The barque of Peter in shark-infested waters

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The seas have suddenly become a lot more agitated for Pope Francis, who up to now has proven to be amazingly unsinkable in the face of any kind of adversity.

But in the last few weeks, he has found himself in the midst of several minor crises and controversies that if not resolved well could work to undermine his credibility with many Catholics and deal a blow to his project for reforming the church.

The polemics range from the unprecedented and violent protests that cut short the installation Mass last month of a bishop he appointed in Chile to a diplomatic storm with Turkey after he repeated his long-held conviction Sunday that the killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 was, in fact, a "genocide."

Sandwiched between these more sensational incidents are troubles hidden from public view. Most of them concern episcopal politics and power struggles, especially inside the Vatican.

However, one of them spilled into the press just last week: a supposed Vatican stalemate with France over the appointment three months ago of the new French ambassador. Reports say the pope has refused to give the Holy See's approval ("agrément") to the French envoy, which is required before he takes up the post, because the diplomat is said to be openly gay.

And this from the pope who famously said, "Who am I to judge?"

Add to this the growing impatience that some reform-minded Catholics now show with his tortoise-like pace of overhauling the Roman Curia, promoting women to decision-making positions and removing bad bishops and appointing better ones.

So what is happening? Is Francis' wildly popular (and some would say "populist") pontificate beginning to show signs of the same illness that afflicted his Bavarian predecessor's administration?

Before writing the obituary, it's important to stop and look a bit more deeply and widely at the situation the 78-year-old Argentine Jesuit pope is facing.

As the first pope in 100 years to have never studied or worked in Rome, Francis is conspicuously a Vatican "outsider." This has unsettled many in the Roman Curia and their career-minded friends in chanceries throughout the Catholic world. This unabashedly anti-clericalist and frankly speaking pope disturbs these professional churchmen as much as the newly returned Christ unnerved the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.

And don't forgot those Catholics of a more traditional and legalistic mindset that had already become exasperated with this pope of mercy long ago for not forcefully reaffirming the "hard teachings" of Catholicism, especially those concerning marriage and sexual morality. 

Francis is more aware than anyone that he is like one rowing a boat in shark-infested waters and must navigate carefully and with great skill. Fortunately, he was uniquely prepared for the task as a young man when the late superior general of the Society of Jesus, Pedro Arrupe, appointed him to lead the Jesuits in Argentina during the country's "dirty war."

Though he has not spoken much about that, it's clear Francis had to learn how to deal cunningly with those who would work to undermine and harm him and his fellow Jesuits.

Francis has admitted to making many mistakes in that job, but he also claims that they taught him how to govern and lead better.

"I am always wary of decisions made hastily ... the first thing that comes to my mind ... this is usually the wrong thing," he said. The right decisions take time, he has repeated, but they "do not always coincide with what looks great and strong."

Certainly, his critics would see nothing "great and strong" in some of the controversial decisions he has made recently.

Take the case of Chilean Bishop Juan Barros Madrid, who stands accused of covering up clergy sex abuse. A firestorm erupted in January immediately after Francis transferred him as head of the military ordinariate to the Osorno diocese.

Numerous Catholics in the diocese continue, to this very day, to protest his appointment. And even members of the pope's own child protection commission -- several of whom held an emergency meeting in Rome in these days to discuss the matter -- are calling on him to sack the bishop or explain why he won't.

Don't count on it. Francis is on record as saying he rarely takes back appointments.

"When I entrust something to someone, I totally trust that person. He or she must make a really big mistake before I rebuke that person," he said in his first papal interview, with La Civiltà Cattolica and printed in other Jesuit periodicals.

He also knows that once a pope begins to reverse controversial decisions, his adversaries will find ways to force more reversals. This happened with Pope Benedict XVI, who was compelled to backtrack on several appointments.

Pope Francis has decided he will not allow himself to be manipulated by such means. So the only way Osorno is likely to be rid of Bishop Barros is if he voluntarily resigns.

The more intriguing question is who recommended his transfer there in the first place and how much information about him they shared with Francis before he gave papal approval to the appointment. Were those that spearheaded the bishop's transfer actually aiming to embarrass the pope as they (or perhaps others) continuously tried to embarrass his predecessor?

The case of Laurent Stefanini, the French ambassador to whom the Holy See has thus far not granted the diplomatic agrément, is similarly curious.

Someone inside the Vatican seems to have created the lingering impasse by claiming that the 54-year-old diplomat, one of his country's finest, is openly gay. In fact, Mr. Stefanini is extremely discreet and keeps his sexuality a private matter. A practicing Catholic, he is not in a civil partnership or same-sex marriage (both legal in France), nor does he identify publicly with any "gay causes."

All this would seem to contradict those inside the Curia who say it is actually French President François Hollande who's trying to embarrass the pope and the Vatican.

Treacherous waters, indeed.

It is hard to find a Roman Curia official or bishop who would say anything but praiseworthy things about Francis. But the pope knows that some of them do so only with lip service while they quietly try to create obstacles to his goals.

And so he has to choose his battles. For example, he has spent none of his capital so far on addressing the ever-contentious liturgical matters, preferring to avoid that particular bear pit. Instead, in this field and others, he strategically has had to make decisions or appoint people he'd rather not.

This strategy may not appear to be "great and strong," but it is actually a calculated investment aimed at preventing further obstructionism and geared toward reaping a greater dividend in the future.

In the course of it all, Pope Francis continues to show his clear determination to guide the entire church further away from the safety and tranquility of its dockyard and out into the deep.

So far he is succeeding. But the waters are rising.

[Robert Mickens is editor-in-chief of Global Pulse. Since 1986, he has lived in Rome, where he studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University before working 11 years at Vatican Radio and then another decade as correspondent for The Tablet of London.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Robert Mickens' column, A Roman Observer, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.

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