Where is the ‘outsider pope’ leading our Church?

By Christopher Lamb, 13 July 2022


The Outsider Pope: Where is Francis leading our Church?

By Christopher Lamb, The Tablet Vatican Correspondent

Delivered at the Novotel Sydney Parramatta

Tuesday 5 July 2022


Thank you for the kind words of introduction and for inviting this “outsider” from the UK to address you on the question of where Francis, the “Outsider Pope”, is leading our Church.

The topic tonight is a pressing one given that the second assembly of the Plenary Council in Sydney is taking place, a landmark event in the life of the Church in Australia and one that, I know, senior figures in Rome are watching carefully for what lessons it can teach the wider Church. It is, I believe, processes such as the Plenary Council which will determine the future of the Church at a grassroots level. More of that later.

This will be a talk in two parts: one part journalistic, one part theological. First, I would like to sketch out the opposition that the Pope has come up against in his battle to reform the Church. As a journalist covering the Vatican for the last seven years I have focussed on this phenomenon in detail, and is the central theme of my book on Pope Francis. Then in the second part of the talk, I will examine the direction that I see Francis leading the Church in three key areas.

Where Francis is leading our Church is vital on to consider given that, on 13 March next year, Francis will be aged 86 and will have completed a decade in office. His health is fragile and it has led to a bout of speculation about whether he might resign. Intriguingly, in the new constitution for the Roman Curia, the Church’s central government, the Pope has ruled that senior Vatican officials should serve no longer than ten years in office.

Now, I don’t believe the Pope is going to step down imminently although his age and fragile health points to the fragility of the renewal process that he has begun in the Church which is still in its early stages. The Francis pontificate is not, however, just the personal crusade of one inspiring individual which some are hoping will be forgotten about when he is gone. No, I believe this papacy is an “event” that is helping to definitively reshape the Church for the third millennium.

Part One

Now, it may be tempting to think that if an individual no less than the U2 frontman Bono praises your contribution and ministry then you’re on your way to considerable popularity, even global stardom. Just recently, Bono was in Rome meeting Pope Francis for the launch of the Pontifical Foundation, the Scolas Occurrentes, an education initiative. Who wouldn’t welcome the endorsement from a global superstar?

Or was the late theologian Hans Küng more accurate when he wrote of this Pope, soon after his election, that, and I quote: “doubtless he will awaken powerful opposition, above all in the powerhouse of the Roman Curia, opposition that is difficult to withstand. Those in power in the Vatican are not likely to abandon power that has been accumulated since the Middle Ages.”

Whatever happens inside the halls of influence in the Vatican, or at the lavishly funded anti-Francis conferences in the United States, this Pope has the support of the People of God across the Church and more broadly. Poll after poll shows this.

But it was the juxtaposition between a Pope who so evidently had the people behind him, on the one hand, while at the same time was coming up against unprecedented internal attacks from powerful forces that inspired me to write my book. To my mind, this was the story of the Francis pontificate, and deserved further investigation. How can a Pope both make an incredible global impact yet also arise intense opposition at the same time? And can he succeed in the battle for Church reform?

My thesis about the opposition is as follows. At its heart, the Francis pontificate is an attempt to implement a Gospel-based reform of the Church by applying the essentials of the Christian faith. It is rooted in a deep trust in the action of the Holy Spirit to update and renew the Church, including its structures.

At the same time, this Pope has embarked on his papal ministry with a steely determination and shrewd strategic approach which has often unnerved and wrong-footed those who assumed they were always going to call the shots at the highest ecclesiastical levels.

He is, of course, an outsider who has modelled his pontificate on St Francis of Assisi, that wonderful saint of poverty, peace and the environment.

This Pope, like St Francis, seeks a renewal of the Church first and foremost by living the Gospel authentically, embracing poverty, simplicity and a deep love of the Cosmos, the natural world. It is about mission rather than maintaining the Church’s institutional prestige or financial position.

