‘Teflon pontiff’?

/ 08:33 PM August 12, 2013

Spurn that request for loose coins from beggars trolling Saint Peter’s Square in Rome. They snap back with a new retort: “Cosa direbbe Papa Francesco?” What would Pope Francis say?

These mendicants “have clued in that something has changed,” writes John Allen of National Catholic Reporter. “A revolution is going on, even if some of its content has yet to arrive. Change is here.”


Italian newsmagazine L’Espresso pinpointed signs of upheaval. It’s recent cover story on the new pontiff, bannered the query: “Ce la farà?” “Can he pull it off?” No need to explain what “it” meant. Everyone seems to know that Francis is trying to engineer a Catholic “glasnost.”

(The word means “a process of justice in governance, conducted with transparency.” In the late 1980s, Soviet Union Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev elevated  glasnost  into policy. Linked to “perestroika” or restructuring, Gorbachev used that double-blade to curb embedded corruption in the Kremlin and communist party.)


Francis’ lifestyle—from lodging in spare Casa Santa Marta quarters to spurning limousines—has rippled out. Cardinals are shedding titles and crimson-laced vestments. Work patterns in Vatican institutions, from the change-resistant Curia to the troubled Vatican Bank, have radically altered. His approval ratings resemble that of Nelson Mandela’s.

Francis as a “Teflon pope.” Nothing bad sticks. When scandals erupt, no one blames him. All see it “as additional proof of why he’s needed,” Allen wrote.

Francis works the phone, bypassing usual gatekeepers. He ensures no one has a monopoly on his ear. There is no éminence grise, like Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz under John Paul II or Archbishop Georg Gänswein under Benedict XVI. Some thought Italian Archbishop Rino Fisichella was “emerging as a man of influence—then, of course, Francis left  Fisichella standing at the altar at a Vatican concert June 22…. Trying to figure out who’s up and who’s down misses the point. The novelty is that the game, as it has long been understood and played, is finished,” Allen said.

Allen also noted: In March, if anyone wanted to influence Vatican’s financial operations, he’d ring an Italian cardinal. There are 21 of them. Today, a lay economist from Malta would answer the phone. Joseph F.X. Zahra is one of 21 people, now in three commissions, drafting reforms. Most are lay people. Only three are Italians.

“This Latin American outsider is determined to break the Italian monopoly on governance of the church,” Allen said. “Francis is giving rise to a ‘new culture of accountability.’” That  means somebody actually gets fired. He accepted the resignation of two Vatican Bank officials. And he did not shield Msgr. Nunzio Scarano of the Vatican Bank from a $30-million laundering charge.

Francis seeks to enhance the role of the layman—not just in ceremonial ways, but in the nuts and bolts of reforming and governing the Church. And he is repositioning the Church in the political center, after a lengthy period where it drifted to the right.

More radical changes will be clamped on after the commissions report. That’s later this year. Some Vatican watchers fixate on questions like: Who’ll be named as the next cardinal secretary of state? But the only issue most people have about a pope is: Does he inspire?


“For now, the answer seems to be yes,” Allen added. Given the  scandals and controversy the Church “weathered over the past decade, if that’s not a revolution, it’s hard to know what one would look like.”

Francis will visit the Philippines in January 2016 when he attends the International Eucharistic Congress in Cebu. Will he see the impact of the upheaval he triggered here?

Eight out of 10 Filipinos are baptized Catholics. “Many are poorly educated in their faith,” Jesuit theologian Fr. Catalino Arevalo told a University of Santo Tomas symposium. Only 6 percent of young Filipinos receive “significant religious instruction.” Filipino youth “are not turning away,” Arevalo said. “They are simply not being reached.”

“Split-level Christianity,” however, is widespread. “That’s coexistence, within one person, of two or more behavior systems that conflict with each other,” psychologist Fr. Jaime Bulatao explained. Leaders trot without fail to hear Mass on Sunday. From Monday to Saturday, they wheel and deal in scams like there was no tomorrow.

New Church leaders are emerging in the Philippines. “The authority of establishment must give way to the authority of witness,” insist Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle and Archbishop Antonio Ledesma. How? Not by magisterial pronouncements but in ministering to the poorest.

“The Church must not pretend to have easy answers,” Tagle said. “Instead, it must be an attentive and listening Church—less preoccupied by her power, prestige and position in society.”

“The Philippines has shown the gospel can be preached to empty stomachs,” the CBCP (Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines) president-elect, Archbishop Socrates Villegas, said. “But only if the stomach of the preacher is as empty as his parishioners’…. Evangelization continues to be impaired by the arrogance of its messengers…”

Will a “humble, prayerful, listening Church” now hear the silent screams from an estimated 560,000 abortions yearly? Couples are still blocked from receiving family planning services. Does this end muttered threats, by some bishops, to excommunicate those who support the Reproductive Health Law?

In the 2013 elections, the bishops of Bacolod and Lipa boycotted “Team Patay” candidates who supported the RH Law. They were trashed decisively. If they persist, cosa direbbe  Papa Francesco?

(E-mail: [email protected] )

Read Next
Don't miss out on the latest news and information.
View comments

Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.

TAGS: Catholics, nation, news, Rome, St. Peter’s Square, Vatican Bank
For feedback, complaints, or inquiries, contact us.

© Copyright 1997-2020 INQUIRER.net | All Rights Reserved

We use cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By continuing, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more, please click this link.