Hard questions we’re not asking Pope Francis

Pope Francis

Pope Francis' charisma and appeal means he isn't often asked the tough questions. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)


  • Francis sometimes gets a free pass on legitimate questions any other leader would attract
  • We should be asking hard questions about his positions on women, sexual abuse, diplomacy, and collaboration
  • Pulling punches is of no help to Francis, who has said, "These are things I need to hear."

Pope Francis is an undeniably attractive figure whose concern for people at society’s margins can be awesome to behold. As a result, it’s almost impossible sometimes not to go soft on the man.

To take a recent example: While in South Korea in mid-August, the pontiff made a point of visiting a group of severely disabled children at a health care center outside Seoul. He delighted in a dance they performed, then utterly disregarded his schedule to embrace each one by one. He laughed with them, wiped away their tears, and for a brief, shining moment, made them feel like the center of the universe.

Even cynical reporters watching the scene had a hard time not choking up, because Francis just feels so palpably like the real deal.

continues below

Yet precisely because there’s so much to like, Francis sometimes gets a free pass on the sort of legitimate questions any other leader would attract. In that regard he often seems the mirror opposite of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Because Benedict had a bad public image, he sometimes was blamed even for things that weren’t his fault. In contrast, Francis often is absolved even for choices for which he actually is responsible.

Where Benedict was Velcro, Francis is Teflon. For Benedict everything stuck, for Francis almost nothing does.

At least four hard questions we should be asking more often come to mind.

continues below

1. Women and the Church

First up is the pope’s record on women. Despite his firm “no” to women priests, he has said repeatedly that he wants to see a greater role for women in Catholicism, including participation in the “important decisions … where the authority of the Church is exercised.”

To date, however, Francis hasn’t offered many examples of what such a greater role would look like. When he’s had a chance to chip away at the Vatican’s glass ceiling for women, quite often he’s whiffed.

Thank you! We've sent an e-mail to you with a confirmation link to click.
That e-mail address is already subscribed. Thanks.
Please provide a valid e-mail address.
Please complete the CAPTCHA.
Oops. Something went wrong. Please try again later.

In March, he named seven lay people to his new Council for the Economy, the first time at such a senior level that laity have sat with Cardinals as equals on a decision-making body.

It was a step forward for the lay role in the Church, but there wasn’t a single woman in the line-up.

Even when presented with realistic proposals for empowering women, he’s balked.

Maria Voce is an Italian lawyer who serves as president of the worldwide Focolare movement, and a highly respected figure on the Vatican scene. In December 2013, she floated the idea of creating a council of lay advisers to the pope as a companion to the C8 Council of Cardinals — advisers Francis created in April 2013.

As she conceived it, the council would be a mixed body of lay women and men from around the world, perhaps including a married couple. Although it seems the sort of thing Francis might do, he hasn’t so far, and there’s no indication he plans to do so.

The question is, “Why not?”

2. Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse is another front. An exception came with an Aug. 24 piece in The New York Times about former Polish Archbishop Joseph Wesolowski, a onetime papal envoy in the Dominican Republic accused of molesting minors. He was recalled in late 2013 and laicized, meaning kicked out of the priesthood, in June.

The Times asked whether bringing the former prelate to Rome was a way of evading civil prosecution, forcing the Vatican to clarify that because he’s been stripped of diplomatic status, he could stand trial in the Dominican Republic or any other jurisdiction that wants a shot at him.

Wesolowski, however, was not the only question mark.

The pope set up an anti-abuse commission last December to great fanfare, yet aside from organizing a meeting for the pontiff with abuse victims in June, it hasn’t done very much. At this stage, it’s not clear where it’s physically going to be housed, or whose jurisdiction it falls under.

Word in Rome is that an announcement about the commission might be coming this week. Still, it’s fair to ask why, if fighting child abuse is a priority, it’s taken this long for the pope’s chosen reform vehicle to get going.