As I write in my book, Francis is also the first Pope in more than a hundred years to have never worked or studied in Rome. This makes him an outsider to the clerical establishment, where so many have spent time in Rome either as students or officials in the Vatican. As Cardinal Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, Francis maintained a low profile, did not have a big network in Rome. When Benedict resigned it was actually a journalist, my colleague Gerry O’Connell of America, who called the future Pope to tell him the news. Francis arrived in Rome for the 2013 conclave with a small bag and return ticket to Argentina. Why does that matter? What is shows is that Francis does not owe his position to anyone and can operate with complete freedom. As Pope he has refused to be scripted or controlled by the central Church apparatus, regularly speaking off the cuff and something which gave Vatican officials heart palpitations.

The Outsider Pope has threatened the status quo of power in the Church. His decision to live in the Casa Santa Marta, where he makes use of a 40 square metre bedroom and study, shocked people in the Vatican who expected him to live in the Apostolic Palace. They are still unhappy about it to this day. And of course the Pope’s living arrangements number of high ranking prelates in Rome who live in vast apartments feel a little uncomfortable.

Like the doctors of the law and the religious authorities in Jesus’ time, Francis’s approach is deeply disconcerting to those who wield clerical power. The reaction in Rome to Francis’ call for a “poor Church for the poor” can sometimes be likened to Sir Humphrey, the Civil Servant in the British television series, Yes Minister. It goes something like this: “Of course Holy Father, I must salute you for your desire to see a ‘poor Church, for the poor’ but I’m not sure it’s practicable at this moment in time.” There was one moment, early on in the pontificate, when the Pope was speaking to Caritas – the Church’s charitable arm – and the talk was being broadcast into the Vatican press room so journalists could listen in. Francis was stressing the urgency of helping the poor and made the suggestion that, if necessary, the church buildings in Rome could be sold to help! At that point the broadcast of the talk was suddenly cut. It was done, I was told, on the orders of a senior Vatican official who is no longer in office.

It is, I believe, the Pope’s consistent and relentless focus on a lived authentic Christianity that stirs up some of the reactionary forces against him.

Francis is not a conservative or a liberal – he is a radical who always places the emphasis on the lived practice of faith while resisting all attempts to place ideological labels on the Church. His pastoral approach and his bold gestures such as opening up of the Sistine Chapel to give private tours to the homeless or his decision to bring back refugees back on his papal plane are not decided at high-level strategy meetings. They are his attempts to instinctively respond to the movement of the Spirit and it makes Francis an unpredictable force.

While much of the opposition in Rome has operated under the surface, the Pope has faced unprecedented public resistance to his authority in ways that would have been unthinkable during the tenure of John Paul II or Benedict XVI. Early on, the cardinal in charge of the Vatican’s doctrine office made the extraordinary claim that because Francis was “more pastoral” it was up to this cardinal to “theologically structure” this pontificate. He said this despite the role of the Pope as supreme Pastor and teacher of all the faithful” with a responsibility to promote and defend doctrine. In other words: “We can’t trust the Latin American Pope to be in charge of theology.”

Another curial cardinal, this time in charge of liturgy, repeatedly made statements that undermined Francis and for months resisted a specific, and very simply request to make clear that woman can now officially be part of the foot washing ritual during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. I should point out that over the last nine years, Francis has taken some definitive steps to reform the Curia, something which is an ongoing process. There are also many in Rome who work extremely hard to serve the Pope. Let me make one thing clear. I am not suggesting that Francis is above criticism. And neither is he. This Pope has offered some dramatic personal apologies, including over mistakes he made handling sexual abuse scandal in Chile. He is also been tolerant to his opponents and allows for disagreement among advisers. What I argue in my book is that the guerrilla warfare launched on him by his opponents seeks to question his right to exercise papal authority. This level of opposition has not been seen in centuries.

The seeds for the most dramatic attacks on Francis, however, were sown during the Synod meetings on the Family when the Pope and fellow bishops sought to articulate a renewed teaching on family life focused on mercy and accompaniment. In his teaching document, Amoris Laetitia, Francis codified this vision and opened a path for those who are divorced and remarried to receive communion. This was bitterly opposed by a group of cardinals who publicly challenged Francis’ teaching. However, this was not merely about a difference in opinion.

