A popular pope, but how powerful? Francis still fights internal battles

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - When Pope Francis wanted to appoint a woman as deputy head of the Vatican press office in 2016, he quickly ran into opposition from the Catholic Church’s male-dominated hierarchy.

FILE PHOTO: Pope Francis listens to reporter question during an exclusive interview with Reuters at the Vatican June 17, 2018. Vatican Media/Handout via REUTERS/File photo

“I had to fight,” Francis said in a rare, two-hour interview with Reuters in his residence this month.

Asked why the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics, then three years into his papacy, could not put a woman into a middle-ranking Vatican role without a fight, the pope smiled and replied: “Bosses cannot always do what they want.

“They have to convince. There is a verb, a word, that helps me very much in governing: ‘to persuade’. It is persuasion, slowly persuading, if you can manage to do it.”

Francis declined to say who had resisted his appointment of Paloma Garcia Ovejero, a 42-year-old Spanish journalist, the only woman with an executive role in the Vatican press office and one of fewer than a dozen in Vatican leadership positions.

The episode is an example of one of the battles this pope has fought to change the culture of the Vatican even incrementally, to turn it and the Church beyond its walls into a more efficient, inclusive and forgiving institution.

Now in his sixth year as pope, Francis, 81, is also still battling to put an end to recurring sex scandals, reform the Vatican’s central bureaucracy and overcome a conservative backlash to his teachings.

The pope has made major reforms that even some of his critics acknowledge, such as making Vatican finances more transparent. But even some supporters feel he is hasty at times and should consult more.

Francis has stressed mercy over exclusion, forgiveness over punishment and openness over what he described as “a Christ who is locked in” Church buildings -- part of a strategy to halt a slide in worshippers in the West and reposition the Church for a future where the vast majority of its members will live in poorer parts of the southern hemisphere.

In symbolic acts, he has visited prisons to wash the feet of inmates, including women and Muslims, in traditional Holy Week rites that for centuries involved only priests and were previously always held in Rome’s magnificent basilicas.

Francis maintains the Church’s condemnation of abortion, but says it has become an obsession of the so-called Catholic “culture wars” -- particularly in the United States -- which he fears divert the Church from grave social problems such as poverty, injustice, war, migration and climate change.


Since he was elected the first Latin American pope in 2013, Francis has fought an uphill battle to reform the Vatican bureaucracy, known as the Curia. A new constitution for the Curia is in the final stages after five years of work.

Mostly before his election, some Curia officials were caught up in scandals, accused of letting the Vatican be overcharged by Italian construction firms and of leaking documents.

In a Christmas address to the Curia in 2014, Francis issued a stinging critique, saying careerism, scheming and greed had infected many of its bureaucrats with “spiritual Alzheimer’s”.

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In the interview, he suggested the task of cleansing the Curia of spiritual sickness is an ongoing one.

“Sicknesses are, we can say, normal in these cases. And we have to struggle,” he said, noting that Curia officials had to be careful not to succumb to materialism and careerism. He has told priests and nuns to use simple cars instead of the latest models.

“They are normal temptations. And this will always continue. I think the wisdom is in recognizing them in order not to fall.”

The dysfunctional Curia played a role in ending the papacy of Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict, who resigned in 2013 after a spate of leaked documents. After seven tumultuous years, Benedict said he no longer had the strength to steer the Church.

Francis decided early that he would not bend to the Curia: he put a seasoned diplomat, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, in the number-two job of secretary of state and reviewed the Vatican’s scandal-hit bank, which he once considered closing.

“There were struggles (over the bank) and I had to take strong decisions,” he said. In the interview, he also said he would bring fresh faces with new ideas into the Vatican and promote others as part of his push for reform.


Francis enjoys wide popularity in the world and in the Church, drawing huge crowds wherever he goes.

A March poll by the Pew Research Center said 84 percent of American Catholics had an overall favorable opinion of Francis.

But he has also drawn pointed criticism from ultra conservatives within the Church, a relatively small but vocal group, who are prolific users of social media and have found a de facto spiritual guru in American Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke.

Burke declined to be interviewed for this article.

In 2016, Burke and three other cardinals issued a public challenge to Francis in a letter known as “The Dubia”, accusing him of sowing confusion on important moral issues. It put five questions to the pope, who has not responded.

“The anger directed at Francis by many conservatives is often cloaked in concerns over doctrine and orthodoxy, but much of it is a simple and understandable frustration over not having the inside track any more as they did in the previous two papacies,” said David Gibson, director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University in New York.

In April this year, Burke was the main speaker at a Rome conference that discussed “the limits of papal authority”. Some of the several hundred participants openly referred to Francis as the precursor of the coming of the anti-Christ and the end of the world.

The conference produced a declaration saying “a grave danger to the faith and the unity of the Church” had emerged under Francis and urged him to answer questions in The Dubia.

Asked if he felt wounded by the conservatives’ criticisms, Francis said: “No, I feel a pain and I pray for them.” It was nothing new, he added, noting that predecessors Pope John Paul and Pope Paul VI had “suffered more”.

“Anyone can publish or voice their opinion. I don’t excommunicate people. Time and the Lord will change things,” he said. “I don’t feel like judging them. I pray and I ask the Lord to settle their hearts and mine too.”

Out of the public eye, Francis is a shrewd operator, say people who know him well. He keeps his own appointments agenda, carries his own bag, has no single gatekeeper like his predecessors and likes to keep even top Vatican officials in the dark about some decisions until the last minute to avoid leaks.


In order to protect their legacies, popes need to appoint enough like-minded men as cardinals, the group that will elect their successors. Cardinals also serve as top advisors and sit on commissions and councils that help set the Church’s course.

On Thursday, Francis will appoint 14 cardinals from five continents, with choices underscoring his concern for the poor. Eleven are under 80, the age limit for entering the secret conclave that will elect a new pope once Francis dies or retires.

Francis has now named about half of the so-called cardinal electors.

In an effort to make the Church less Europe-centric, he has appointed cardinals from such far-flung places as Tonga and Madagascar. He chose one from Agrigento, Sicily, because the archbishop there had promoted the human rights of migrants who risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Africa.

The pope said in the interview he looked for men who could make people, even in small or distant countries, feel that they counted in the Church, that their voices were heard in Rome.

He said he studied candidates secretly for about a year and told no one of his choices. Even those he eventually appoints as cardinals do not know until he makes a public announcement.

“This way, gossip is avoided in here. I think it’s better like this but I don’t do it to have a majority for my line because it is the Holy Spirit who does it (chooses a pope).”

Editing by Mark Bendeich