Another shoe waiting to drop is accountability for bishops – not in cases such as Wesolowski’s, where the bishop himself is accused of abuse, but when bishops fail to apply the Church’s “zero tolerance” policy to other clergy under their supervision.

Francis acted with vigor when the infamous “bling bishop” in Limburg, Germany, was accused of over-spending. Why hasn’t he shown the same zeal in disciplining bishops who drop the ball on abuse charges?

3. The pope as diplomat

There are questions to be asked about Francis’ performance as a diplomat.

On the way home from Korea, Francis insisted this his recent peace prayer in the Vatican Gardens with the Israeli and Palestinian presidents was “absolutely not a failure,” despite the fact that war broke out on the Gaza Strip just days later.

Perhaps, and of course it’s unfair to blame Francis for failing to solve the Israeli/Palestinian problem when everyone else has come up empty. Still, if he wants to be a “Peace Pope,” it’s legitimate to ask if there’s something more incisive he might contemplate beyond feel-good rituals in the Vatican Gardens featuring a lame-duck Israeli president with no real influence.

To date, the only concrete diplomatic success to which Francis can point is helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad cling to power by opposing Western strikes. The pope had his reasons, including fear for Syria’s Christians in the aftermath of regime change. Yet assuming that Assad reasserts control, the question is whether Francis will use the Church’s resources to promote greater respect for human rights and democracy.

If not, his major political accomplishment could go down as propping up a thug.

Despite his reputation for spontaneity and candor, Francis is also capable of some debatable diplomatic silences.

He’s often said that the suffering of persecuted Christians makes him weep. Yet when he was recently a few miles away from arguably the most atrocious oppressor in the world, North Korea, he went strangely quiet. Asked during a press conference about Christians in North Korea, he replied in generic terms about the pain of a divided country.

The pontiff also extended an olive branch to China during the trip, without mentioning its own record of oppressing Christians and other minority groups.

In a similar vein, word has gone out to Vatican personnel to use caution in commenting on the Islamic State in northern Iraq for fear of framing the conflict as “Christian v. Muslim,” thereby handing radicals a propaganda and recruiting tool. While understandable, the question is whether such discretion will impede the ability of the pope and Church officials to mobilize support for Iraq’s Christians, who are undeniably a primary target.

Perhaps in all these cases, Francis has a legitimate fear of making things worse by speaking out. Without explanation, however, critics may begin to detect a dubious policy of “peace at any price.”

That drumbeat has already begun from the likes of the Rev. Gianni Criveller, a Hong Kong-based member of the Pontifical Institute of Foreign Missions and a leading expert on China.

“No agreement is better than a bad agreement,” Criveller said of Francis’ efforts at détente with Beijing. “I would focus more on supporting Catholics in China and speaking about their plight more openly.”

4. Collaborative or unilateral?

Francis could be asked about what seems on the surface a contradiction between his stated commitment to decentralization and collaboration, and his practice of acting unilaterally when the mood strikes him.

This is a pope, after all, who blew past the normal protocol for naming saints to award a halo to a member of his own Jesuit order, Peter Faber. He disregarded the input of Italian bishops to tap an obscure prelate he happens to like as their new secretary. He gives blockbuster interviews that haven’t been cleared with his communications team, let alone other Vatican aides or local bishops, even though they’re the ones forced to respond when the bombshells go off.

One senior Western diplomat has called Francis’ management style “government by surprise,” expressing sympathy for mid-level officials serially caught off guard.

The pope has convened two synods, meaning summits of bishops from around the world, to discuss matters related to the family, including the controversial issue of whether divorced and remarried Catholics should be able to receive communion. While saying he wants an open debate, he’s signaled in a half-dozen ways his personal sympathy to the more flexible position – arguably, stacking the deck.

Francis’ maverick streak is part of his charm, and one may firmly believe that all these acts are taking the Church in the right direction. Still, it’s fair to ask how they square with his vow of “collegiality,” meaning governing in concert with others.

