Pope Francis is due to visit the U.S. next week and by all accounts he will get a mixed reception from the American faithful. While many of the rank and file are wowed by the new pontiff, U.S. conservatives, both lay and clerical, regard him as a dangerous radical who threatens to overturn orthodox Catholic teaching, especially on abortion, climate change, inequality and homosexuality.
A contrary and fascinating perspective comes from former editor of the Irish edition of The Sunday Times, Paul Vallely in a lengthy interview last week on National Public Radio’s ‘Fresh Air’ programme, presented by Terry Gross. Incidentally Vallely is described in all his bio’s as British, but he has a distinct Irish accent. You can decide for yourself by clicking this link.
Vallely argues that Pope Francis is no radical or even a liberal; he will not overturn Catholic doctrine on fundamental matters. But he is an astute manager who realises that the Church needs to reform its institutions and direct its affairs in a more rational way, and badly needs to present a more sympathetic and sensitive face to the world. It’s about managerial efficiency and public relations in other words.
This is FRESH AIR, I’m Terry Gross. Pope Francis will make his first visit to the U.S. next week. We’re going to talk about the changes he’s made in the Church in the two and a half years of his papacy – changes in the Church’s position on the role of women in the Church, homosexuality, annulment, divorce and climate change. And we’ll discuss the reforms he’s leading within the Church hierarchy, the Vatican bureaucracy and the Vatican Bank. My guest, journalist Paul Vallely, is the author of the new book “Pope Francis: The Struggle For The Soul Of Catholicism.” His other books include “The New Politics: Catholic Social Teaching For The 21st Century” and “Bad Samaritans: First World Ethics and Third World Debt.” He’s a former deputy editor of the British newspaper The Independent and teaches public ethics and media at the University of Chester in England.
Paul Vallely, welcome to FRESH AIR. So what is the goal of the Pope’s visit to the United States?
PAUL VALLELY: The Pope is visiting, and he’s addressing many audiences. He’s addressing the Congress and the political elite. He’s seeing the president. He’s seeing the United Nations – world leaders to talk about sustainable development. But he’s also talking to the U.S. bishops. Most importantly, he’s talking to the ordinary people of America. And he’s mindful of a fifth audience, which is that although he’s here in the richest country in the world, he is the pope for the poor. And he’s very aware that the eyes and ears of the poor world are on everything he does and says.
GROSS: The Pope has been leading reforms in the Vatican, but you say he’s not as liberal as some liberals think. Can you expand on that?
VALLELY: Well, a lot of secular liberals think that a liberal pope would change the Church teaching on abortion and contraception and gay marriage and those kind of issues. The Pope has not shown any signal of changing doctrine. And so in that sense, he’s orthodox. And that makes him not a liberal in the way that the world uses that term. He’s perhaps a liberal within the Church, but I think that’s slightly more complicated. What he is is somebody who wants to change the tone of the Church. And there was a very good example of this the other day. He did a virtual audience for American cities that he won’t be able to visit. And he was talking to ordinary Catholics in Chicago and Los Angeles and on the Mexican-Texas border. And there was one woman there who he – she told her life story to him and said that her children had had very hard life. And she broke down in tears when she was doing it. And he said to her no, you’re a brave woman. You’ve done your best for your children. And you brought them into the world. You could’ve had an abortion in your difficult situation, but you didn’t. Now, that is absolutely classic. He’s taking the Church’s line on abortion, he’s saying it’s wrong, it’s a grave sin. But he’s not saying it in a kind of finger-wagging condemnatory way. He’s saying it in a kind of compassionate way and saying – encouraging someone who he sees as having done the right thing. So he’s not changing teaching, but he’s changing the way that it’s put across and the warmth with which the Church relates to ordinary people.
GROSS: I’m a little confused about his position on women in the Church. He said he wants a profound new theology of women. But at the same time, he’s ruled out women becoming priests.
