Francis’ Pontificate Turns 10: Outward-Facing Emphasis Has Shaken Up Church’s Inner Equilibrium
While Pope Francis has undoubtedly redirected the Church’s attention to the peripheries, there are differences of opinion on how this emphasis has impacted the Church — and what its eventual fruits will be.
In describing the pontificate of Pope Francis, now at its 10-year mark, cardinals, bishops and lay leaders alike are unanimous: The Holy Father has advanced a vision of the Church that reaches out to the world, with a special attentiveness to those on the peripheries of society.
“I think he has brought an awareness that we need to be mindful of those who are forgotten and are not valued: the poor, the immigrant, and those who just feel alienated from the love of God,” said Bishop James Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, in a comment representative of this chorus.
In a similar vein, Cardinal Marc Ouellet said that Francis has generated a new interest in the Church outside of her walls.
“That’s the sign of his missionary style,” said the Canadian cardinal, who heads the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops, in a Feb. 23 interview with EWTN News in Rome. “A missionary is at the borders; he is looking for those who are far away.”
But there’s also widespread consensus that Francis’ effort to push the Church out to the margins — underlying everything from his penchant for giving wide-ranging interviews with the secular press to his ongoing emphasis on synodality — has also shaken up things inside the Body of Christ. While some characterize this dimension of Pope Francis’ ministry as a push for necessary renewal, others suggest that the execution of this outward-facing emphasis has created challenges to ecclesial unity and doctrinal clarity.
In comments to the Register, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, described the 86-year-old Pontiff’s shift in emphasis as a response to a world that “has become more secular and more disdainful of traditional moral values” in recent years.
“Pope Francis has responded by urging the Church to evangelize, to go out, to be more inclusive, flexible and welcoming,” said the bishop. “This vision can be challenging and disruptive — but also enlivening.”
A Pope of the Peripheries
According to Kim Daniels, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, Pope Francis’ priorities for his pontificate were clear from the outset, when he spoke of his desire for “a Church that is poor and for the poor” only days after he was elected on March 13, 2013, and modeled his papal name after “Il Poverello,” the 13th-century mendicant St. Francis of Assisi.
“From the beginning,” Daniels told the Register, “Pope Francis has had a clear understanding of how God is calling us to renew our Church for mission today: by looking outward, not inward.”
Leading with mercy, Pope Francis has demonstrated his vision through “his words and actions” and “his closeness to those in need,” Daniels said. Iconic images, like the Holy Father’s embrace of a disfigured man in St. Peter’s Square, come to mind. And Francis’ constant urging of societies and individuals to care for the “most vulnerable” — the poor, the immigrant, the unborn and the elderly — likewise communicate this dynamic.
“He has been a champion of those who are on the margins,” Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami told the Register.
Daniels said the Argentinian Pope, the first pontiff from the Southern Hemisphere, has also highlighted the global nature of the Church, especially through his frequent papal visits to foreign nations. At 61 total countries visited in his decade as pope, Francis is averaging six countries visited per year, higher than St. John Paul II, who visited 129 countries in 26 years at a rate of five per year. Pope Francis’ latest papal trip, a visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, was a compelling instance of his preference for visiting the Global South and nations bereft by conflict.
But Pope Francis hasn’t only engaged with Catholics on the global peripheries. He has also made a concerted effort to connect with the wider world in a distinctive way.
In particular, Cardinal Ouellet highlighted the Holy Father’s outreach to the Muslim world, most especially his signing of a Muslim-Catholic joint declaration against violence in the name of religion. Under Francis, the Holy See has also closely collaborated with international organizations on issues like climate change, and the Pope has made a point to offer himself as a mediator of conflict, perhaps especially in the case of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“The world needs a spiritual leader, a father in some way. And he has the figure of a father: close to the people, merciful, compassionate,” said Cardinal Ouellet.
The Canadian cardinal added that the Holy Father’s style of communicating, which includes frequent interviews with an array of journalists, publishing books meant for a popular audience, and his “spontaneous way” of speaking, is also indicative of his desire to be “present among the people.”
According to Bishop Conley, whose time as the ordinary of the Diocese of Lincoln has almost entirely overlapped with Francis’ papacy, the Holy Father’s “best contribution” was in one of his earliest works, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), which underscored the importance of evangelization and accompaniment.
“We have to be an evangelizing Church,” said Bishop Conley about the message of the 2013 apostolic exhortation. He said Evangelii Gaudium was a reminder that the contemporary Church is “more similar than dissimilar” to the early Church and that Catholics can no longer rely upon “the Christendom approach” to share the faith in an age of secularism.
