Francis’ Fifth: A Pontificate of Footnotes

COMMENTARY: The heart of the current pontificate is understood more in the footnotes than the main text.

(photo: Franciscus Instagram)

Pope Francis marks the fifth anniversary of his election as pope March 13, and while five years is not yet a long pontificate, it is long enough to begin to consider how it will be remembered.

After five years of covering the Holy Father, I have begun to think of his as the “footnote pontificate.” I don’t mean by that that it will be remembered as only a footnote in history, but, rather, that the action in this pontificate takes place, as it were, in the footnotes rather than the main text.

On the Holy Father’s 80th birthday, I listed in the Register eight reasons to be grateful for his Petrine ministry.

Similarly, here are five ways in which the footnotes have proven more important than the main text.


Amoris Laetitia

It still remains, nearing Amoris’ second anniversary, that so much confusion reigns about what Footnote 351 means. To count just the enthusiastic supporters of the apostolic exhortation, there is no complete agreement about what Footnote 351 means for sacramental theology and discipline between the bishops of Buenos Aires and the bishops of Malta, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn and Cardinal Rheinhard Marx.

All have said differing things about that footnote. And that is to ignore what has been said by those who are deeply concerned about what it might mean.

Pope Francis himself has expressed frustration that, having written the longest document in the entire history of the papacy, it has been eclipsed by just one of nearly 400 footnotes. But there is much that is puzzling about the footnotes in Amoris Laetitia. Most striking of all is that Veritatis Splendor, the most relevant magisterial teaching, does not merit even a mention.

Under St. John Paul II, there was the famously long Footnote 52 in Dives in Misericordia, which was an exegesis of the term “mercy” in the Old Testament. But that was not where the main action was, and it certainly did not absorb the main attention in attempting to understand the document.


‘Who Am I to Judge?’

The second great “footnote” is comprised of Pope Francis’ most famous words, and his enduring message to the world: “Who am I to judge?” Just as nearly 40 years after his inspiring homily in St. Peter’s Square Oct. 22, 1978, people then not born know that John Paul said, “Be not afraid!” — so it will be 40 years from now with the words of Pope Francis. Were those his words from the loggia of St. Peter’s on the day of his election? Did they form the heart of his inaugural homily as pope? No. They were a footnote, really, coming at the end of a more than hourlong news conference on the return flight from Rio de Janeiro after World Youth Day 2013. Yet there is no other text that so defines the pontificate.

The world knows these words, above all else, even though it remains a stunningly incomplete summary of the Holy Father. Pope Francis was addressing on the plane a very specific circumstance about a particular priest. The Holy Father almost daily delivers judgments, often quite harsh, about many kinds of people. The main text of the pontificate is one of frequent and harsh judgments, whether it be of his colleagues in the Roman Curia, parish priests, arms dealers or the accusers of Bishop Juan Barros in Chile.

Yet it is the “Who am I to judge?” footnote that is the main story.


Sexual Abuse

Early on in the pontificate, Pope Francis set up a special Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, chaired by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston. Important work has been done there, especially in the training of bishops and the promotion of best practices around the world. Yet it has been the controversies on the side that have come to define how Pope Francis has handled this issue.

The most recent and dramatic example is ongoing: the Bishop Barros case in Chile. The key moments in that affair have been the off-the-cuff remarks that the Holy Father has made in St. Peter’s Square and to journalists covering his trip to Chile.

Whereas Pope Benedict XVI’s record on sexual abuse is measured mostly by the legal reforms he made, both as cardinal and as pope, Pope Francis will be judged on the footnotes — his passing remarks rather than reforms he has made.


The Unofficial Spokesmen

The Holy Father has a top-notch papal spokesman, Greg Burke, who happens to be someone I admire professionally and count as a friend personally. But, often, you would not know that there is an official press officer.

Pope Francis allows all sorts of secondary officials to interpret his pontificate for him, rather than his official collaborators.

Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, the editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the president of the pontifical academies, and Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, the rector of the Catholic University of Argentina,  are men who normally would be the footnotes to the main text, the heads of Roman dicasteries. For example, under St. John Paul II, authoritative guides to his pontificate were Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger or Cardinal Camillo Ruini, and, of course, his papal spokesman, the late Joaquin Navarro-Valls. And the footnote spokesmen have adopted a qualitatively different style of communication, launching intemperate attacks on all manner of people and making vast numbers of people feel more distant from Pope Francis.

A recent example was the international embarrassment Bishop Sorondo caused the Holy See over his remarks praising China as a positive example of Catholic social doctrine and the serious damage he did to the credibility of the Vatican’s China policy. Father Spadaro, for his part, retweeted a call from a Vatican bureaucrat for EWTN to fire our colleague Raymond Arroyo.

That sort of thing is beneath the dignity of those who present themselves as papal interpreters. And beneath the text is where the footnotes belong, not in the headlines.

It would be hard to imagine anything less controversial than the Papal Foundation, which raises considerable money in honor of the Pope to support worthy projects in poor countries. Yet, last week, a major division in the organization was revealed over millions of dollars it sent, at the behest of Pope Francis, to a Church-owned Italian hospital foundation that remains under the cloud of a massive financial scandal that became public knowledge in 2013.

Leave aside the merits of that case. It is remarkable how often in these past five years relatively minor agencies have caused major problems. The Pontifical Academy of Life is another institution whose valuable work ought not cause division in the Church. But its reform has done so, leading to an entirely new independent academy being formed. And who would have thought that the Knights of Malta, who rather colorfully adorn liturgical ceremonies and do a massive amount of charitable work, would be the subject of a constitutional crisis and an unprecendented papal intervention that raised questions about international sovereignty?

Of course, it should be remembered that Pope Benedict’s butler created one unholy mess with the “Vatileaks” scandal, but it is something more of a pattern since 2013.

It is sometimes possible to understand a text without reference to the footnotes. But the heart of this pontificate is understood more in the footnotes than the main text. They require careful reading.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of 

Convivium magazine.

‘The 7 Last Words of Christ’ aired on EWTN on Good Friday 2023.

‘The 7 Last Words of Christ’ 2023

This year’s meditations by Father Raymond J. de Souza honored the late Cardinal George Pell, including some of his meditations from his ‘Prison Journal.’