VALLELY: Well, you’re not the only one who’s a little confused on that. And he really – he knows that there’s an issue. He knows there’s a problem. But he’s got no idea what the solution is. I mean, he’s a man of a certain age from a culture in Latin America which is quite macho. And he has very high regard for women, but in a sense of, you know, aren’t they lovely. I think about my own mother, I think about my grandmother and what wonderful examples they were. He’s not very up on the role of women in the professional world. He has worked for a woman boss. He’s had a good friend who was a female lawyer during the military regime in Argentina. And they worked closely together. And he’s spoken, for instance, about how equal pay is an imperative and it’s a scandal that women aren’t paid well. But when it comes to theology, he doesn’t want women priests. He was asked, why not have woman cardinals because cardinals don’t have to be priests? Oh no, we’ve got enough clerics in the Church. We don’t want anymore. Well, what about women heading departments in the Vatican? Well, you’ve got to be a cardinal to head a department in the Vatican. So no real action in the areas which are open to him. He could, perhaps, make some movement on women becoming deacons, which is the – you know, the step before you become a priest. But he betrays his background, even when he’s doing the right thing. He brought five women onto the International Theological Commission. And then having announced them and said oh we need more of these women because they’re the strawberries on the cake…
GROSS: (Laughter) No.
VALLELY: …And one of the leading women theologians says yeah, well, if we’re the strawberries, the men are the nuts. But you get the idea that even when he’s trying to do the right thing, he’s still steeped in this kind of background which makes it difficult for him to know how – he’s kind of paralyzed and conflicted about it, really. He wants a profound new theology for women, but he’s got no idea what that means.
GROSS: And let’s relate that to the issue of birth control. He’s defended the Catholic ban on contraception, but he’s also said that Catholics shouldn’t breed like rabbits and they shouldn’t – that they should exercise responsible parenthood. Is he preaching abstinence there? What is he saying?
VALLELY: Well, what is the preaching? I think he’s trying to replace the old idea of papal infallibility with a doctrine of papal fallibility because he seems to be contradicting himself there and no one’s quite sure. I think one of the interesting things about contraception is that in the past, the Church has looked at it from a kind of philosophical and theological way and said it’s against the natural law and all that kind of thing. This pope is the first pope from the global south, so he looks at it differently. He thinks that population control is a plot by the rich to try and make sure that the poor can be controlled so that the rich can continue to take a disproportionate proportion of the world’s resources.
So he’s ending up in the same place as previous popes, but going at it by an entirely different route. And he says that – he acknowledges that people are going to have problems with contraception. He says oh, priests should be merciful and understanding in confession. So you’re kind of supposed to go in and confess that you’re doing it, but you won’t get ticked off too much. So it is quite confusing. But it’s part of his general position – who am I to judge on homosexuality and so forth – where he’s sending out a softer kind of message. He wants the Church to be welcoming, inclusive, compassionate, merciful – mercy is his keyword. And he doesn’t want it to be condemnatory and judgmental as it’s been in the past. So it’s like keeping the words and changing the tune.
GROSS: But, you know, do you see it as a step forward? For instance, on homosexuality he said, who am I to judge? And he wants to kind of welcome homosexuals into the Church. But that’s not the same as saying homosexuals should have equal rights or the Church is going to endorse gay marriage. So how do you parse what he’s said on homosexuality?
VALLELY: Well, he thinks homosexuals should have equal rights, he’s very keen on that. And when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was in favor of civil unions. He’s against gay marriage because he thinks marriage is the key word. It’s sacramental. It’s between a man and a woman, and two men or two women can’t be married. But they can have a civil union, and they should have equal rights. Again, if you look at gay adoption, that’s another interesting nuance from his point of view. He thinks that gay adoption shouldn’t be seen as an issue about the rights of parents, it should be about the rights of children. And children have the right to a mother and a father. So he’s in favor of civil unions, he’s against gay marriage, he’s against gay adoption. It’s quite a complicated position. But I don’t think it’s necessarily contradictory. It’s just more subtle than the previous Church position which was to condemn and call homosexual acts morally, intrinsically evil. So I think what you’re seeing with this pope is a kind of holding up of ideals and councils of perfection and saying well, we all know that we fall short of these. And everyone’s a sinner, and I’m a sinner. And I’ve committed hundreds of errors in my past. So we just have to be more merciful with one another.