Daniels suggested that the common thread of an outward-facing Church runs from Evangelii Gaudium to two of Pope Francis’ signature encyclicals, Laudato Si, on caring for our common home, and Fratelli Tutti, which emphasizes fraternity and social friendship.
“He sees each one of us as part of an interconnected world and one human family; and he raises up the poor, the marginalized, and ‘the least of these.’”
Charles Camosy, a moral theologian and bioethicist, said that Francis’ emphasis on a Church that “goes out to the margins and sets itself up as a field hospital for those discarded by our throwaway culture” will be the “most important, most enduring set of ideas of his papacy.”
“There are so many hurting people, especially on the margins, and if the Church rejects or ignores their needs, we reject or ignore Christ himself,” said Camosy, author of Resisting Throwaway Culture: How a Consistent Life Ethic Can Unite a Fractured People. “A self-referential Church is not a Church that is out on the highways and byways preaching and living out the Gospel.”
Shaking Things Up
Pope Francis’ shift in emphasis has come with its share of changes in the life of the Catholic Church — some more dramatic than others.
Perhaps the most significant is the ongoing Synod on Synodality, a multiyear consultative process aimed at strengthening communion and participation in the life of the Church to better help the faithful live out their evangelizing mission.
In his interview with EWTN, Cardinal Ouellet described the synod as a necessary conduit of reform for a Church that is “very clerical,” and said that he believes synodality will be one of the Holy Father’s greatest contributions.
Russell Shaw, formerly the secretary for public affairs for the U.S bishops and now a widely published author and commentator, characterized the Synod on Synodality as a revitalization of an emphasis on “shared responsibility” that was ascendant, at least in the U.S., in the late 1960s and 1970s before running out of steam.
But besides taking the theme up again, Shaw said that Pope Francis has created “a huge, previously nonexistent superstructure to move the process along at the national and international levels.”
“Francis has definitely made himself the ‘Pope of Synodality,’ and that’s the way his pontificate, and he himself, will ultimately be judged,” Shaw told the Register.
Francis also has reshaped the Church through his appointment of bishops.
“The style of the Pope has had an impact on the way we choose bishops,” Cardinal Ouellet said in his Rome interview, stating that Francis’ pontificate has prioritized elevating “pastoral bishops” — “not a sort of hero or a cultural warrior.”
“So, full of life, able to evangelize, and also men of communion — not only of discipline, but of communion — able to listen to the people, to their priests, to their confreres in the episcopal conference,” Cardinal Ouellet explained.
Francis’s outward-facing emphasis, in turn, has also reshaped the College of Cardinals. During his pontificate, the Holy Father has created 83 of the current 132 cardinal-electors, often bypassing traditional or “cardinalatial” sees, mostly in the West, and prioritizing the peripheries. In the most recent consistory, Pope Francis created the first-ever cardinals from East Timor, Mongolia, Paraguay and Singapore.
Pope Francis has also notably changed up the emphasis of the Church’s moral witness, prioritizing issues like migration and environmental stewardship, while suggesting that some Catholic leaders are overly “obsessed” with abortion and sexual matters.
As one effect of the Francis papacy, Camosy said the “script has flipped a bit when it comes to Church politics.”
“It has been striking to see many of those Catholics who identify with the left focus more on the near absolute authority of the papacy during the last decade, while many of those who identify with the right have tried to find ways to bypass that authority,” said Camosy. “Before Francis, and at least as long as I was aware of such dynamics, these roles were totally reversed.”
In evaluating the Francis pontificate, Georgetown’s Daniels suggests that the Holy Father has made progress in shaping “an outward-facing Church that is healthy from the inside,” a phrase borrowed from theologian Anna Rowlands.
But while she’s likely to find little disagreement about Francis’ outward shift, there is certainly a lack of consensus that the Church is necessarily in a healthier position today than it was at the start of the Jesuit Pope’s reign.
In fact, some of the same things that some highlight as successful missionary elements of Pope Francis’ style are characterized by others as disruptive to the life of the faithful.
Bishop Tobin, for instance, described the Holy Father’s “style of communication” — marked by frequent media interviews with the secular press and spontaneous commentary — as a challenging element of his papacy.
“His comments often have to be explained or interpreted,” said the bishop. “Sometimes his words are confusing for faithful Catholics and are weaponized by those who hate the Church and reject her teachings.”