What began as theological resistance to Francis quickly morphed into a political one.

This burst out into the open when, in 2018, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former papal ambassador to the United States, issued a dossier of baseless accusations while calling on Francis to resign in 2018. This was a blatant ecclesial-political manoeuvre designed to damage Francis. The fact a papal ambassador took such a step would have been unthinkable a decade ago given that Viganò had made an oath of loyalty to the papacy and had spent decades serving the Holy See.

Where did it come from? In April 2018, I sat in a conference centre in Rome, listening to a high profile cardinal from the United States give a long speech on the “limits of papal authority,” an implicit attack on Francis. Given this cardinal was renowned as a standard bearer of Catholic orthodoxy – who in the past demanded full obedience to Popes John Paul II and Benedict – the topic of the speech seemed quite ironic. One of those in the audience listening that day was Archbishop Viganò. Four months later his dosser against Francis was released.

It must be remembered that Viganò has strong links in the United States including, it is believed, among some wealthy Catholic donors who oppose Francis. A number of the US donors have, like Archbishop Viganò, backed President Donald Trump and they want the Church to relentlessly focus on a few “wedge” culture war issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Francis has, however, steadfastly resisted attempts to be drawn into the culture wars. He has spoken out strongly on defence of the unborn but insisted that being pro-life is to defend all life, including opposition to the death penalty.

These wealthy backers, and they have allies among the Church hierarchy, are distressed by Francis’ outspoken advocacy for migrants and care for the environment which we saw with his landmark encyclical, Laudato si’. At the time Laudato si’ was released Catholic Republican politicians in the US such as Rick Santorum and Jeb Bush both publicly criticised the Francis for trying to intervene on climate change. There was also a wrecking ball attempt in Rome with Francis’ encyclical leaked to a journalist critical of this pontificate as a way to lessen its impact.

Although it is seven years since its publication, the teaching of Laudato si’, which updates the Church’s social teaching by linking the cry of the earth with the cry of the poor, has not been communicated to ordinary Catholics in the US and it is better known outside the Church. The same is also true of other major papal teaching documents such as Amoris Laetitia: recent findings of a synod survey in England and Wales show this teaching, including its opening to giving communion to remarried divorcees, is not widely known. There is no point denying that a significant portion of clergy and bishops in the English speaking world have resisted or ignored Francis’ teachings.

The opposition to Francis also has a megaphone. There is one Catholic media network, based in the US and thee the largest religious affairs broadcaster in the world, that has become a platform to some deeply hostile coverage of the Francis pontificate. This network pushed the now debunked claims made against Francis by Archbishop Viganò while also carrying out fawning interviews of President Trump and his supporters. More significantly is what they ignore. When the Pope published his book, Let Us Dream, it received coverage from media across the world. This book was a serious attempt by Francis to address the Covid-19 crisis through the lens of Catholic Social Teaching. But the Catholic network I have mentioned offered not a scintilla of coverage of this book bar a short blog post. Certain Catholic media have pushed a hostile or skewed narrative about this pontificate arguing either that Francis is a dangerous liberal, or “woke Pope”, who is dismantling the Church’s tradition or a kind of “dictator Pope” who is trying to enforce his will onto the Church. You might expect lines of attack from commentators working for mainstream media outlets, but it is extraordinary that these narratives are pushed so relentlessly by Catholic outlets.

Part Two:

In many respects, the opposition that Francis faces shows that he’s moving with purpose and clarity and it reveals a sickness in elements to the Church’s life and culture which Francis is seeking to heal.

I firmly believe that after almost 10 years of this pontificate definitive, irreversible reforms have been made and, as one cardinal put it to me: “The Church does not have a reverse gear.”

Yet it is a battle and many are asking: who is winning? Could another Pope turn back the Franciscan reforms? As William Gibson, the economist, once remarked: “the future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”.

I would like to suggest three ways that the Francis pontificate has started to distribute the future, and how, even beyond this papacy, the Church has embarked on a direction of travel. Francis recently said that none of his reforms are things he dreamt up one night: they are all things that were discussed by the College of Cardinals before they elected him in 2013.

