Creeping Franciscanism

by Ken Briggs

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The buzz around the Vatican's face-saving effort to wriggle out of a bad situation is that its mildly benevolent tone was further evidence of Pope Francis' unquestionably humane manner. The pope is widely imagined to be casting a spell of compassion and charity over his vast domain, from the church's center on out. His influence is seen at every turn where light shines through anticipated darkness and, like all charismatic leaders, he gets credit for things that have nothing to do with a born-again papacy.

Though there appears to be no direct trace of Francis' involvement in the nuns' report, it is possible that his irenic spirit has stirred the souls of even the crustiest prelates, leading them to lay aside their law and order ways. But another explanation also begs consideration: that neither conversion nor sound argument coaxed Rome to hand down a kinder, gentler verdict. They needed desperately to control the damage.

It's my opinion that the authorities who set the investigation in motion, and the entire hierarchy, brought much more calumny on itself than it visited upon the nuns. In the United States, at least, the eruption of frustration over "disobedient" sisters (I think the indictment covered both investigations) ended up principally bringing disrespect on themselves for bullying women for whom the laity had the highest regard, as shown in the enormous outpouring of support for them.

An institution like the church does not become ancient without having acute political antenna, and the message that came with the backlash was that the Vatican's effort to push its symbolic weight around (its hefty poundage isn't in question) came to naught -- and worse, the disrepute they had unleashed on themselves was compounding their other troubles. Hypothetically speaking, the pragmatic thing to do was to call off the dogs and pat the dear sisters half heartedly on the head.

Wise sisters probably don't miss the irony of this strategy. For many sisters, it may be tempting to breathe that "breath of relief" I've heard analysts talk about, and I suppose it's natural to be glad that your accusers, though they still hold all the power, didn't do something worse. To exult when a basically oppressive system backs off doesn't seem much of a celebration. It seems misguided to assume that the report is any kind of pledge to do things differently, or that it signals a change of heart toward sisters and women in general. Pope Francis is surely a paragon of mercy but he hasn't yet made good on that promise either. Sisters can be pretty certain that they won't be harassed at least for the time being, but the mechanism to do it is still there, at the whim of arbitrary fiat, and nobody knows whether the pope's personal intervention or the pervasiveness of his generous spirit would make any difference.

Hope indeed springs eternal but most of us feel more comfortable when there are some facts that boost its potential.

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