Bishop Conley offered a similar perspective, suggesting that Pope Francis has been unfairly “coopted by the left” because he champions causes that are generally associated with progressive politics, such as more open immigration and environmental stewardship, despite the fact that the Holy Father “obviously would not endorse the entire agenda of the radical left.” But whether intentional or not, the result of this association has been confusing for ordinary Catholics.
Bishop Conley also suggested that the Holy Father’s push to make the Church more outward-facing and challenge previous modes has, borrowing a phrase from the Pope himself, “made a mess of things” in the internal life of the Church. While a positive aspect of this has been to shake up the status quo, Bishop Conley wonders if Pope Francis’ approach has led to “a lack of clarity and confidence in the mission of the Church, to bring people to Christ.”
“The verdict might still be out in the sense that I don’t yet see that strengthening the unity and the clarity and the confidence in the Catholic Church’s mission in the world,” he explained. “Maybe the collateral effect of his shaking things up is that we are maybe more or less united in understanding what the call is.”
Likewise, Shaw pointed to a lack of clarity in the Pope’s teaching, stating specifically that he found unaddressed ambiguities about the reception of Communion for Catholics who were divorced and civilly remarried in the 2016 post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), an aspect characterized by secular media as a move toward a more “inclusive” Church, “quite disturbing.”
“I think a lot of people look to Rome for clear doctrine, and, in that area, it doesn’t seem to have quite the priority in Francis’ mind that many people would expect it to have,” he said.
Shaw’s words echo sharp critiques of the Francis pontificate written by the late Cardinal George Pell before his death in early January. A March 2022 memo published anonymously but posthumously attributed to the Australian prelate described the Francis pontificate as “a catastrophe,” arguing that the Holy Father had failed to be a unifier and had also allowed heterodoxy to run amok in the life of the Church. Shortly before his death, Cardinal Pell also wrote a piece describing the Synod on Synodality as a “toxic nightmare.”
Shaw also points to what he calls an “irony” about Francis’ leadership style, namely that he emphasizes dialogue and collegiality while running, at the same time, “a highly centralized decision-making pontificate.”
“There’s certainly a tension between the ‘Pope of Synodality,’ who wants everybody to have a voice and to share in the affairs of the Church, and who, when push comes to shove, wants to say, ‘I’m in charge, and we’re going to do it this way.”
One group that has likely experienced this perceived inconsistency most acutely is the traditional Latin Mass (TLM) community. At the same time the Church is conducted the Synod on Synodality, this group has faced significant crackdown on their preferred liturgical form from the Holy See, the latest restriction limiting local bishops’ ability to allow new parish churches to celebrate the TLM..
On a different topic, Camosy expressed puzzlement over an apparent disconnect between Pope Francis’ strong condemnations of abortion — for instance, comparing it to hiring a hitman to solve a problem — but then a failure to emphasize or treat abortion “like the massive global genocide it most clearly is.”
“I understand that he wanted from the beginning to have a pro-life vision that was holistic and consistent, and not focused exclusively on abortion, and I totally agree with that,” said Camosy. “But if abortion is what the Holy Father says it is, one unsolved question after these 10 years is why his papacy doesn’t seem to reflect it.”
In ten years, Pope Francis has clearly made his mark on the Church.
“I think that history will see Pope Francis as a prophet, in the true sense of that word,” said Bishop Tobin. “In his words and deeds, he has upset the status quo and has challenged the conscience of the Church and the world, especially on issues that are priorities for him. … The Church is talking about these issues in a way and to an extent that we haven’t before.”
But many of his signature initiatives remain unfinished.
Daniels points to Pope Francis’ own assessment that his papacy will largely be evaluated by how he has dealt with the scourge of the sex-abuse crisis. While she says the Holy Father has made good progress on this front, including the convocation of a 2019 conference on the protection of minors in the Church and the establishment of the Vos Estis protocol for investigating bishops, “there is much more left to be done to respond to this ongoing grave evil, to advance healing and justice for victim-survivors, and to help ensure accountability and transparency throughout the Church.”
Likewise, Shaw said that although Pope Francis has invested an immense amount of energy and focus on the Synod on Synodality, it’s unclear if the initiative will have much impact beyond its October 2024 conclusion, in part because he thinks it has failed to reach the typical person in the pews.
Pope Francis’ ultimate legacy remains somewhat in flux, in large part a reflection of the state of tension and uncertainty he has injected into the life of the Church in his attempts to push it out to the margins.
“What kind of Church will he leave when he is finally called to his eternal reward?” asked Bishop Conley. “We don’t know that.”