‘These are things I need to hear’

To be clear, it’s not that Francis is incapable of answering these questions. It’s rather that his charisma sometimes impedes them from even being asked, especially with any edge.

During an hour-long press conference on the way back from South Korea, only a couple of these questions surfaced, and then in mild form. Yet in addition to inquiries about his views on Iraq and China, those of us on the plane found time to ask how Francis copes with his “immense popularity,” how he felt about his favorite soccer team winning the Argentine championship, and what his daily routine is like in the Vatican residence where he lives.

In the end, pulling punches is no service to anyone. Least of all is it any help to Francis, who has said of criticism offered in a constructive spirit, “These are things I need to hear.”

John L. Allen Jr., associate editor, specializes in coverage of the Vatican. More

  • DrRosemaryEileenMcHugh
    Thank you, John, for asking these hard questions. Next time that you are in the presence of Pope Francis, please be the one to cut through his charisma, and make a point of getting straight answers from him. We do not know the pressures that he is having to cope with in the Vatican. He has done many good things. I hope and pray that he will have the wisdom and live long enough to make the changes that are needed, for the greater glory of God.
    • Gerald Slevin
      If John asks Francis any questions that way, Dr. McHugh, it will be a first for him with any pope.

      I assume you are following the censorship clash at John’s former home, the National Catholic Reporter, described at christiancatholicism{dot}com.

      • ब्राह्मण
        NCR has a right to ban whomever they (don’t) like.

        Just as you do. (Why are comments not welcomed on YOUR blog? Censorship?)

        • Gerald Slevin
          Mine is not a blog, that’s why.
          NCR is a tax exempt, tax subsidized entity. I am not.
          The tax exempt status imposes certain legal requirements on NCR as the price for the subsidy. NCR cannot so discriminate.
          You do use facts occasionally, no?
          • ब्राह्मण
            It’s a tantrum in a teapot. You can’t force NCR to allow you to use their blog as your personal megaphone, tax exempt or not.
          • sp113
            Being tax-exempt is not “tax subsidized”…it is being left alone. That’s like the gangster telling proprietors: “because I didn’t rob ya’, I’m being nice to ya'”
  • conbigote1
    How is that this sort of thing has been a regular refrain of posters, but not your column in the Boston Globe?
  • carolstanton
    Congratulations to all on CRUX.

    John, I am just asking myself a fifth question:
    Is Francis so far out there ahead of his communications apparatus because
    a) he is intentionally “the leak” to test waters? or
    b) he doesn’t have the time to wait for them to craft a message acceptable to all.
    His “Pope personality” is perfect for getting away with this more action/reaction approach — as you put it, he is Teflon!

  • Gordis85
    Good questions, all of them, and fair, too. I admire and pray for Pope Francis always, but it would be great to read his replies to John’s questions and thus clarify those head scratching moments.

    Great new site by the way and one I look very much forward to participating in. ^^

  • Rich Tilson
    Like the old commercial, “Where’s the beef?” I want to like and trust Pope Francis to be the guy to fix the broken Church, but I still have my doubts.
    • Günther Eder
      Grüß Gott from Bavaria.

      I just read an article about CRUX on the german newspaper F.A.Z. an I’m starting to like this website.

      I think Francis is not capable of fixing all the problems of a broken church, but perhaps he just wants to show us how we can.

  • kag1982
    John, doesn’t this include you? I hope that you will ask tough questions if you ever get an interview with Francis. And some of the fluff Francis gets makes the questions that Obama got about 2007 seem difficult. You have the most powerful religious leader on the planet and you are going to ask him fluff questions about his favorite soccer team? Or 10 keys to happiness?
  • emmettcoyne
    If I hadn’t seen his name first, I wouldn’t have thought this a John Allen column. No waffling here; clear, concise, challenging column.

