On September 16, noted Pope Francis biographer Paul Vallely gave a talk at Boston College entitled “The Pope of the Poor in the World’s Richest Nation.” Vallely, an award-winning British journalist who recently published his second book on the pope, Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism, was invited to speak by The Jesuit Institute of Boston College. He centered his talk on the Pope’s then upcoming visit to the United States, and what message the Pope would likely leave with Americans.
Vallely noted an increasing focus on pastoralism, saying that of all the audiences Pope Francis would encounter in the United States, the general public would take center stage: “His prime
emphasis is going to be on engaging ordinary people rather than the national, international elite.” As evidence of this approach, Vallely gave several examples of Pope Francis’ recent encounters
with ordinary Catholics and mentioned his recent move to reform annulment procedures: “The public gesture toward compassion is clear and dramatic,” Vallely said.
In his remarks to public officials and U.S. bishops, Vallely expects the pope to be uncompromising, yet tactful. Vallely explained how the pope’s popularity dropped with the publication of Laudato Si, because in addition to its call to protect the environment, it also included a “condemnation of unfettered capitalism,” turning many more conservative Americans against the pope. Vallely compared Pope Francis to the two popes before him, and said that although Benedict and John Paul II had made similar statements, neither saw economic ethics as a prominent issue of their papacy. Pope Francis, on the other hand, has “shifted the Church’s focus away from sex, sexual ethics, and [toward] money,” and brought Catholic social teaching, with its emphasis on social justice, to the forefront. It is this message Vallely said he expects the pope to bring to American politicians as well as U.S. bishops, and this message that he expects will encounter resistance.
Yet while Vallely said to “expect confrontation” in Pope Francis’ visit to the States, he also emphasized the pope’s “tactical savvy,” and said that the pope will be striving for balance. Vallely explained that while Pope Francis has streamlined the annulment process and extended the power to forgive abortions to all priests for the upcoming Year of Mercy (usually a more complicated process requiring a bishop), he has not actually changed any Church doctrines on these matters. His actions have been more aimed toward transforming the Church’s outward message to the world than altering Her internal teachings. Vallely said, “It moves, again, the Church out of the sphere of doctrine and rules and signals that Francis thinks the Church needs to develop the emotional intelligence to reach out to women who feel alienated from the Church after their decision to have an abortion.”
Vallely explained that the pope balanced this move with “an olive branch to breakaway traditionalists” on the other side of a spectrum, through a similar decision to recognize, during the Year of Mercy, the ministry of an extremely conservative group of Catholic priests who broke away from the church in the 1990s. Vallely also noted that the pope has actually given license to more conservative members of Church hierarchy to resist his message, saying, “Let’s get resistance out into the open, that’s more healthy.” Ultimately, Vallely evaluated the pope’s efforts as an attempt to move the church from the right back to the middle, rather than to the left. Yet he continued to emphasize that this is a “pope of challenge,” that “the poor …are the people to whom he feels that he is accountable,” and that he will not compromise in his efforts on their behalf.