Papal Adviser Writes Lengthy Analysis of Pope’s Governance and Reform

Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro explains how discernment, inner conversion and dialogue are central to Francis’ reform rather than any set strategy or structural change.

Pope Francis talks with Father Antonio Spadaro on the second day of the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region on Oct. 8, 2019 in the Vatican.
Pope Francis talks with Father Antonio Spadaro on the second day of the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region on Oct. 8, 2019 in the Vatican. (photo: ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP via Getty Images)

For Pope Francis, governing and reforming the Church are matters of “discernment,” “self-emptying” and “conversion” rather than imposing “pre-packaged ideas.”

They are also about creating the “structural conditions” for a supposed “real and open dialogue” rather than resolving “who is right and who is wrong.”

Such is the general analysis of Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, a close adviser to Francis, writing in the Sept. 5 edition of La Civilta Cattolica, the Jesuit periodical that he edits.

In the lengthy article, headlined “Francis’ Government: What is the driving force of his pontificate?” Father Spadaro tries to unpack the motivations behind the Pope’s method of governance at a time when he says some are wondering if Francis’ “drive” for reform “still exists” while others have “tried to reflect on its substance.”

The Jesuit editor begins by stressing that for Pope Francis, “reforming people” comes “from within” — something Father Spadaro argues dates back to the time of the Council of Trent when St. Ignatius of Loyola avoided doctrinal and theological questions and instead preferred to focus on the Jesuits’ witness.

Radical reform, he goes on, is a “truly spiritual process” which aims at “conversion” — a more “mystical” approach favored by Pope Francis who sees the 16th-century Jesuit St. Peter Faber as having a similar attitude to reform and therefore as a role model.

Drawing on personal notes from Francis as well as his public writings and statements, Father Spadaro says Francis views “true reform” as rooted in an “emptiness of self,” otherwise it is “only an idea, an ideal project, the fruit of one’s desires.” Without this emptiness of self, even good ideas would simply be “another ideology of change,” he adds, an ideology “vaguely zealous” in character and “feared by those who do not support it.”

“It would be at the mercy of the disillusionment of those who have their own agenda in mind,” he writes, adding that the reform of Francis “works” if it is “emptied of such worldly reasoning.” It is the opposite, he says, “of the ideology of change” and rather trying to “discern the times” so that the “mission lets Christ be seen more clearly.” Discernment — a word frequently used in his analysis — “is the systematic structure of reform, which takes the shape of an institutional order,” he says.

Father Spadaro then touches on Francis’ familiar appeal for a Church that is “neither static nor rigid” before dedicating a whole section to “non-ideological discernment.” Francis has “neither pre-packaged ideas to apply to reality,” he writes, nor does he have an ideological plan of ready-to-wear reforms” but rather advances “in dialogue, in consultation” in the face of vulnerable human situations. The Pope, he goes so far to argue, “creates the structural conditions for a real and open dialogue.”

Critics would likely contest this, noting that Francis has closed down dialogue and largely refuses to meet with those whom he views as being “ideological” or “rigid” or simply holding another vision for the Church more faithful to Tradition and orthodoxy.

Father Spadaro points to why this may be so — namely because as far as Francis is concerned, such “pre-packaged ideas are of no use and information may not be balanced and truthful: only encounter and immersion allow wise government.”

Father Spadaro again returns to Francis’ emphasis on “discernment” and an “interior attitude” that urges openness to “dialogue, to encounter, to find God wherever He is found, and not only in predetermined, well-defined and fenced-in perimeters.”

For Francis, what’s important is whether a proposal for reform has a “good or bad” spirit, and a “bad spirit” can sometimes end up “favoring ideological positions” and “weakening the freedom of spirit.” It creates, Father Spadaro writes, drawing on a “personal note” that Francis sent La Civilta Cattolica about synods, an atmosphere of “distorting, reducing and dividing,” creating “antagonistic positions” that hinder the Church’s mission.

“Everyone entrenched in ‘his truth’ ends up becoming a prisoner of himself and his positions, projecting his own confusions and dissatisfactions onto many situations,” Francis writes. “Thus, walking together becomes impossible.”