    I just wonder why JA was so silent on the plane when he had all this percolating within. Was he too intimidated by the aura of a pope and gave obsequious deference and dared not throw a dart that would have shifted the plane interview to substance? Did his subconscious fetter his conscious?

    I hope, JA, you will be in his presence once more and will lob any one of these questions, for surely reporters will continue to muzzle themselves.

  • weehawken
    Popes are elected to reflect the will of the cardinals who voted them in.

    The question really is: what did the Council want? And will Francis give it to them or take the Papacy in an entirely new direction?

    He could – with one stroke of the pen – allow for normal family life for all present and future priests, thereby making the clergy more in tune with and representative of its flock.

    That would be “small ball” to the rest of the world, but it would have a profound long-term effect on the relationship between priest and penitent.

  • la catholic state
    By refusing to frame the ISIS conflict as a Muslim versus Christian conflict (which it partly is), the Pope is leaving Christians without a framework to respond to Islamic aggression. This is wholly unfair.

    Islamists and those Muslims willing to follow them know what they are about regarding Christians and Christendom. Christians, on the other hand, are without a plan or proper leadership.

    • kag1982
      Yes.. I know. How dare the Pope not launch another Crusade like the conservative Catholics want him to!
      • la catholic state
        So … what do you call Obama’s bombing of ISIS … if not a secular Crusade! The Crusade card is the last card in the Christian pack … but it does certainly exist … and may be called on sooner than we expect.
        • kag1982
          Obama is protecting U.S. interests as any secular leader would. That is different from a Catholic pope suggesting that the struggle is an Islam vs. Christian Holy War. ISIS wants a religious war with Christians because it knows that it will attract lots more Muslims to their cause.
          • la catholic state
            ISIS is waging a holy war, and to deny this is leaving non-Muslims at risk. As you said, Obama is protecting US interests. But who will protect Christians (and others like the Yazidi)? Maybe Christians should.
        • Zephyranth
          It’s hard to know how much info Pope Francis has regarding stupefying revelations (available only from independent media reports but not from the controlled mainstream media) that ISIS was US-created phenomenon because it’s they that armed these rebels, and then to pretend to fight them now – to serve as a pretext to bomb Syria that would surely incur unfathomable civilian casualties including many children. The silence of the world, including of Pope Francis regarding the oppression of some other “forever” marginalized groups like the Palestinians, make some people wonder too why silence about this – not unless he’s bought into the propaganda like so many here and in the rest of the world. Love, peace, and justice should prevail. Hope Pope Francis can be instrumental to that in one way or another.
          • la catholic state
            If the Palestinians stopped bombing Israel and stopped obsessing about Israel…..maybe they could get their act together and create a lovely land for themselves. As it is…..they have brought everything on themselves. Pope Francis can’t do it for them….and neither can anybody else. There are people worse off than them. They should take responsibility for themselves.
        • Zephyranth
          It’s hard to know how much info Pope Francis has regarding stupefying revelations (available only from independent media reports but not from the controlled mainstream media) that ISIS was US-created phenomenon because it’s they that armed these rebels, and then to pretend to fight them now – to serve as a pretext to bomb Syria that would surely incur unfathomable civilian casualties including many children. The silence of the world, including of Pope Francis regarding the oppression of some other “forever” marginalized groups like the Palestinians, make some people wonder too why silence about this – not unless he’s bought into the propaganda like so many here and in the rest of the world. Love, peace, and justice should prevail. Hope Pope Francis can be instrumental to that in one way or another.
  • DPierre
    The mistake that Allen and other writers make when writing about Francis is that they always infer that Francis is addressing issues solely related to the United States.

    For example, the woman issue … Outside the clergy here in the United States, women play a *very* large role in the Church. (It is a challenge to find a parish where women are *not* leaders of faith formation, music ministries, and other ministries. Women largely run the parish offices.)

    This may not be the case in other parts of the world.

