Understanding and Combating the Francis Effect

Early in his pontificate the Catholic Left gushed about the Francis Effect, which mainly reflected their hopes and dreams that the new Holy See leadership would advance their “progressive” agenda. Progressive is usually code for departing from the teachings of Scripture and Tradition. And they predicted this would attract new converts and reverts who had been kept away, in their view, by the retrograde policies of his immediate predecessors.

Honest observers of his reign during the last five years would agree that the what of his agenda has been to pull the Church to the left in many ways, albeit with substantial ambiguity, as evidenced by Amoris Laetitia and many other public statements. Honesty would also dictate that the how of his pontificate—his modus operandi or leadership style—has been to use control, manipulation, and other dictatorial measures to accomplish his goals along with stonewalling, obfuscation, and subterfuge when needed.

A fine Machiavellian tool box has been assembled. This was all on display at the recent dog and pony show called the sex abuse summit in Rome where the root cause of the pestilence (i.e., homosexual activity and predation in the priesthood), its effects (i.e., the abuse of men who are not children) and the depraved legacy of Theodore McCarrick, and those who protected him, were all swept under the rug.

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It wasn’t that the prelates failed to talk about the elephant in the room; they averted their eyes from an entire herd.

This makes perfect sense and is politically expedient, because if Francis facilitated an investigation into these matters in a just and effective matter, he himself would be exposed. Indeed, when you look at the careers of such prelates and priests as McCarrick, Monsignor Battista Ricca, Bishop Gustavo Oscar Zanchetta, and the defrocked Mauro Inzoli, homosexual activity and predation seem to be a resume-enhancer for the pontiff leading to promotion.

William Kirkpatrick writes: “A recent article by journalist Marco Tosatti provides a list of prelates who have been favored, protected, promoted or rehabilitated by Pope Francis despite their record of covering up for abusers. The list includes: Cardinal Godfried Danneels, Cardinal Roger Mahony, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Cardinal Errazuriz Ossa, Bishop Juan Barros, Bishop Juan Jose Pineda, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, and Archbishop Kevin Farrell.”

This is all part of Francis’s strategy of control. If you have men around you of weak character with skeletons in their closets, they’re easier to manipulate in accomplishing your goals.

Character doesn’t seem to matter; what matters is acquiring, consolidating, and wielding power while accomplishing a progressive agenda and pursuing vainglory. You can have honor without power and power without honor, but, when the two come together in the fallen human heart, they make for a deadly ecclesial cocktail.

St. Ambrose hits the bull’s eye: “Ambition often makes criminals of those whom no vice would delight, whom no lust could move, whom no avarice could deceive.” He was undoubtedly echoing the words of the apostle James three centuries earlier: “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:16; emphasis added).

Getting “Red-Pilled” on Pope Francis
Just as my parents’ generation can remember where they were and what they were doing when JFK was assassinated, many orthodox Catholics can remember similar details when they got “red-pilled” on Pope Francis. Probably because my pre-Catholic background is one that is steeped in the study of Scripture, the release of Amoris Laetitia and the subsequent five dubia by the four cardinals was when I realized that we had a bad pope.

There was also a moral obtuseness evident in the pope that was (ironically) eye-opening for me. With his usual keen wit, the inimitable Fr. Rutler wrote about Pope Francis’s reluctance—“I will not say a word”—to talk about serious allegations of depravity in the Church, and, at the same time, being more than willing to talk about the issue of floating plastics in our oceans:

“We cannot allow our seas and oceans to be littered by endless fields of floating plastic. Here, too, our active commitment is needed to confront this emergency.” The battle against plastic litter must be fought “as if everything depended on us.”

A dictatorial leadership style became obvious:

The pope told Cardinal Gerhard Müller to stop investigating the British cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, who was alleged to have sexually abused a girl when she was 13 or 14 years old. Murphy-O’Connor, a member of the infamous “St. Gallen Mafia,” played a major role in getting Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio elected pope in 2013.

Raymond Arroyo on The World Over on EWTN cited Vatican journalist Marco Tosatti, who reported that Francis, through his Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, quietly told American bishops not to invite Cardinal Raymond Burke to speak at their dioceses. Burke should be used to such maltreatment by now after the pontiff removed him from both the Vatican Supreme Court and the influential Congregation for Bishops.

It was also reported by Tosatti that Athanasius Schneider, the auxiliary bishop of Astana, Kazakhstan, has been ordered not to travel outside his native country without first talking to Francis. This entire episode has a 1985 East Germany meets the Vatican feeling.

Putting Francis On the Couch
Because the human heart is so complex, it is often unwise to get too specific in identifying the psychological roots of such authoritarianism, especially when we don’t have many details about Francis’s family and upbringing. We do know that Bergoglio was the son of a struggling accountant and has said very little publicly about his parents.

We also know that his mother temporarily became an invalid and that a woman named Concepción became his primary caregiver. Jorge liked his surrogate but, as Henry Sire writes, “he admitted to treating her badly when, years later, she came to him to ask for his help as bishop of Buenos Aires and he sent her away, in his own words, ‘quickly and in a very bad way.’”