GROSS: Early on, Pope Francis sent out a questionnaire to a lot of Catholics asking their views on issues like contraception, premarital sex, cohabitation, divorce, homosexuality. Do we know how he’s used that, or do we know what the results of that questionnaire was?
VALLELY: We know that the results were very different in different countries. But then in lots of the West – that they were quite critical of the existing Church positions. And these were fed into the proprietary document for the last senate of the bishops to discuss. One thing that’s really interesting is that in the past, popes have not been interested in what laypeople think. In the past, there was a big congress in the United Kingdom of laypeople. And the cardinal, Cardinal Newman, took the results of this to the Pope John Paul II and said this is the results of our survey. And just read this one page, and he handed him the book. And the Pope just shut the book and passed it to one of his aides. And the message was quite clear – we’re not interested in what laypeople think. We’ll tell laypeople what to think, that’s our job. And this pope has turned that completely on its head by saying – right, first of all, let’s find out what ordinary people think. Then let’s have a discussion amongst the bishops. And he wants to change the way the Church makes its decisions. So that in the old model, the pope was like a medieval monarch. He just kind of issued rulings and that was that. Francis wants to return the pope to being the first among equals and a much more – he wouldn’t use the word democratic – but he means a more democratic way of the Church coming to its common mind. The last meeting of the bishops, he said now, I want you all to speak boldly. Listen with humility, but speak boldly, and don’t say anything – don’t hold back from anything because you think the pope won’t like it. I want to hear what everybody’s got to say on everything. And that’s a bit like his line on who am I to judge. The Church – who am I to judge is a question. The Church, in the past, has always made assertions and statements. He wants questions to be asked, he wants the bishops and the senate to ask questions. He wants the Church to be more questing – more open in that sense. So what you’re seeing here is a much more subtle shift than is often portrayed by the idea of is he a conservative or is he a liberal. He’s both. He’s a Catholic.
GROSS: How much pushback is Pope Francis getting from more conservative clergy in the Vatican?
VALLELY: He’s getting a huge amount of resistance. Some of it is public and some of it is behind the scenes and quite subtle in the Roman bureaucracy, the Curia. People trying to block things that he wants to do or delay them – drag their feet. And occasionally, he will – as with his reforms on the Vatican bank – he’ll realize that people are doing this, and he’ll sack entire boards of cardinals and so forth. He’s quite a ruthless political operator. But he wants to hear the dissent of conservatives. He actually said, let’s get this debate out into the open. It’s healthy to hear, resistance is good because it’s better than it being papered over or behind the scenes. And then we can have – if disagreement is no longer dissent but is healthy debate, then we can go forward in a new way. So what we’re seeing is the start of a process rather than a finished product.
GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Paul Vallely. He’s the author of the book “Pope Francis: The Struggle For The Soul Of Catholicism.” Let’s take a short break, then we’ll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you’re just joining us, my guest is journalist Paul Vallely. He’s the author of the new book “Pope Francis: The Struggle For The Soul Of Catholicism.” And he has written extensively about the pope and the Vatican.
It’s been interesting in the United States to watch the reaction of conservative Catholic politicians, the reaction to Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change. And the encyclical credits human beings with some of the problems that have created climate change, and that’s such a kind of political – politicized issue in the United States. And, for instance, Rick Santorum – and I’m paraphrasing here – said that, you know, the pope should leave science to the scientists. And he maintains that, you know, climate change is not largely based by human action. Of course there’s a lot of, you know, business interests here that don’t want more controls on emissions, so it’s just a very complicated, political issue in the U.S. And I’m wondering, is the United States the only country in which climate change is mixed with politics in the way that it is here?