    Americans need to get over the fact that Francis isn’t always addressing them. The guy doesn’t even speak English.

    • Bill Guentner
      “This guy” as the Vicar of Christ should never be referred to in this manner.
    • Reyanna Rice
      Yes he does speak English. He gave 4 speeches in English in Korea. He reads it and understands it and is working on fluency.
  • nestofsalt
    A commission is something politicians set up for cover while they do nothing. This Pope talks a good game, but his actions show that he cares more about redistributing other people’s wealth than cleaning up the Church.
    • Francis
      This is a cheap shot and is not supported by what the Pope has achieved and attempted so far.
  • Veritas
    Prayer for peace is never window dressing. PRAYER is never without effect.
  • Bobadilla
    As to #4, he is operating as a Jesuit provincial would, which is neither strictly unilateral nor strictly collaborative as those terms are usually understood. Jesuit provincials are usually very self-effacing, consult widely before making important decisions, and listen when Jesuits have feedback. But then they have to make the decision individually and the expectation is obedience. As one provincial put it, “You discern and I decide.”

    I like this system but it does demand a high degree of spiritual detachment on both superior and subjects. And it is hard to grasp what’s going on for those locked into the unilateral vs. collaborative dichotomy.

  • Luis Gutierrez
    Pope Francis is a good man, but he cannot walk on water. I am sure he knows that current proposals for increasing participation in church decisions are little more than window dressing. They just don’t know how to untie all the patriarchal knots gracefully. As long as the door to ordain women priests remains closed, no substantive improvement is to be expected.
  • DC10-RJK
    Wow! Who knew? The Pope is human. It’s hard to believe the Pope hasn’t had more impact on change within the church on all of these fronts. The questions you pose are good questions, but your commentary lacks insight and causes me to wonder are you more interested in criticizing the church, the pope, the reporters . . . or is this more about ego and making a name for yourself?

    Consider reading a book that tells some of the back stories to Vatican II. These stories provide a broader perspective on what it takes to affect some level of change within the church. To say nothing about how long it takes for change to actually occur at the local level.

    So, go ahead and ask those “tough questions.” I suspect there will be many of us who won’t be content with all of the answers. Then we can move on to other things to criticize the Pope and the church for. Thank God for the Holy Spirit who watches over the church and gives counsel to our Holy Father in all of his humanness!

  • Mary Claire Kennedy, SSJ
    Glad to see you put women in the Church as an important question for the Pope to deal with. Especially after it didn’t even make it to the Top 10 trends of your book “Future Church”!
    • scotty09
      Right on, Mary Claire! Keep holding Allen’s feet to the fire…a little bit of scorch on his sole should keep him honest!
  • Na
    It’s telling that John views the papacy as little more than a vehicle to advance a political agenda. Perhaps the reason everything “stuck” to Benedict is due to John’s prejudice and those of his generation. If your primary belief is that we are the one’s we are waiting for … then you aren’t waiting for Christ.

    BTW … did you get paid for the following sentence: Benedict had a bad personal image?

    • kag1982
      Benedict got lots of bad press. You could argue that it was unwarranted, but you cannot argue with the fact that scandals tended to stick to him. And if you’ve heard John Allen speak, you’ll know that he is actually “protective” of Benedict, which he mentions in his lecture.
  • Na
    It’s telling that John views the papacy as little more than a vehicle to advance a political agenda. Perhaps the reason everything “stuck” to Benedict is due to John’s prejudice and those of his generation. If your primary belief is that we are the one’s we are waiting for … then you aren’t waiting for Christ.

    BTW … did you get paid for the following sentence: Benedict had a bad personal image?

  • Marie S. Rottschaefer
    My humble congratulations on this new endeavor so very much needed. Thank you John Allen et al.

    Your list of four hard questions would not be my priority, however.