The first is the implementation of the Second Vatican Council, that decisive moment when the Church defined itself as the People of God, sought to reconnect itself with early Christianity and give centrality to the Word of God. Now, more than 60 years on, we are in what can be described as a decisive third phase of Vatican II’s implementation. This is not a place to go into the discussions around the council, yet one of the distinctive features of this pontificate is how the Pope has moved the Church beyond debates over which interpretation of the council should be definitive. For Francis, it is not a case of seeing the council either as aggiornamento (updating) or ressourcement (going back to the sources) but both. He has also moved away from a hermeneutic of interpreting the Council through a strictly textual analysis of the documents but sees Vatican II as a moment in the life of the Church that sets the path for the future. It is also worth noting that it was in Latin America where the council was embraced fulsomely.

When it comes to the council, Francis has focussed on practical implementation of Vatican II which seeks to do this in the present moment rather than by simply looking backwards. In Francis, we have a Pope who has made the acceptance of the council a non-negotiable. He has described the non-acceptance of the council in some quarters as the great problem for the Church today. The temptation to go backwards, Francis says, is a kind of fundamentalism, so often rooted in ideology.

One of the ways that Francis has implemented the council is through his work with other faiths, building on Vatican II’s declaration Nostra Aetate which condemned anti-semitism and opened a new chapter on relations between the Church and other religions. During this pontificate, Francis has forged new a new relationship with the Muslim world by signing a landmark human fraternity document with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Abu Dhabi, the leading Sunni authority, and became the first Pope to meet Ayatollah Al-Sistani in Iraq, the highly respected Shia authority.

Through his inter-faith work, the Pope has not waited for leaders to come to him but has crossed the other side of the street to engage in listening. In Iraq, it was Francis who got out of the car and walked down the back streets of Najaf so he could meet Al-Sistani in his home. It was the Pope who went to the flat of the holocaust survivor Edith Bruck in Rome. He’s offering a model to follow: the Church isn’t called simply to have nice conversions with other faith leaders but to be the initiators of dialogue. This is an urgent requirement both in an increasingly pluralistic, religiously diverse world and at a time when hatred between faiths is so easily stoked or fuelled. “Christendom no longer exists,” the Pope told the Roman Curia and Francis is offering a model of a Church as a patient listener, which becomes a “sacrament of dialogue”.

Francis has also refused to ignore the “restorationist” mentality which seeks to go back to pre-Vatican II ways, particularly when it comes to the liturgy. After all, one of the signature reforms of the council was a renewal of how Catholics worship.

While Popes of the recent past had offered some concessions to the Old rite, Francis has issued tight restrictions on the pre-Vatican II Mass. Now, it is sometimes argued that the Pope is restricting people’s desire to worship in Latin, this is really not the case. Latin is still used in all the big papal Masses in St Peter’s and there is no restriction on Latin in the Mass! The problem for Francis is the way the Old Rite promotes a pre-Vatican II ecclesiology in ways that have threatened the unity of the Church. Rejecting the liturgical reforms of the council is, he is saying, a rejection of the council itself. In parts of the English-speaking world, particularly in seminaries, there has been a growing trend to embrace the Old Rite as normative or adopt pre-conciliar styles. The Pope has now taken some firm steps to make this more difficult. While dialogue is always possible, Francis has set down a red line on Vatican II which he is determined the Church will continue to implement.

The second way Francis is preparing the future is by urging the Church to become synodal. With the global synod process currently taking place, he’s launched the most ambitious reform project since Vatican II and it’s one that is likely to have profound implications.

Put simply: a synodal Church is one that listens, engages in dialogue and discerns under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I firmly believe that the Plenary Council in Australia is the most advanced attempt to become a synodal Church in the English-speaking world and offers valuable lessons to the universal Church. What strikes me as highly significant in the Plenary process is the vision of a Church that implements Vatican II.

Now, this is a long process that the Church has embarked upon. It is going to take time and it will vary from different countries, but there are already some common characteristics emerging from different countries.

