This is going to be an interesting week for Pope Francis. His “countercuria” – a group of eight cardinals from around the world, selected partly for their known hostility to the way the Vatican has been run – is meeting for the first time. Already he has announced that they will form a permanent council. Although that arrangement may not survive him, the intention to remove the church’s strategic planning from the curia – the permanent “civil service” in the Vatican – is clear.
Before that committee reports, there is his remarkable interview with the editor of La Republicca, a cradle Catholic turned atheist, which the paper splashed on this morning. This continues on the lines of his earlier interview with a fellow Jesuit, but is even more outspoken:
“The curia as a whole is … what in an army is called the quartermaster’s office, it manages the services that serve the Holy See. But it has one defect: it is Vatican-centric. It sees and looks after the interests of the Vatican, which are still, for the most part, temporal interests. This Vatican-centric view neglects the world around us. I do not share this view and I’ll do everything I can to change it.”
Later, in an extraordinary phrase, he says:
“Heads of the church have often been narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers. The court is the leprosy of the papacy.”
There are times when it is almost impossible to believe this is a pope speaking:
“Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us … The world is crisscrossed by roads that come closer together and move apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the good.”
Even more astonishing:
“Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”
It really is difficult to imagine anything more opposed to the spirit of fortress Catholicism, and the doctrines that “error has no rights” and “there is no salvation outside the church”.
One of the strangest things about this interview is that it comes from a man who has pressed ahead with the canonisation ofJohn Paul II, whose policy and vision of the papacy he seems more and more directly to reject.
He defends the liberation theologians, whom John Paul II persecuted and in some cases excommunicated:
“[Marxism] certainly gave a political aspect to their theology, but many of them were believers and with a high concept of humanity.”
He also speaks with affection of a communist teacher he had – again something unthinkable for the Polish pope who shaped the church he has inherited.
None of this makes him a liberal exactly. The saint he says he feels closest to is Augustine (also, of course, Luther’s guiding light), who worked out the doctrine of original sin. In fact I can’t help feeling that if Luther had continued as an Augustinian friar, and – who knows – become pope himself, he would have sounded quite a lot like Francis, except for his antisemitism, which Francis explicitly repudiates.
But he certainly offers no comfort to the neoliberals, either. “I think so-called unrestrained liberalism only makes the strong stronger and the weak weaker and excludes the most excluded. We need great freedom, no discrimination, no demagoguery and a lot of love. We need rules of conduct and also, if necessary, direct intervention from the state to correct the more intolerable inequalities.”
Whatever else happens, this papacy is going to be astounding fun to watch, not least because – although we talk of the pope leading his church – he knows very well that there are a great many Catholics, not all of them in the priesthood, who are determined not to follow in the direction he is pointing them. On the other hand there are millions throughout the world who have been waiting decades for a pope who talks like this.