VALLELY: No, you do find it elsewhere, but nowhere near the same extent as the United States. When you talk to people in the United States, they make out this as kind of an open debate, and some people think it’s – climate change is caused by human activity, and other people don’t. And they present it as though it’s a kind of open question. In the rest of the world, it’s seen as a real problem, and the debate is about how to address it, not whether it’s a real problem or not. And one of the things that the pope did in this encyclical was that – it was quite ironic that Rick Santorum and Jeb Bush said that he should leave science to the scientists because the pope is a chemist himself.
The other thing that’s worth saying about “Laudato Si'” is that the Pope said privately to his aides the day it was published that this is not an environmental document, it’s a social one. And what you see when you look at it is a profound critique of the way that we inhabit the planet and the way that we live. And a lot of it is about our economic relationships and how very poor people are pushed to the margins because they don’t have a useful place in the global economy and how they are excluded and outcast. And so it, again, like his previous document, “Evangelii Gaudium,” which was his kind of manifesto when he took over as Pope, he’s saying there’s something wrong with unrestrained global capitalism. It needs corrections, and it needs to change. And that profound political analysis, which he sees as a spiritual problem, is also part of why the conservatives disagree with him.
GROSS: So would you give us an overview of what Pope France is trying to do to reform the Curia, the bureaucracy that runs the Vatican?
VALLELY: On the Curia, he’s proceeding on several different levels. First of all, he’s replacing people who he regards as obstructive in top positions, and quite a number of people have gone. One of them, famously, is the American Cardinal Burke, who was removed from the body which appoints bishops around the world. And then he was removed again as the head of the Supreme Court at the Vatican because he was seen as obstructive and not a team player. Other conservatives, like Cardinal Muller, the German who runs the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or the doctrinal watchdog, he’s been left in place. So the pope’s quite subtle in the way that he’s moving people around, but he clearly is getting rid of people who are obstructing his vision.
The other thing that he’s doing is that he’s trying to change the systems. So the secretary of state who used to be, like, the first minister for the pope, has had all his powers over finance stripped away, and he just deals with political relations with foreign countries. And he’s created a new ministry for finance, and he’s put a very fierce conservative, actually, Cardinal Pell from Australia, into that to try and make all the Vatican departments accountable. And some of the normal business practices, like, you know, having budgets and sticking to them are being bulldozed through by Cardinal Pell. So he’s changing the systems, but he also bypasses existing systems. I mean, he wanted to get a message to the Chinese government a while ago, and instead of going through the secretary of state, he sent a message with some Argentinian missionaries who he knew had good relations with the Chinese.
So again, people in the Vatican don’t quite know what’s going on. And there’s a great story in the book about an official from Alitalia, the Italian airline, ringing up the Vatican saying, we’ve had a man on the phone who says he’s the pope wanting to book a seat on a flight to Lampedusa…
VALLELY: …To see the refugees. Could this really be the man? So the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand’s doing. If you speak to the Vatican press spokesman, Father Lombardi, he kind of goes around trying to work out what’s going on. The Pope works in the morning in the offices, but then in the afternoon, he works in his room in the guest house where he lives. And he makes phone calls, and he has meetings that nobody knows about. So he doesn’t – you know, he’s keeping everybody guessing. So that’s changing the systems. And then he’s trying to change the attitude. He’s making the clerics break off their work and go off on retreat and try and think of their work in more spiritual terms. All of this is wrong-footing the people there. They don’t know quite what he’s going to do. He’s very unpredictable, and that enables him to act and to make changes in ways which previous popes haven’t done.
GROSS: So the pope has appointed – I think it’s 39 Cardinals, and you say they’re pastors rather than culture war ideologues. Only 14 of them are from Europe. One is from the United States. And the others are largely coming from…
VALLELY: I don’t think there’s any from the United States.
GROSS: OK, I stand corrected on that. And you say the others are coming from poor countries, many of them small countries. How is that reshaping the Vatican?
