George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).
March 13 ought to have been a happy day in Rome. But the mood in and around Vatican City before, during, and after the 10th anniversary of Pope Francis’s election was more somber than festive — and not because the anniversary fell during Lent. Rather, the melancholy reflected the current atmosphere in the Holy See, which has gone unremarked for too long and deserves candid description.
The prevailing mood in today’s Vatican is one of trepidation. That’s not only what those who question the pontificate’s direction think. It’s also the judgment of some who are comfortable with the past 10 years, and who applaud Pope Francis’s efforts to display God’s mercy in his public persona, but who also know that “kinder, gentler” does not characterize papal governance behind the scenes. Because papal autocracy has created a miasma of fear, parrhesia (the “speaking freely” Francis encourages) is not the Roman order of the day, except in private. Even then it is rare because trust among Vatican officials has broken down. When a brave soul dares to question or criticize the current line of papal policy, it’s almost invariably in the company of those of like mind. The serious, fraternal, charitable debate over the current condition of the Church and of the “synodal process” is largely non-existent. Silos are everywhere.
Living and working in this slough of dysfunction is enervating, and the inconsistencies and contradictions in papal pronouncements and policy that have become achingly apparent are not helping lift hearts.
At the beginning of the pontificate, Francis praised his predecessor’s decision to abdicate and suggested that abdication was an option for him. Now the Pope says he considers the papacy a job “for life.”
The Pope’s ambiguous role in the Rupnik affair — the quick lifting of the self-inflicted excommunication of a prominent Jesuit artist, Father Marko Rupnik, who committed multiple acts of sexual predation and sacrilege — has intensified concerns about Francis’s commitment to cleaning the Church of the filth of sexual abuse.
The financial reform of the Holy See, while not without accomplishments, has stalled far short of completion; both the Vatican’s structural deficit and its vast unfunded pension liability remain to be seriously addressed.
The German bishops openly defy Roman authority, much of institutional German Catholicism seems comfortable with apostasy, and a schism is not out of the question. The papal voice in response to this crisis is, at best, muted. Yet the authority of American bishops to provide for the liturgical nourishment of some faithful Catholics is squashed.
Bishops and cardinals who have a tenuous grasp on fundamental truths of the Catholic faith continue to be appointed, in part because of the (typically unreported) fact that Pope Francis often governs in an imperious manner with little concern for the established procedure.
The somber mood in Rome these days also reflects embarrassment over the dramatic decline of the Vatican’s moral authority in world affairs: the result of both inept papal commentary and Vatican policies that create the impression that the Church is abandoning her own. Very few senior churchmen are enthusiastic about the Holy See’s kowtow to the Marxist mandarins of the People’s Republic of China, whose communist party now plays a prominent role in naming bishops. The Holy See’s accommodating approach to the brutal thugocracies in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela breeds more embarrassment. When opposition leaders plead for the Holy See to vigorously defend the persecuted Church and imprisoned Catholic dissidents in those countries, their requests often go unanswered — or they’re told by a (very) senior Vatican official that, while he is personally sympathetic, the Pope insists on a different approach.
And then there is the fear engendered by a systematic effort to deconstruct the legacy of St. John Paul II. The John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family at the Pontifical Lateran University has been gutted; its new, theologically woke faculty attracts very few students. The approach to the moral life that has dominated the “synodal process” thus far is a flat-out rejection of the basic (and classic) structure of Catholic moral theology that undergirds the Polish pope’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor — just as the deliberate ambiguities in the 2016 apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, undercut John Paul II’s teaching in the 1981 apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family, Familiaris Consortio.
How any of this is an expression of the “joyous” pope recently celebrated by one enthusiast — how any of this amounts to what another votary deemed the recovery of the Church’s “true authority” — is not self-evidently clear.
All of it is, however, terribly sad. Today’s Roman atmospherics reflect that sadness.