SO WILL the charismatic Pope Francis actually make any difference in the structure of a Catholic Church in which almost every bishop was appointed by his two very conservative predecessors? In no nation has the hierarchy shown its colors as a force for reactionary politics more than the United States, where something over 400 bishops have, as a group over the last decade, practically served as a branch of the Republican Party. That is why the leadership elections held in Baltimore last week at the annual meeting of the US Catholic Bishops Conference are so telling. The so-called Francis effect was showing.
In Rome last June, Pope Francis gave a decisive speech to a meeting of the Apostolic Nuncios, the Vatican’s diplomatic corps. One of the most important duties of these papal representatives is to recommend priests for promotion to bishop. The pope was explicit in saying what sort of men he wanted. “Be careful,” he said, “that the candidates are pastors close to the people, fathers and brothers; that they are gentle, patient, and merciful; animated by an inner poverty, the freedom of the Lord, and also by outward simplicity and austerity of life; that they do not have the psychology of ‘princes.’ ” Pope Francis warned, in particular, against men who are “ambitious,” who “seek the episcopate” — the ecclesiastical climbers whose eye is always on the next rung up.