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Francis shows political instincts in naming antiabuse panel

Obama to meet Francis, cardinal vs. cardinal on divorce and remarriage, and the death of Bishop Joseph Fan Zhongliang

Pope Francis arrived to a prayer vigil for victims of mafia violence in Rome on Friday.

MASSIMO PERCOSSI/EPA

Pope Francis arrived to a prayer vigil for victims of mafia violence in Rome on Friday.

Pope Francis captured the imagination of the world within hours after his election a year ago through his flashes of humility, and that’s not just a PR facade. In Argentina, he was known as a “bishop of the villas,” referring to the vast slums that ring Buenos Aires, because he had a special love for the poor.

Yet one should never forget that beneath that simple exterior lies the mind of a brilliant Jesuit politician. Some Argentines believe he may actually rival Juan and Evita Perón for the title of best set of political instincts the country ever produced.

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That savvy was on display again Saturday, when Francis rolled out the initial members for a new Vatican commission to lead the charge in the fight against clerical sexual abuse.

Despite the generally glowing reviews Francis has drawn over his first year, there have been two streams of criticism that, if allowed to fester, could grow into serious headaches for the pontiff:

-- Critics say he hasn’t engaged the church’s clerical abuse scandals with the same vigor he has brought to other problems. An American advocacy group recently raised questions about his response to five abuse cases in Argentina, while his comments in a recent Italian interview reminded some observers of the defensive rhetoric employed by church officials at the onset of the crisis.

-- Francis has repeatedly called for greater roles for women in the church, but so far he has been more concrete about which doors remain closed rather than which may be opening: a firm “no” to women priests, for instance, and another “no” to women cardinals. When he recently created a powerful new finance council for the Vatican, he didn’t include a single woman among its seven lay members.

In one swoop on Saturday, Francis took a significant step toward addressing both of those smoldering objections.

On the abuse front, Francis signaled his commitment to reform by naming Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston as part of the team. While critics may raise objections about aspects of O’Malley’s record, no American bishop has a deeper experience of recovery from the abuse scandals and few prelates anywhere are more publicly identified with the press for accountability and transparency.

O’Malley, in other words, brings instant credibility to the effort.

Francis also showed sensitivity by ensuring that a victim was part of the team, in this case a well-known Irish campaigner for victims’ rights named Marie Collins. Among other things, Collins is known to have the ear of Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who, like O’Malley, is a prelate known around the world for taking strong stands in favor of coming clean on the abuse scandals.

Insiders will also note that Francis tapped a Jesuit, the Rev. Humberto Miguel Yáñez, to the body. He heads the moral theology faculty at Rome’s Jesuit-run Gregorian University. Yáñez is a Francis protégé, having been received into the Jesuit order by the Rev. Jorge Mario Bergoglio in the 1970s and having studied under the future pope.

One way Francis signals his personal interest in a project is by naming an intimate to its team, as he recently did by naming one of his personal secretaries, Maltese Monsignor Alfred Xuereb, to the Vatican’s new finance ministry. The Yáñez appointment will be taken the same way, as a sign that this commission matters.

As far as women are concerned, Francis has seemed to say that he wants them to play meaningful leadership roles in every capacity that doesn’t require making them priests. To date, however, he hadn’t offered any examples of what those roles might look like.

He certainly has now: Of the five lay people Francis included among the leaders of the new anti-abuse commission, four are women. The result is that fully half the commission’s members are female.

Beyond Collins, the other women are Hanna Suchocka, who served as Poland’s Prime Minister between 1992 and 1993, and who served five different Polish governments as the country’s ambassador to the Vatican; Catherine Bonnet, a well-regarded child psychologist in France who has written extensively on the trauma inflicted on children by sexual abuse and exploitation; and Baroness Sheila Hollins, president of the British Medical Association and a widely consulted expert on child development issues.

Clearly, these women aren’t window-dressing. They’re accomplished advocates and experts, with deep experience of getting things done both in secular circles and in the church. Francis presumably tapped them because of their personal qualifications, but he can’t be blind to the fact that this also amounts to a down payment on his pledge to boost women’s roles.

Granted, naming people to a commission is not, in itself, reform. It remains to be seen if this group can successfully ride herd on forces in the church still in denial, or help the pope hold bishops and other Catholic leaders accountable if they drop the ball.

If the commission turns out to be a dud, Saturday’s announcement won’t be enough to save the pope from the disillusionment that will ensure.

For now, however, the lineup card revealed by the pope not only amounts to a clear statement of seriousness about the abuse issue, but it also shows a deft political touch.

* * *

Next Saturday, President Obama is due to become the latest world leader to call on Pope Francis, following Vladimir Putin, François Hollande, and every other politician hungry for a photo-op with the world’s most popular spiritual leader.

In general, it would be a mistake to expect high drama. These tend to be heavily choreographed affairs, and both sides generally feel an investment in putting a happy face on whatever happens.

That said, there is nevertheless a fair bit at stake. Here are three notes by way of background.

First, from a strictly political point of view, Obama needs the meeting more than Francis.

The pope is riding high with roughly double the president’s approval ratings in the United States, and while Francis just celebrated his one-year anniversary in office, Obama is into the “legacy” phase of a presidency in which he has to ponder how history will remember him. Building a partnership with the pope to serve the world’s poor surely looms as an enticing possibility in that regard.