One of them is giving a more visible role to women and seeking to include lay people in decision-making. This is about giving everyone a share in the responsibility for the mission of the Church, albeit in different ways and tackling clericalism, the elitist control of power in the Church community by a select few – lay or ordained. The synod process so far has consistently cited clericalism the root cause of dysfunction and abuse. In his recent reform of the Roman Curia, the Pope stated that any suitably qualified lay person can lead a Vatican department, stressing that governance in the Church comes from receiving a particular mission and not ordination. I note that the Plenary Council agues a similar point.

Another feature emerging is the urgent need for the Church to find new paths to transmit the Christian faith to the next generation. Across the western world, young people are disconnected from the Church. A synodal Church is not saying here’s a way to “get them back”, but is instead calling for a learning of the art of accompaniment. The synodal discussions have repeatedly emphasised the need to include the marginalised, particularly LGBTQ Catholics, many of whom have felt excluded and deeply hurt by the Church. The Francis pontificate has modelled a new pastoral approach to gay Catholics which is rooted in God’s loving mercy for everyone.

The third way Francis is leading the Church is by calling it to be a prophetic voice working at the peripheries. One senior Vatican official recently remarked to me that Rome can become a “bubble” where what goes in the Curia becomes disconnected from the rest of the Church. Francis, he said, had changed that by bringing the periphery to the centre.

The Pope is asking each of us – all members of the church – to seek out the peripheries wherever we are. And he has repeatedly illustrated what he means by this.

Take, for example, his visit to Madagascar in 2019 where he went to a village built by Father Pedro Opeka to house people who had previously been living on a municipal rubbish dump, in the hills just outside of the capital, Antananarivo.

Francis, in a speech, invited the world to look at Akamasoa and witness life “in a place that spoke only of death and destruction”. He praised the life and work of one individual who was not a senior churchman working in the Apostolic palace but for a priest who’d spent more than 20 years serving people who were living on a municipal rubbish tip. This, according to Pope Francis, is living the Gospel authentically.

Take his attempts to listen to the Indigenous peoples from the Amazon during the 2019 synod and him spending hours listing to and then apologising to Indigenous abuse survivors who had been forced to attend Church-run schools in Canada. Francis would without doubt salute the Plenary Council in Australia’s attempts to listen to and integrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Or consider one of Francis’ first forays as Pope to the Island of Lampedusa, just a matter of months after he had been elected. While celebrating Mass there he said in his homily, “Today no one in our world feels responsible; we have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters. We have fallen into the hypocrisy of the priest and the Levite whom Jesus described in the parable of the Good Samaritan: we see our brother half dead on the side of the road, and perhaps we say to ourselves: ‘poor soul…!’, and then go on our way.”

Those whom the world has despised, those that several politicians across Europe have described in the least compassionate terms, Pope Francis presents before us as “our brothers and sisters”. He wants the Church to speak out from the margins, for the marginalised. He is the outsider Pope who has associated his papacy with the outsiders.

I like to think that what Pope Francis is trying to implement in the Church is the ‘upside-down economics of the Gospel’.

The last is first.

The outsider is the insider.

‘Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’.

He’s made this case at the very top of the Church with his appointment of cardinals, many of them bishops working on the peripheries and those who would never expect to receive the red hat of a cardinal. He’s made service not status the guiding principle and by the end of August will have chosen around 63 per cent of the candidates who will elect his successor.


Some in the Church may be hoping that a future Pope will turn the clock black and are already manoeuvring to ensure an anti-Francis candidate emerges from the next conclave. Time will tell.

Whatever happens, however, the Francis papacy has set down a definitive marker that cannot be erased. Even if the opponents of Francis are successful in finding a candidate at the next conclave willing to undo the Franciscan reforms the papacy of Jorge Bergoglio will remain the lodestar pointing the People of God forwards.

Thank you.

Christopher Lamb is an international journalist and author. He is the Vatican correspondent from The Tablet journal, and his latest book The Outsider: Pope Francis and His Battle to Reform the Church draws on his close observations of Pope Francis and his efforts to renew the Catholic Church.


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