VALLELY: Well, the next pope will be elected by the College of Cardinals, and the Pope’s appointed 39 people to that, none of whom are from America and only a tiny number of whom are from Europe. And for the first time, the European cardinals are not in a majority in this college. And the number of people from developing countries is now 42 percent. So if he carries on every year appointing more cardinals, he could be in a position where the majority of them are from what we used to call the third world. When it comes to electing the next pope, obviously, that will be a profound shift because they will – they will bring different priorities to the election and may well elect a different kind of person. And that shift has sent a signal to people in the United States and in Europe to say that you’re not the center of the Church anymore. The Church has been too Eurocentric, and the American Church has had too much power through its wealth, and that’s changing. And that’s a profound shift.
GROSS: My guest is Paul Vallely, author of the new book “Pope Francis: The Struggle For The Soul Of Catholicism.” After we take a short break, we’ll talk about the scandal at the Vatican Bank and how Francis is trying to reform the bank. Vallely was actually allowed into this secretive institution. The building used to be a dungeon. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with Paul Vallely, author of the new book, “Pope Francis: The Struggle For The Soul Of Catholicism.” When we left off, we were talking about how the pope is reshaping the Vatican. He’s appointed 39 new people to the College of Cardinals, the body which elects the pope. Most of the new members appointed by Francis are from poor, developing countries. This is the first time European cardinals are not in the majority in the college. I’m wondering if you think that that shift in the cardinals will have cultural implications that take the church in the opposite direction than Pope Francis has been heading – ’cause I know in some churches, it’s the developing countries that are culturally very conservative in terms of women and in terms of homosexuality.
VALLELY: That could be the case. But I think the pope wants the different parts of the church to have their voice in the way decisions are made. He thinks the Vatican has been too much the master of the church. And he wants to turn it into the servant. And the voices of people in different places should be heard. And it’s true that they may be conservative on issues like homosexuality. But they’ll be very radical on issues of international economics. So you’ll see, this pope, he looks at the world from the bottom up. It’s like, you know, looking down the wrong end of a telescope. He sees the world differently from the way that we see it in the rich world. Previous popes have been great teachers, and we’ve had a philosopher pope in John Paul. We’ve had a theologian in Benedict. But this pope, he goes up to a man, like Francis went up to the leper, the man with the disfigured boils all on his face, and he hugs him and kisses him. And that just kind of speaks of the kind of thing that Jesus would do. And what he’s doing with these new cardinals is he’s putting more people into the College of Cardinals who will look at the world from the bottom up in the way that he does.
GROSS: You’ve written extensively about the Vatican bank and the shake-up there that Pope Francis is now overseeing. And you’ve even gone into the Vatican bank. So let’s just start with what is the purpose of the Vatican bank? What money is in there, and what is it supposed to be used for?
VALLELY: The original purpose of the Vatican bank was for religious orders and bishops and dioceses to put money into an organization which could transfer it out to the developing world. So you would be able to build churches, pay priests, build hospitals and clinics and so forth, to get the money there. And a lot of these countries are places where there are no effective banking systems. And they’re failed states politically. So you need a secure system to transfer the money. The problem has been that that system has been – because it’s private, confidential, secretive – it has been misused by people using it for political purposes within the Vatican or people using it to do money laundering and tax dodging and other allegations that have been made about the abuse of the Vatican bank.
GROSS: So before we get to some of the abuses, I want you to describe physically what the Vatican bank is like and what you need to do to just, like, enter the bank – because you were actually invited in so that you could report on the reforms that were being made. And you describe the bank as having been a former dungeon (laughter). So just, like, describe that for us.
VALLELY: Yeah, the bank is in what used to be a medieval fortress. And it was held – it was a prison for a long time, a dungeon. And there are no windows at the bottom. You go in, and you’ve got to go past two or three Swiss guards. You then have to go through an electronic security check. You’re checked in. When you get in, there’s an ATM where you can take money out. And the instructions are in Latin, for goodness sake. So all the – all the messages that this place sends out are, this is private. This is secret. Keep out. You’re not welcome here.