More short-term, Obama also has to think about the midterm elections. Right now, Republicans look set to maintain control of the House and could possibly take back the Senate, so Obama needs to avoid doing anything that would cement impressions of a “God problem” for the Democrats.

As a result, if there are concessions to be made, the political calculus would suggest it’s Obama who has the bigger incentive to make them.

Second, the meeting could affect the trajectory of conservative Catholic discontent with Francis, depending on how the pontiff and his Vatican advisers handle the delicate question of the standoff between the White House and the American bishops over the contraception mandates imposed as part of Obama’s health care reform initiative.

The US Supreme Court is set to hear arguments Tuesday in two cases challenging those mandates, both filed by for-profit businesses whose owners object on religious grounds.

Some antiabortion Catholics in the States are already leery about Francis’s repeated declarations that he doesn’t intend to talk much about abortion, gay marriage, and birth control because the church’s positions are already well-known. That’s part of a broader sense of unease among some Catholics who fret that the pope’s acclaim in secular circles is coming at the expense of going soft on its teaching.

If Francis isn’t seen to press Obama on the contraception mandates, or at least to bring it up as a concern, it could further erode his standing among Catholics most invested in “life issues.”

When Obama came calling on Benedict XVI in 2009, the former pope found a creative way to underscore the gap between the church and the administration over bioethics. At the end of the meeting, Benedict handed Obama a copy of a 2008 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith called Dignitas Personae laying out the philosophical and theological basis for the antiabortion position. It was a clever move, because the pope didn’t actually have to say anything -- merely handing Obama the text spoke volumes.

People will be watching to see if Francis finds a similarly adroit way of raising the life issues this time.

Third, the culture wars are not the only place where the pope and the president may be at odds. The Vatican and the White House also have a difference of opinion over Syria, with the Vatican’s position under Francis actually closer to that of Russia and China than the United States.

In a nutshell, the Obama administration clearly wants President Bashar al-Assad to go, and not long ago was on the brink of using force to make it happen. The Vatican is far more reluctant about regime change, taking its cues from Syria’s Christian minority, which fears that whatever follows Assad would be worse.

In that context, Francis now has a chance to spend some of his political capital to see if he can press Obama to listen to what Syria’s Christians are saying.

* * *

It’s cardinal vs. cardinal, round two, on the issue of allowing Catholics who divorce and remarry without an annulment -- a declaration from a church court that their first marriage was invalid -- to receive the sacraments.

Round one came in January, when Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, coordinator of Pope Francis’s “G8” council of cardinal advisers, took on German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the pope’s doctrinal czar.

Müller had published a piece in the Vatican newspaper seeming to close the door to any change, prompting Rodriguez Maradiaga to take him to task in an interview with a German newspaper.

“I say, my brother, the world isn’t like this, and you should be a little flexible when you hear other voices,” the Honduran prelate said.

Now, we have more crossfire between two princes of the church, though in this case the testy public rebuke is coming from someone who upholds the traditional discipline: Cardinal Carlo Caffarra of Bologna, widely seen as a strong conservative and one of the late John Paul II’s key advisers on bioethics and marriage and family issues.

Caffarra gave a lengthy interview this week to the Italian newspaper Il Foglio, in which he was asked to respond to a speech given by German Cardinal Walter Kasper during a recent two-day session for all the world’s cardinals with Pope Francis. In that speech, which he called an “overture,” Kasper floated the idea of readmitting the divorced and remarried to communion after a period of penance.

Asked about that idea, Caffarra bluntly said it fails to answer a “very simple” question: What about their first marriage?

“The proposed solution leads one to think the first marriage remains valid, but there’s a second form of living together that the church somehow legitimates,” Caffarra said. “That would mean there’s an exercise of human sexuality outside marriage that the church considers legitimate. If so, the very basis of the church’s doctrine is being denied.”

Caffarra implied that such a move would have sweeping implications: “At this point, why not approve cohabitation?” he said. “Why not relations among homosexuals?”

Pope John Paul II, according to Caffarra, regarded the teaching that a validly celebrated and consummated marriage is indissoluble as “definitive,” meaning beyond all question. In that light, Caffarra said, allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to take communion wouldn’t just be a change in practice but in doctrine.

“We’re dealing with doctrine here, inevitably,” he said. “This is certainly contrary to the will of the Lord. There’s no doubt about it.”

Both Kasper and Caffarra are closer to the end of their careers than the beginning, but both still exercise considerable influence. Their standoff boosts impressions that it may be awfully hard for the looming Synod of Bishops in October, devoted to the family, to find consensus on the divorced and remarried.

* * *

One of the more heroic figures in recent Catholic history died this week. Bishop Joseph Fan Zhongliang of Shanghai spent 20 years in a prison work camp, from 1958 to 1978, for his stubborn refusal to renounce his loyalty to the Bishop of Rome, and faced various forms of harassment and intimidation for the rest of his life.

He died this week at 95, still unrecognized by Chinese authorities as a legitimate Catholic bishop. The local faithful were pressured to keep his funeral rites low-profile, or risk being detained.

At the moment, the man Rome regards as Fan’s successor in Shanghai, Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin, is under house arrest and has limited contact with the outside world. Like Fan, Ma has refused to take his cues from the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, the state-imposed body that styles itself as an autonomous Catholic church but which is actually under the thumb of the state.

John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. He may be reached at john.allen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnLAllenJr and Facebook https://www.facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr.
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