15.09.07 - The Wily Political Strategy of Pope Francis
Summary: When Pope Francis makes his first trip to the United States this month, he will act on a grand stage much as previous popes have done. There will be a private meeting with the president and public Masses in Washington, D.C.; New York; and Philadelphia. He will address the United Nations. Two aspects of his trip, though, will be unprecedented: He will be the first pope to address Congress, and, equally significant, he will visit homeless people in D.C., underprivileged third-graders in East Harlem, and prisoners in a Philadelphia correctional facility, where he will minister to 100 inmates and their families.

Counterbalancing his meetings with world leaders is a classic Francis move and a potent embodiment of his global agenda. In the two and a half years since his election, Francis has earned a reputation for his simplicity and directness, but the pope from Argentina is also a master of political symbolism and an immensely shrewd politician. He knows that the eyes of all nations will be on the message “the Pope of the Poor” delivers to the world’s richest nation.

The pope’s religious message — that the Gospel should be joyful, merciful, and embrace everyone, especially the poor — is plain and direct. And yet the political strategies he uses to enact that vision are sophisticated and even wily. Inside the Church, he has set out to modernize the Vatican, rooting out corruption and careerism and placing the pastoral care of ordinary people before dogma and rules. Love and inclusion now come before judgment and condemnation. In the larger world, his mission is just as radical: to realign global policy to better aid the poor and excluded. That has included pushing nations to address the prickly issues of climate change and economic inequality.

As a political operator, Pope Francis can be diplomatic but also stubbornly defiant. And he knows how to balance these approaches one against the other for maximum practical effect. Take, for instance, his recent encyclical on the care of the environment, Laudato Si’, in which he rebuked the world’s politicians for weak leadership in combating global warming. The document was timed to influence three major U.N. summits — one on aid financing in Addis Ababa in July; the U.N. General Assembly to fix sustainable-development goals, at which he will speak on this visit; and the climate-change conference in Paris in December.

Even before the document was launched, skeptics began a campaign of “pre-buttals” designed to undermine the impact of the pope’s message. To counter them, the pope cited within the document several previous popes, bishops of more than 15 nations, Greek Orthodox theologians, and the findings of the 97 percent of scientists who have concluded that climate change is created largely by human activity. This is the voice of many, not just one man, was the pope’s message.

Where there is opposition, Pope Francis seems unfazed by it. “Resistance is now evident,” he told an interviewer. “And that’s a good sign for me, getting the resistance out in the open … If there were no difference of opinions, that wouldn’t be normal.” Francis even nurtured debate at the 2014 Synod of Bishops. When a steering committee hand-picked by Francis tried to press a more inclusive line on the divorced and gays, there was outright opposition from conservatives. Some of them have continued to speak out in the run-up to the second Synod, which takes place in Rome in October. Francis has picked the same team to run the 2015 Synod. He himself takes a reconciliatory view toward the treatment of the remarried and gays, and some suspect Francis might impose his own views whatever the Synod decides. The pope’s friends describe him as a “chess player” whose “every step has been thought out.”

Keeping people guessing is part of Francis’s management technique, one insider told me. Perhaps his most celebrated departure from past tradition was his refusal to live in the papal palace, preferring instead two rooms in the Vatican guesthouse the Casa Santa Marta. The staffs of previous popes controlled who got to see the pontiff. By living in the Casa Santa Marta, this pope has access to a wide range of people. His private secretaries are just secretaries, not gatekeepers. Francis works with them in the mornings in the palace, which he refers to as “La Su” (“Up There”). But after plowing through official paperwork, he goes back to the Casa Santa Marta for lunch and then, after a short nap, works all afternoon “Down Here” in his small suite. Papal officials know little about what he does there. He makes phone calls, books his own appointments, and sees a range of individuals for private discussions. His secretaries often discover what he has done only days afterward. Sometimes they never find out.

“No one knows all of what he’s doing,” says his press secretary, Father Federico Lombardi. “His personal secretary doesn’t even know. I have to call around: One person knows one part of his schedule, someone else knows another part.”

One of the major internal tasks facing the pope has been the reform of the Vatican Bank, which had become a byword for scandal and dysfunction. To be his eyes and ears inside the bank, Francis appointed Monsignor Battista Ricca, a former papal diplomat who had run the Rome hostel where Francis stayed when he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires. Francis liked Ricca and placed great confidence in him. Diehards inside the bank, who wanted to maintain the old traditions of privilege and secrecy that allowed them to pursue their own agenda, fought back. They decided that they needed to get rid of Ricca.

Just a month after his appointment, the Italian newsmagazine L’Espresso broke a story claiming that Ricca had had an affair with a male captain in the Swiss Army and had taken his lover with him when he was sent to Uruguay as a papal diplomat. It was widely assumed that Ricca would have to resign. But when Ricca did submit his resignation, Pope Francis refused to accept it. He saw the leaks behind the story as a deliberate attempt by conservatives to undermine his reform program for the Vatican Bank. It was when questioned about the affair that Francis uttered what has become perhaps the defining phrase of his papacy: “Who am I to judge?”

But that iconic line also highlights Pope Francis’s calculated ambiguity. He did not actually say whether he approved of gay priests. The secular world understood that he was signaling a change from the previous Church position, which did judge, decreeing gay sex “intrinsically disordered.” Conservatives glossed the phrase in the opposite direction.

A few days before Pope Francis arrives in the U.S., he will say Mass next to a portrait of Che Guevara in Revolution Square in Havana. This comes just two months after the pontiff accepted a hammer-and-sickle crucifix from the president of Bolivia, Evo Morales. All of which compounds for conservatives the idea that the pope is some kind of communist. “The Holy Father is not making things easy for us,” an American diplomat said privately in Rome recently.

Pope Francis will not be concerned. For him, going to Cuba immediately before he goes to the U.S. is a gesture of balance. He used the same premeditated evenhandedness on his visit to the Holy Land, where he boosted Palestinian aspirations by praying at the security wall that divides Bethlehem and then, the next day, kissed the hands of Holocaust survivors and prayed at a memorial to Israeli victims of suicide bombings. Pope Benedict XVI, a shy scholar, relied on words; his predecessor, John Paul II, invented the papal stadium world tour. This pope uses quiet gestures to leverage his moral authority.

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The Wily Political Strategy of Pope Francis

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Author Discusses Francis, A Pope Seeking To Change 'The Tone Of The Church'

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