GROSS: So how did you get in?
VALLELY: I got in because I’d written a book about the pope. And I’d touched on the Vatican bank in it. And they heard I was writing another edition of the book and said, well, do you want to come in and we’ll show you what’s going on here? And, I mean, that was in itself an amazing change. They’ve got a press officer. The Vatican bank’s never had a press officer in the past. Its job was keeping journalists away, not welcoming them in and saying, let’s show you how we’re going about the reform process. But that’s what they did. And they talked me through it.
GROSS: So one of the things that kind of blew open the scandal was Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, he managed the Vatican’s real estate and investments and was a part of the Vatican bank structure. And he had reported that some of his art had been stolen. And when the police came to his house, what did they find?
VALLELY: They found a very luxurious apartment. And they said, how come this man, who’s an ordinary priest on an ordinary priestly stipend, afford all of this amazing stuff – you know, really top quality paintings, antiques, furniture, books? And he said, oh, they’re all gifts. And the police thought, this is – sounds very suspicious. And they began to investigate him. But the pope had already been working on the Vatican bank before Scarano was arrested. He had – right from the outset, he’d realized that there were – the problems with the bank were similar to the problems that he dealt with in a bank in Argentina. And he came and looked at the situation, brought in outside experts, set up two groups – one to look at the bank, one to look at the wider finances. And these were top financiers from around the world – all Catholics, but independent laypeople. And they set off thinking, how can we rethink this? And he said, you’ve got an open brief. You can close this bank if you think that’s the right thing to do. They decided, in the end, that its legitimate functions were too important to close it. But the reforms in it have been completely radical. And they’ve closed about 3,000 of the 19,000 accounts. They’ve sent reports on 200 suspicious transactions to the Vatican regulator, who’s passed them on to the police and international banking authorities. The pope has routinely sacked individuals and sacked whole boards of cardinals who were responsible for different aspects of things. Whenever he came across resistance and he thought, these people are dragging their feet, he just cleared them out. He’s brought in five different teams of international management and financial consultants. He’s been very thorough. And the Vatican bank is the one area where you can say he’s had huge and immediate success.
GROSS: So what happened to Monsignor Scarano after he was found to have, like, millions of dollars of art in his home?
VALLELY: He was subjected to investigations by two different sets of police – one in Sicily looking at mafia involvement and one in the north looking at allegations to do with money laundering and inappropriate systems within the bank. And Scarano is awaiting trial on various charges.
GROSS: Is he in prison now?
VALLELY: He is in prison, yeah. He was under house arrest for a while. And then he was put in prison. And he may – I’m not sure about this, actually. He may be out on house arrest again. So – but he’s definitely detained.
GROSS: So the person who Pope Francis appointed to be the prelate of the Vatican bank, or, as you describe it, to be the pope’s eyes and ears within the bank during this reform process, is Monsignor Battista Ricca. And after he was appointed, an Italian news magazine published a story claiming that Monsignor Ricca had had an affair with a male captain in the Swiss army and had taken his lover with him when traveling on papal business. What was the pope’s reaction to that story?
VALLELY: The pope’s reaction was to say, this is obviously a move to try and undermine the reform process in the Vatican bank. This story’s been leaked by people who are opposed to the reform process. And Ricca offered the pope his resignation. And the pope said, no, I’m not accepting your resignation. I want you to carry on there. But Ricca had been – as well as a papal diplomat previously, he’d run the guest house in Rome where Francis used to say when he was a cardinal. And he was one of the few people that – in Rome – that Bergoglio, as he was known then, knew well – because he wasn’t in Rome that often. And he knew Ricca really well. And he trusted him. And he thought, I want someone I trust in the bank with access to all papers to try and tell me what’s going on there. And he saw this move of leaking the story about his gay past as a way to try and undermine the reform process. And it was when he was on – he was on a plane, on one of those in-flight press conferences. A journal asked him about Ricca. And that was when Francis uttered this phrase that became the kind of – the totemic phrase of his early papacy, who am I to judge. He was asked about Ricca. And when he talked about the man’s gay past – if he seeks the lord and repents, who am I to judge – that was the context. I mean, he meant it more widely than that. But it was interesting that he was not going to be steered away from his intent to radically reform the bank by people leaking things like this. And the man he’s put in as head of the finances, Cardinal George Pell, they’ve tried to leak dirty trick stories about him as well. And the pope has been very robust in rejecting that too.
