbers of laypeople (and non-Italians) to commissions he has empowered to study how the administrative apparatus should be overhauled. It’s exactly the kind of un- revolutionary good-governance step that one would expect from an ultimately un-confrontational pontiff.
Progressive Catholics appear to be left, then, with a revolution in papal rhetoric. In politics, elected officials who deploy idealistic language often end up sowing disillusionment, as well as provoking charges of hypocrisy, dishonesty, and cynicism, when their exalted words fail to match the deeds to which they feel driven by the ruthless realities of political life. (This is something American liberals have been agonizing over ever since the election of Barack Obama in 2008.)
But where the Church is concerned, rhetoric has a reality all its own. The Church was conjured into existence, after all, by an itinerant rabbi whose words converted a civilization to a new and radical faith. In our own time, meanwhile, the harsh denunciations of doctrinal deviance favored by John Paul II and Benedict XVI drove many progressives away from the Catholic Church, and their exodus diminished the Church in turn. Francis’s welcoming words and open hands have changed the subject of the papacy away from sexual decadence to the plight of the poor, and if that convinces those progressives to come home, he will have done a very good thing for his Church. If his words also help to halt the wholesale march of churchgoing Catholics into the eager arms of the Republican Party, he will have done a good thing for American politics as well.
Even as Francis’s gestures make headlines, the Church does not think in terms of news cycles or election cycles, but rather in terms of centuries. A new Pope appoints the bishops, archbishops, and cardinals who will govern the Church of the future and in turn elect the next Pope, who will then make his own appointments, and so on, down through the decades. It may seem crazy to progressive Catholics that they’ll likely have to wait another 100 years for their Church to declare the use of condoms to be morally licit or to permit a woman to celebrate Mass. But something has to set the wheels of change in motion, and that just might be the modest but vital reform that Pope Francis ends up being remembered for most of all.
Damon Linker is the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.