Such scant details still suggest unmet emotional needs (e.g., feeling loved, accepted, and not alone) in his family of origin. As someone who has rubbed shoulders with more than one dictatorial personality in my years in evangelical and evangelical-charismatic circles, I’d bet the house on it.

It’s more common than the laity realizes for clergy who grow up with unmet emotional needs to look to their ministry, local parish, or episcopacy to meet those needs. Their ministry, rather than being a healthy resource that feeds their soul and spirit as they imitate Christ’s Passion of self-donation, becomes a Source often akin to a Deity.

They are not there to serve the people; the people are there to serve them. They aren’t building the kingdom of God; they’re building their own little kingdom.

The true litmus test for priests and prelates is how they answer this question: “Could you be happy if you knew that you would be laboring in complete obscurity for the rest of your life in a ministry completely devoid of honor and power? Would you be okay if your gifts and wisdom were only appreciated by an Audience of One?

Religious idols are often more difficult to recognize and criticize than the profligate lifestyle of a Hugh Hefner or the deceit and greed of a Bernie Madoff. After all, what’s being done is in the name of God and can hide behind religious vestments, language, and liturgy.

The anger of a pope can be likened to that of Christ cleansing the temple or one of the Old Testament prophets. And, remember, Catholic ecclesiology is not democratic; sometimes measures that look autocratic are just and must be pursued for the greater good.

However, the Idols of Power and Honor are difficult to placate, and such an endeavor results in many of the works of the flesh that Paul identifies: enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, factions, and envy (Gal. 5:20). Historian Henry Sire, who spent four years in residence in Rome researching The Dictator Pope, has many contacts inside the Vatican who lament the pontiff’s explosive temper and vulgar language.

This is in striking contrast to Mother Angelica, who, although she suffered great material and emotional privation in her childhood, eventually was able, by God’s grace, to get her emotional needs met through her relationship to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Mother of God, intimate friends, and in sacrificial service to the Church. Rather than trying to control and manipulate the people around her to accomplish some selfish agenda, she was able, as de Caussade exhorts, to abandon her concerns to divine providence.

Being Mary’s Heel in the Day of the Francis Effect
The laity has received much advice in recent months on what to do in our day of scandal and crisis. The three most important things are pray the Rosary, pray the Rosary, and pray the Rosary.

Petitions can be started that strongly urge certain prelates to resign, money can be denied their corrupt dioceses, articles can be written and investigative shows broadcast that expose their malfeasance, and protests can be held outside certain events like the recent sex abuse summit. The reader can furnish many more examples.

One more thing can be added to the list that has been mostly overlooked: manifest the opposite spirit of the Francis Effect. We see this general principle at work in the Gospel Reading for Sunday, February 24, 2019 (Luke 6: 27-38).

Jesus tells us to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who mistreat us. In applying this passage to our day, it means that when the Francis Effect is autocratic, controlling, manipulative, and seeks to instill fear, we need to manifest humility in its myriad dimensions to counteract it.

This is spiritual warfare; it’s in humility that powers, principalities, and wickedness in high places are brought to nothing. It’s in a humiliated Son of Man being crucified on a tree that the works of the devil are destroyed.

In this we follow the Mother of God who rejoiced in God her Savior “because he regarded the lowliness of his handmaid.” In this we follow her Son who washed the feet of his disciples.

When we are humble, we show the watching world the heart of Christ. In Day Six of the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy Novena, Christ asks us to pray for “the meek and humble souls and the souls of little children, and immerse them in my mercy. These souls most closely resemble my heart” (emphasis mine).

This spirit of humility can neutralize its opposite spirit. We see this with the soldier at the cross: “And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that he thus breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’”

Mother Teresa’s humility played a role in Malcolm Muggeridge’s conversion to the Catholic faith. He was a man of the world and her lowliness disarmed him: it wasn’t so much what was taught but what was caught.

In Les Misérables, the kind and generous Bishop Myriel gives the hardened and embittered Jean Valjean shelter and Valjean runs off with his silverware that night. The police capture Valjean but Myriel pretends to have given the goods to him and two silver candlesticks as well.

The police buy the story and leave. Myriel uses this episode as a teachable moment, telling him that because God has spared his life, he should seek to make an honest living. Valjean did just that and more.

The faithful Catholic laity becomes Mary’s Heel when it manifests this spirit of humility in these days of the Francis Effect. The temptation is to become a monster in order to slay the monster.

Sadly, in doing this, you end up with one dead monster, one live one, and the kingdom has not come on earth as it is in heaven. May God give this generation the grace to rebuild the waste places (Is. 58:12) and not kick the can down the road to our children.

(Photo credit: Pope Francis at “The Protection of Minors in the Church” conference, February 22; Vatican Media / CNA)


  • Jonathan B. Coe

    Jonathan B. Coe writes from the Pacific Northwest. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

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