GROSS: Shortly after the story broke about corruption in the Vatican bank, Pope Benedict, Pope Francis’s predecessor, resigned. Do you think there’s any connection between the Vatican banking scandal and Pope Benedict’s resignation?
VALLELY: The Vatican banking scandal was part of it. But it was a wider thing. Do you remember the – Benedict’s butler leaked some documents to a journalist. He leaked a lot of secret documents that he’d been asked to shred. And the reason he leaked them was because he thought that people were trying to undermine Benedict and ignore him. And this was a scandal, and it needed to get out in the open. So he leaked all of this stuff. The butler was put on trial for this. And it became known as the VatiLeaks scandal. And what emerged in the courtroom was not just the Vatican bank but a lot of intrigue and infighting inside the Vatican, people jockeying for position and direct corruption. The pope, Pope Benedict, put three top cardinals on to investigating this. They went and produced a huge dossier – I mean, a dossier which was so big it was in a box about, you know, 2 and half feet high. And when he saw this and the summary of it, that was part of him thinking, I haven’t got the stamina to deal with this. It wasn’t only that. He was very physically frail. It was not revealed at the time, but Benedict had fallen over in a bathroom and banged his head when he was on the trip to Cuba and Mexico. And he felt that point had reached in his life where he’d become frail. And a combination of all of this meant he felt that he wasn’t physically or mentally robust enough to deal with all this. And he took this dossier and put it on one side, and he resigned. And he left it for his successor. And there’s an interesting photograph, which is in the book, which not many people understand the significance of. And it’s the two men meeting, the two popes meeting for the first time when they’re both popes and emeritus pope in Castel Gandolfo. And they’re sitting with it on a low table. And there was a big, big white box in between them. And that is the box with all of this, witness statements on the dossier, which Benedict handed over to Francis.
GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Paul Vallely. He’s a journalist who’s written extensively about the pope and the Vatican. His new book is called, “Pope Francis: The Struggle For The Soul Of Catholicism.” Let’s take a short break here, then we’ll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you’re just joining us, my guest is British journalist Paul Vallely. He’s the author of the book “Pope Francis: The Struggle For The Soul Of Catholicism.”
One of the problems that Pope Francis inherited was the priest abuse of children, the sexual abuse of children in the Church. What is Pope Francis trying to do to prevent that from ever happening again and to deal with the men who are known to have been responsible but not necessarily punished?
VALLELY: Well, the pope set up a commission for the protection of minors and vulnerable people. And it’s supposed to put in place policies which mean that the circumstances in which priests can be that kind of sexual predator don’t happen again. He’s also got the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith investigating individuals. It’s taken him a while to do this. It took him a whole year before he set this up, and there is a lot of resistance within the Vatican. One cardinal said that, apart from the resistance over the Vatican Bank and the finances, the most resistance that the pope has encountered to anything has been on this sex abuse because there’s a big faction within the Vatican and at very senior levels who think that having this all out in the open and having a commission and commissioners and making public statements is like washing your dirty linen in public and it’s bad for the church. So there’s this kind of civil war almost within the Vatican. Francis himself is really behind the need for reform, but he’s not pushing it as hard as he is in some other areas, and I think this is because Francis has an ambivalence. One of the things that he’s worried about is people making false allegations against priests, and that’s something that he had experience of in Argentina. So he’s – there’s a kind of slightly conflicted quality to Francis on this. And the people who are on that papal commission have told me that, no, it’s all going in the right direction. It’s just much slower than they would like. But I also detect that there is this serious resistance within the Vatican.
