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Seeing Benedict Behind Francis’ First Moves as Pope

Reforming Francis

Marcin Mazur/Catholic NewsUK

Fr Dwight Longenecker - published on 07/18/13

Many of Francis' first acts as Pope have been simply finishing things begun by Benedict, not radical breaks with Benedict as the media portrays it

St. Francis was once told to rebuild Christ’s Church, and since the announcement of his name, it has been predicted that the new pope would be a reformer. This is certainly the slant the Associated Press has put on a recent legal update in the Vatican. The AP headline screams, “Pope Criminalizes Leaks and Sex Abuse in First Laws,” while Drudge Report takes a more sensational approach: “The Pope Cracks Down.”

London’s Daily Telegraph also reported on the beefed up Vatican rules and focused on the rules concerning the sexual abuse of children. The Telegraph reports that David Clohessy, the director of the US-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), criticized the laws against child abuse because they are no more than “administrative tinkering” that applies only to the Vatican City State.

The papers have sensationalized this story and portrayed it as part of a brisk crackdown on corruption in the Vatican by Pope Francis. The implication is that the Vatican was riddled with corruption under Pope Benedict, and that Francis is the new broom sweeping the room clean.

When one stops to think it through, however, could it be possible that in just three months the new pope has been able not only to write an encyclical but put sweeping legal reforms into place? The laws have an international dimension, linking the Vatican legal system to global treaties and global crime. This sort of thing is complicated. Did he do all this himself in just three months without any help? Probably not. These things take time – and especially in Rome, which is not called the Eternal City for nothing.

In fact, the sensational stories manufactured by the papers are inaccurate and misleading. Like the encyclical, the updated laws are really the work of Pope Benedict. The more reliable Catholic News Service explains that the legal reforms now being put in place were initiated by Pope Benedict three years ago. Rather than being the radical reforming Pope, cracking down on sex abuse and financial skullduggery, Francis is simply implementing the reforms and teaching begun by his predecessor.

Clohessy’s criticism that the changes are no more than legal tinkering in the tiny Vatican City State is simply wrong. Exactly the opposite is the truth – the new laws were put into effect not to narrow down the Vatican’s laws, but to widen them out. The reforms align the Vatican’s outdated laws with the laws of the Italian government, and more importantly, with international law. 

CNA explains that the laws are a response to the globalization of crime. Recognizing increased mobility and the global nature of crime, the new laws allow the Vatican authorities to prosecute citizens who commit crimes while they are away from the Vatican. Furthermore, the new laws bring the Vatican into line with the laws of various international conventions. Rather than merely tinkering with the legalities of the Vatican, the new laws have an important international dimension.

While the mainstream media were busy sensationalizing the report and focusing on the aspects of child sexual abuse and financial corruption, they ignored other important aspects of the new Vatican laws. In line with international conventions the laws also condemn apartheid, torture, unjust war, human trafficking, and genocide. 

No doubt Pope Francis will continue to reform the Vatican, but those who believe he will sweep through the whole Church with reforming zeal will probably be disappointed. The signs are that Pope Francis will encourage reform at the local level in the Church by bouncing many matters back to the local bishops. He will lead in a reform movement, and expect the local leadership to follow his example. He will probably not impose radical reform from the top down.

The core problem with the mainstream media’s reporting is that their mindset is conditioned by the hermeneutic of revolution. A “hermeneutic” is a method of interpreting data; it is a paradigm for viewing the world, and the secular paradigm is the Hegelian concept of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. To put it simply, the secularist views human history as a series of revolutions. Change always entails a violent rupture with the past – a clash and a conflict out of which a new and better solution is born.

Rather than a hermeneutic of rupture, the Catholic understanding is one of continuity and constant reformation. The secular media will try to paint Pope Francis as a radical reformer – a revolutionary even. Instead they will find that he is a steady hand seeking to cleanse and reform the Church just as his two predecessors did: with a step by step process that brings the light of the Gospel to cleanse a Church which time and again falls back into human error, corruption, and sin. 

Francis’s reforms are really, therefore, nothing more than the Catholic Church doing her job: calling humanity to regular repentance, reform, and constant conversion. Rather than a radical revolution, this is a natural and ongoing part of Catholic life, and Pope Francis leads the whole Church in this practice of repentance and reform, just as his illustrious predecessors did before him.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Visit his blog, browse his books, and be in touch at

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