Father Spadaro adds that for the Pope, it is not therefore a question of resolving “who is right and who is wrong,” and he refers in particular to ordaining married men, a contentious theme during last year’s Amazon Synod. Regarding such questions, Pope Francis is concerned about “how a decision is made” and the need for a “discernment that is truly free,” the Jesuit says.

He explains how for Pope Francis “honest listening” of what the Spirit is telling the Church is needed to discern the wheat from the tares, and those who do not understand this “expose themselves to unnecessary bitterness.” Synods are places of “discernment” and “prayer” that leave the “discussion open,” Father Spadaro writes, and the Pope believes that through sincere and prayerful listening, “hidden agendas” will be exposed.

Father Spadaro goes so far as to assert that the “spiritual discernment” of Francis “redeems the necessary ambiguity of life,” helping to find the most appropriate means not always identified with the “great or strong” but rather through listening to “consolations and desolations.”

Mention is made of Francis now well-known vision that “time is superior to space” in the context of reform that does not “cut off heads” or “conquers spaces” of power but is about a “spirit of discernment.” And again, Father Spadaro maintains that the Pope “listens to opinions,” but without a “theoretical road map” and without references to “ideas and concepts.” His is an “inner vision” that “does not impose itself on history” but rather “dialogues with reality.”

Francis’ reform is not only administrative, he goes on, but an “accompaniment of processes” which can be “extremely slow” and possibly mean to “tear down the model we had drawn in our heads.” It also can be realized “in the smallest gesture” and in the context of a “concrete situation.”

But this, Father Spadaro adds, also means that the “forms” of his magisterium “become flexible.” Francis’ magisterium “does not functionally respect the conventional forms, but adapts to the times and moments,” Father Spadaro adds. The Pope “never speaks of a heroic and sublime desire,” or believes in a “rigid idealism” or “ethicism” or “spiritualist abstractionism,” he says. Furthermore, the Pope wishes to warn “against the aggression of idealism” which offers the temptation to “project the ideal scheme onto reality without taking into account the limits of that reality.”

Father Spadaro explains how Francis values contradictions and believes it is possible to “harmonize” them, something he says is “very characteristic” of the Jesuits. “Contradictions are part of a fertile history,” he says, and that for Francis problems do not have to be “solved immediately.” Again, discernment and slow deliberation are presented as key characteristics of Francis’ approach to reform and governance.

He closes with a look at “temptations” that can hinder reform, one of which is to believe one “must act for the good of the Church” and that “we must save it” — a temptation, Francis once wrote, deriving from “lack of faith in the power of God who always dwells in His Church.” These can lead to “fruitless clashes with the hierarchy”. Yet Francis, Father Spadaro maintains, “is not tied to political wings” and he “appreciates honesty” which can come from “progressives as well as conservatives.”

By contrast, the “ideologue” who can be “right or left” can be seduced by the appearance of good but his efforts can detach the Church “from reality, from history” with “disastrous and pervasive results.” Such people who wish to “take the place of the Pope in the defense of doctrine or true reform” end up sowing “uncertainty and confusion,” the Pope believes according to Father Spadaro, “even letting us imagine dangers to orthodoxy or to change.” This is “particularly so,” Father Spadaro says, when people show “hypocrisy” by professing “filial devotion” to the Pope and a “spirit of respectful ‘fraternal correction.’”

But for Francis, he says, “there is no abstract plan of reform to apply to reality,” just as the Apostles did not have a “strategy” or “prepare a pastoral plan.” Instead, Father Spadaro says the Pope desires a “spiritual dialectic” that observes, listens and discerns, while avoiding a “spiritual worldliness” that pushes “‘ideas’ of the Church as it should be, not inspired by the discernment of faith in Jesus.”

This remains the “last and deepest temptation,” Father Spadaro says, a “worldly gaze” that wishes for structures to be “made more efficient” whereas the “spiritual gaze sees brothers and sisters begging for mercy.”

He ends with the Pope’s “Church as a field hospital” analogy and Francis’ aim to “heal the wounds” of the spiritually wounded.