GROSS: So Pope Francis is overseeing reforms in the Curia, in the Vatican Bank. He’s leading the church in a slightly different direction culturally and socially. Do you think that the College of Cardinals knew what it was doing when they elected him pope?
VALLELY: I think they knew to a certain extent, but they were surprised by how he’s turned out and by how radical he’s been and what a whirlwind. I mean, he’s almost like Hurricane Francis, isn’t he? There are some of the more conservative figures who have got buyer’s remorse about him. But a lot of them, even amongst the conservatives, are delighted with the way that he’s reinvigorated the church. And people – you know, ordinary Catholics are proud to be Catholics rather than being slightly ashamed of it because it was a church full of sex abuse and scandal and suppression of dissent and so forth. Now, suddenly, there’s joy in the air, and people are smiling in Rome. And there’s a new openness. And so that’s largely – that’s largely welcomed. A lot of the cardinals felt that they needed to reassert the control of the wider universal Church over Rome. And the code word they used for that in the Church is collegiality. The Church needs to be run like a college and not like a monarchy.
Everyone had been speaking in the meetings before the election takes place about all these problems. And he stood up, and he was the first person to make a speech which was different from that. And he said the Church needs get out onto the streets with the message of the gospel. It needs to go to the peripheries, both geographically and existentially. It needs to stop referring to itself. And he used an image of the moon. There’s a Latin phrase, mysterium lunae, and it’s the idea that the moon has no light. It just reflects the light of the sun. And so the church has no light. It just reflects the light of Christ. And too many people in the Church began to think that they had light of their own. And he was – he used a very funny image. And he talked about the phrase in the Bible of Jesus knocking on the door. And he says people think that means Jesus wants to come into people’s lives, but it may be that Jesus actually is knocking on the door to get out. He wants to get out of the Church and get into the world and this idea of taking the church out of the sacristy and into the streets and evangelizing. When he sat down after this short, 3-minute speech, one of the cardinals turned to another and said this is the man we need.
GROSS: So one of the little changes that Pope Francis has made that I think is a very interesting one, though it’s probably just symbolic, is that he’s no longer going to hand out the honorific title of monsignor, which I think translates to my lord. Is that right?
VALLELY: Yes, my lord. And he thinks that’s inappropriate. There are some individuals who are going – like papal diplomats – who will keep it because he thinks they need some kind of handle. But the idea that this honorary title which was bestowed upon priests for loyalty to the papacy or for doing what the Bishop wanted for 40 years or whatever, yes, he’s got rid of that. And there are lots of little symbolic things. And one of the things about the Church is it’s a place of symbol. So people say, oh, it’s just symbolic, but it’s not just symbolic in the Church. Changing the symbols is changing the substance in some ways, and that’s just one of them. And he’s very studiedly changed with lots of these big gestures, like not living in the papal palace and living in the guest house and not going in the papal limousine but getting on the bus with the other cardinals. All those kind of things – they’re not intuitive or spontaneous. This is how he was when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires. So he’s bringing that notion with him. Christians must change to respond to the modern world. That’s what he’s saying. And the change starts with the Pope.
GROSS: What’s the symbolic significance of no longer handing out the title monsignor?
VALLELY: He thinks that it smacks of a kind of medieval notion. The idea that you call anybody my lord – it’s kind of aristocratic. It’s not part of the way the Church should be relating to the world.
GROSS: Paul Vallely, thank you so much for talking with us.
VALLELY: It’s been a pleasure. It’s been very interesting.
GROSS: Paul Vallely is the author of “Pope Francis: The Struggle For The Soul Of Catholicism. After we take a short break, TV critic David Bianculli will review last night’s premiere of Neil Patrick Harris’ variety show. This is FRESH AIR.