Vincent Chukwumamkpam Ifeme teaches at the Pontifical Urban University Rome, where he received his doctorate degree. Ifeme is also director of the Office for Ecumenism and Dialogue in the Diocese of San Benedetto del Tronto-Ripatransone-Montalto, Italy. His research interests include trinitarian theology and Christology, as well as ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. Ifeme is author of L’ecumenismo non è opzionale (2018).
Pope Francis: Apostle of Vatican II and Prophet of Change
The vital force of aggiornamento (revival) and change liberated from the Second Vatican Council in the Roman Catholic Church is as unstoppable as continually resisted by some within and outside the same church . These two wrestling dimensions have never been so strongly evident if not in the pontificate of Francis.
From the first moment of his election, Francis presented himself to the world in a very unique way, already showing the roadmap of his papacy. Once elected, Cardinal Bergoglio presented himself as the “Bishop of Rome,” a title universally recognized by other Christian churches, beseeching the faithful to pray and bless him.
In many aspects of the life and mission of the church, such as ecumenism and dialogue with other religions and the world in general, it is evident that Pope Francis seems to be giving priority to “encounter” and possible “common collaboration” more than dwelling merely on theological and doctrinal disputes. This is because “realities are more important than ideas” (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 231–233).
Most probably due to this pragmatic approach and style of Francis, who prioritizes simplicity and essentiality in Church leadership, he has been vigorously attacked and obstructed from within and outside the Catholic Church. It appears as though some “conservative” or “traditionalist” actors—both within the Roman Curia and in local churches—are resisting the leadership of Pope Francis to effect the necessary renewal or aggiornamento intended by Vatican II in order to bring in real changes in the life and mission of the Church.
What are the changes and renewal that Pope Francis is willfully bringing to bear on the Church today?  What is the nature of attacks on the pope as he attempts to bring about these changes?
Some Areas of Change
- A Church for the poor and the marginalized: The choice of the name Francis (poverello d’Assisi) is unequivocal in speaking to the modality of Francis’ style of papacy. For this, he has been accused of being a communist and supportive of the radical left. He has not hidden his condemnations for the idolaters of money and the evils of capitalism with its unscrupulous thirst for profits. Today, there is an ongoing discussion about what is called the “the economy of Francesco.” Francis has strongly defended the right of immigrants, refugees, and the downtrodden everywhere.
- Integral ecology: The encyclical Laudato Si (2015) on care of our common home says it all.
- Reforming Vatican finances: Pope Francis has made concrete and ceaseless efforts to reform the Vatican finances and the Vatican Bank, once known for its financial scandals.
- Promotion of universal fraternity: Pope Francis has been ferociously attacked by some integralist Christians as an agent of darkness to promote the so-called “one world religion” because of his uncompromising ecumenical gestures, support for other faiths, and call for the promotion of world peace and fraternity .
- Call for mercy: The Jubilee Year of Mercy (2015 to 2016) was only the institutional expression of the image of God Pope Francis wants to show to humanity that informs every one of his actions for which he is ferociously attacked by some as a destroyer of Christian faith and morals.
- Decentralization of power: Pope Francis seems to approve fully the synodal principle in Church administration. This would give privilege to local churches, more participation to laities, and major autonomy to local synods in decision making. See Synodality in the Mission and Life of the Church (2018) of the International Theological Commission.
- Inclusion of women in decision making: Pope Francis has gone ahead to open up more towards the role of women in the Church by appointing some to top decision-making bodies and studying the figure of “deaconess” in the Church.
- New approaches towards the divorced and homosexuals: The Synod on the Family (2015) and Amoris Laetitia called for a new approach and patient discernment towards the divorced for possible admission to the Eucharist. Francis has repeatedly demonstrated that there is no outright condemnation towards homosexuals as children of God, but we must seek the best Christian way possible to assist them.
- Openness towards married men in the Catholic priesthood: Though it was not approved during the Synod of Bishops for Pan-Amazon Region in 2019, Francis was not closed to the idea of discussing the possibility of ordaining married men for the Catholic priesthood in the region if need be.
Opposition, Hostility, and Attacks
It is true that from the time of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, most popes who want to revive or change the Church have been tagged as the “anti-Christ” . But the type of organized hostility, criticisms, and attacks on Pope Francis are yet to be seen before now.
- Challenges to Amoris Laetitia: Cardinals Walter Brandmüller, Raymond L. Burke, Carlo Caffarra, and Joachim Meisner openly challenged Pope Francis over the post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia. The four prelates published five dubbia (questions) on the exhortation.
- Some bishops and local churches: Supported by former nuncio Archbishop Viganò, a staunch supporter of President Trump and his policies, a good number of American bishops appear to be seeking for the resignation of Pope Francis . Paradoxically, Pope Francis also does not seem to be enjoying much support and approval from some poor countries and local churches he is selflessly defending. They are irritated by this simplicity and seem to be nostalgic of what they call “traditional conservative Catholicism” ladened with privileges, opulence, and glory.
- Opposition from right-wing governments: Because the Gospel he witnesses is an antithesis of most of their ideals, some right-wing, sovereigntist, populist, and capitalist governments accuse Francis of being a communist.
- Internet attacks: There abound video and audio clips to discredit Francis. Most times, they contain phrases taken out of context or maliciously translated to satisfy the intent of propagandists who accuse the pope of working against Christian principles.
Pope Francis courageously works to effect change in the Catholic Church. However, these changes are not theologically connected to immutable divine laws but to ecclesial-positive laws that are open to changes following historical conditions and interpretations. This is conservative and traditional in as much as it is in continuity with the intent of various church councils, especially Vatican II.
- The Italian word aggiornamento became a household word in almost every language following the Second Vatican Council. The “long-awaited and already really overdue apertura, throwing open the Church’s windows to let in some fresh air, and as a rebuilding of the old fortress with its narrow loopholes into a house, equally strong but with broad glass walls and the world shining in through them, and at most thought the tempo and results still too modest.” See Karl Rahner, S.J., The Christian of the Future (Freiburg: Herder and Herder, 1967).
- Marco Politi examines some of these reforms intended by Francis in his book Francesco fra i lupi [Francis in the midst of Wolves] (Bari: Editori Laterza, 2015).
- See, for instance, the document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together (2019). Pope Francis will sign a new encyclical on human fraternity—Fratelli Tutti [Brothers and Sisters of All]—at the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi on October 3, 2020.
- See, for instance, Benedict XV on the useless massacres of WWI; John XXIII and Paul VI on Vatican II revolutions; etc.
- See Nicolas Senèze, Comment l’Amérique veut changer de Pape [The American Schism: How America Wants to Change the Pope] (Paris: Bayard Éditions, 2019) and Marco Politi, La Solitudine di Francesco. Un papa profetico, una Chiesa in tempesta [The Solitude of Francis: A Prophetic Pope, A Church in Tempest] (Bari: Editori Laterza, 2019).