    Mine would be more basic: philosophical, scientific, historical, and as a derivative or consequence: a
    structural metamorphosis. A genuine evolution; no wonder they are hard! But the answers are in the literature and I am not a scholar, rather, an interested

    So let’s not overwhelm Francis’ workload with our homework.

  • PaulOfTarsus
    Good points made here. I wonder about Francis’s workload. He did take some days due to exhaustion. The issues and dealing with personalities has to be draining. Francis is attempting to turn the ship around. To do so he has to slow it down & take over the helm. While by his position he has that right it is another to make it happen. It is hard to believe those clerics praying for his early death are not actively attempting to sabotage his efforts.
    Women in the Church. If he is to speak to that topic he has to have formulated- at least in general terms- how he will go about making it happen. I agree he has missed opportunities so, one has to wonder if he has a grandeur plan… or none at all.
    Peace Pope. He is a newcomer on the international political scene. He needs some time to build up some political capital. One gets more with honey than vinegar. So, it may be in the early period of his pontificate he is using more honey. For example, Obama pressed the “reset”button with Russia. For a while it seemed to work until Putin regained leadership (though one can argue he never lost it). Putin crossed the line and now the gloves have come off. Why can’t the same be true for Francis?
    I learned that when Cardinal Medeiros headed Boston the priests hated and opposed him bringing him to an early death. It may be true or not- I would not be surprised if it is true- yet, the fact remains that clerics cannot be easily fired and they can make your life a living hell if given a mind to do so. Francis knows this. He thought he was off to retirement yet, GOD had other plans. Now he is called to do yeoman’s work. Work that should have been done by Benedict and St JPII before him. I am willing to cut him some slack and put the onus where it belongs – the bishops. THEY need their feet held to the fire. Does anyone have a match?
  • Dave Hahn
    Like any of you could do any better. It is so easy to sit there and criticize, sit on the sidelines and act like your smart and ask the “tough” questions. Just as Pope JP II and Pope Benedict was way ahead of everyone so is Francis. The Holy Spirit didn’t pick you guys he picked the man who could do the job.
  • barbaro70

    Missing is question number 5: Support for the Latin Mass?

    I have heard, only heard, not read about–but of course this is the kind of thing that “governing by surprise” intentionally does not reveal in the normal process, that the Holy Father is not supporting the Latin Mass availability, that he is actually hindering it. So, let´s find out: HOLY FATHER, DO YOU DO WHAT IS REALLY NECESSARY TO OVERCOME THE LIB/LEFTY BISHOPS WHO OPPOSE THE ONLY HOLY MASS WHICH DRAWS THE ATTENDEES IN, WHICH DOES NOT ALLOW THE ATTENDEES TO FALL ASLEEP, THAT IS PURE AND DOES NOT ALLOW SACRILEGE AS MANY OF THE NOVUS ORDO MASSES DO? DO YOU?

  • I_M_Forman
    Okay, here we go – first, to # 1) Women and the Church. Are you talking about all the women in the Catholic Health Care Industry? If you are wondering about women priests don’t hold your breath. Who does Mr. Allen have in mind. If the Pope says he will do it then he will do it. 2) Sexual Abuse. He threw the guy out of the priesthood! To the best of your knowledge Mr. Allen, has the Dominican Republic sought to extradite the laicized priest? I do not know the answer to that. Did the Pope open up a can of Whoop-A– on Father Pervert there or did he give him a welcome home party? 3) diplomacy – The Pope is God’s Representative on Earth. I think he is doing a good job. He has not added one single iota or detracted one singe word from the teachings of Christ. That is always first and foremost! 4) Unilateral? What about that Cardinal’s Gang of 8 you mentioned earlier? Do you have any idea as to what consultations the Pope makes? I am sure he takes in more information then some foreign leaders and he doesn’t even play golf. I think the Pope is doing fine here. As long as we don’t want to pull punches do you have anything to ask Cardinal Dolan about the St. Patrick’s Day Parade?

Scroll for more